In India, cinema isn’t just a passion. It is frenzical. We have perhaps inherited this acute addiction from the man who started it all, 99 years ago – the Father of Indian Cinema Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1870-1944). Dadasaheb Phalke as we better know him as, held the first show of Raja Harishchandra what is widely considered to be the first Indian feature film at Bombay’s Olympia Picture Palace on April 21, 1913. The commercial screenings started 12 days later, on May 3, 1913 at Coronation Cinematograph and Variety Hall, Sandhurst Road, Girgaum, Bombay.
Most of us have seen only fleeting glimpses of this bud, that gradually grew to the mammoth movie industry that we have in India today. That Raja Harishchandra (the actual film title spells it as Raja Harischandra, minus the ‘h’ following the ‘s’) should be one of the first films on the India Public Domain Movie Project collection was a foregone conclusion.
Since Phalke made the best of the technology available to him at his time, I thought it would be a tribute to the innovator in him to convert the film in 3D 99 years after its release. Using YouTube’s 3D conversion technology you can also watch Raja Harishchandra in 3D. In the video embedded below, click on the settings (gear) icon and the 3D link will appear from there choose greyscale and also the type of 3D glasses you own to watch how India’s first feature looks in a 3D avatar (Don’t expect a Avatar though).
Here are 11 minutes and 19 seconds of what is left of the landmark film (India’s film archival history is not something that we can be very proud of).
What you see above is apparently only the first reel of the movie and I will try to get access to the remainder. This video has been extracted and edited from a 1967 documentary DG Phalke, The First Indian Film Director 1870-1944 produced by the Indian National Film Archive.
There is some confusion whether this film, preserved in the National Film Archives of India, is the actual 1913 film or a 1917 remake of the film.
Raja Harishchandra. A performance with 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for only three annas.
This is how Phalke, Indian cinema’s first marketing wizard promoted his creation. Phalke had to make his soundless cinema with higher ticket prices appeal to an audience who were hooked to stage plays, then the reigning form of entertainment.
Raja Harishchandra wasn’t the first Indian film, it was the first indigenously produced feature length film and Phalke’s story of making the film is as interesting as a movie plot. Harishchandrachi Factory, the 2009 Marathi film on Dadasaheb Phalke that centres on the making of the movie is a must watch. Had the film not been a biopic, it could have also passed as a well-made subtle comedy. This UTV produced Paresh Mokashi directed movie was also India’s official nomination to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. My suggestion is that you view Raja Harishchandra before you sit down to watch Harishchandrachi Factory. When you see the same scenes recreated almost a century later on a film canvas that’s much wider, the impact is that much greater.
Phalke is often compared to the French film pioneer Georges Melies, both considered the medium as an art form and also had expertise in magic tricks and that knowledge they made use of for special effects in their films.
Raja Harishchandra. A powerfully instructive subject from the Indian mythology. First film of Indian manufacture. Specially prepared at enormous cost. Original scenes from the sacred city of Benaras. Sure to appeal all Hindu patrons (from a pamphlet promoting the film)
The entire show, apart from the movie included other forms of non-film entertainment as well. Raja Harishchandra was also exhibited in London in 1914.
The story for the movie was from the great epic Mahabharata and espouses the belief that truth always triumphs. Harishchandra was a legendary pious king of Ayodhya who sacrificed his kingdom, wife and child for the sake of truth. Harishchandrachi Factory tells us that this story was a favourite with Phalke’s sons and his eldest son Bhalachandra Phalke also played Rohitashwa, Harishchandra’s son in the movie. Another important reason why this story was chosen for the film was that Harishchandra was a popular theme in the Marathi and Urdu theatre of the day. The story again found itself in another first-of-its-kind movie, the first Marathi talkie, V Shantaram’s Ayodhyecha Raja (1932), which was also released in Hindi, making it the first Indian film to be released in two languages.
Raja Harishchandra was shot in a bunglow (apart from other outdoor locations) called Mathura Bhawan (owned by one Mathuradas Makanji) located on a street in Dadar, Bombay that is now rightly named Dada Saheb Phalke Road.
The acting was in traditional Indian folk theatre style, the influence of which and Parsi Theatre were to remain on Indian acting for decades. In the absence of sound (that was to make an appearance in Indian cinema 18 years later with Alam Ara), there were title inserts between shots explaining the plot. In Raja Harishchandra (and most of the films of the silent era) these title plates were in two languages – English, the language of the elite and Hindi (or other Indian language) – the language that the masses understood.
The Phalkes were also perhaps the first Indian film family. His entire family, including him, his wife Saraswati Phalke, eight children (five sons and three daughters) were all involved in the filmmaking process, with Saraswati handling some of the technical process including developing the film. His daughter, Mandakini Phalke, was in fact one of the first female actresses on the Indian screen at a time when acting in films was a much derided profession.
Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was to follow the initial success of Raja Harishchandra with other landmark films such as Lanka Dahan (1917). A prolific filmmaker, Phalke went on to make over a hundred films but died in poverty.
Of the original 3700 feet of the original film (that took 6 months and 27 days to put together) only some fragments could be preserved by the National Film Archive of India, Pune which includes portions of the first and the last reel of the film.
If a mere thousand words aren’t sufficient to quench your thirst for Phalke info, head to phalkefactory.net is a (albeit unorganised) treasure trove of information on the Father of Indian Cinema.
Recommended reading: Saga of birth of first Indian movie