Still from Delhi Durbar (1903)
Telling stories from the epics using hand-drawn tableaux images in scroll paintings, with accompanying live sounds have been an age old Indian tradition. These tales, mostly the familiar stories of gods and goddesses, are revealed slowly through choreographic movements of painted glass slides in a lantern, which create illusions of movements. And so when the Lumiere brothers’ representatives held the first public showing at Mumbai’s (Bombay) Watson’s Hotel on July 7, 1896, the new phenomenon did not create much of a stir here and no one in the audience ran out at the image of the train speeding towards them, as it did elsewhere. The Indian viewer took the new experience as something already familiar to him.
Harischandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar, who happened to be present for the Lumiere presentation, was keen on getting hold of the Lumiere Cinematograph and trying it out himself rather than show the Lumiere films to a wider audience. The public reception accorded to Wrangler Paranjpye at Chowapatty on his return from England with the coveted distinction he got at Cambridge was covered by Bhatwadekar in December 1901- the first Indian topical or actuality film was born.
In Calcutta, Hiralal Sen photographed scenes from some of the plays at the Classic Theatre. Such films were shown as added attractions after the stage performances or taken to distant venue where the stage performers could not reach. The possibility of reaching a large audience through recorded images which could be projected several times through mechanical gadgets caught the fancy of people in the performing arts and the stage and entertainment business. The first decade of the 20th century saw live and recorded performances being clubbed together in the same programme.
The strong influence of its traditional arts, music, dance and popular theatre on the cinema movement in India in its early days, is probably responsible for its characteristic enthusiasm for inserting song and dance sequences in Indian cinema, even till today.
Dada Saheb Phalke
Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1870 – 1944) affectionately called Dadasaheb Phalke is considered as the ‘father of Indian Cinema’. Central in Phalke’s career as a filmmaker was his fervent belief in the nationalistic philosophy of swadeshi, which advocated that Indians should take charge of their own economy in the perspective of future Independence.
Phalke, with his imported camera, exposed single frames of a seed sprouting to a growing plant, shot once a day, over a month-thus inadvertently introducing the concept of ‘time-lapse photography’, which resulted in the first indigenous ‘instructional film’- The Birth of a Pea Plant (1912) – a capsule history of the growth of a pea into a pea-laden plant. This film came very handy in getting financial backing for his first film venture.
A recreation of the shooting of Phalke’s The Birth of a Pea Plant (1912) in the Marathi biopic Harishchandrachi Factory (2010)
Inspired from an imported film – Life of Christ – Phalke started mentally visualising the images of Indian gods and goddesses. What really obsessed him was the desire to see Indian images on the screen in a purely Swadeshi venture. He fixed up a studio in Dadar Main Road, wrote the scenario, erected the set and started shooting for his first venture Raja Harishchandra in 1912. The first full-length story film of Phalke was completed in 1912 and released at the Coronation cinema on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and members of the Press. The film was widely acclaimed by one and all and proved to be a great success.
The opening tableaux presents a scene of royal family harmony- with a space “outside” the frame from where the people emerge, and to which space the king when banished seeks shelter. The film’s treatment is episodic, following the style of the Indian folk theatre and the primitive novel. Most of the camera set-ups are static, with plenty of movements within the frame. The bathtub sequence where Harishchandra comes to call his wife Taramati, who is in the tub, with her fully drenched attendants is indeed the first bath-tub scene in Indian cinema. All the females in their wet sarees and blouses clinging to their bodies are in fact all males in female grab.
Phalke hailed from an orthodox Hindu household – a family of priests with strong religious roots. So, when technology made it possible to tell stories through moving images, it was but natural that the Indian film pioneer turned to his own ancient epics and puranas for source material. The phenomenal success of Raja Harishchandrawas kept up by Phalke with a series of mythological films that followed – Mohini Bhasmasur (1914), significant for introducing the first woman to act before the cameras – Kamalabai Gokhale The significant titles that followed include – Satyawan Savitri (1914), Satyavadi Raja Harischandra (1917), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma(1918) and Kalia Mardan (1919).
The first film in Southern India was made in 1916 by R Nataraja Mudaliar- Keechaka Vadham. As the title indicates the subject is again a mythological from the Mahabharata. Another film made in Madras – Valli Thiru-Manam (1921) by Whittaker drew critical acclaim and box office success. Hollywood returned Ananthanarayanan Narayanan founded General Pictures Corporation in 1929 and established filmmaking as an industry in South India and became the single largest producer of silent films. Kolhapur in Western Maharashtra was another centre of active film production in the twenties. In 1919 Baburao K Mistry – popularly known as Baburao Painter formed the Maharashtra Film Co. with the blessings of the Maharaja of Kolhapur and released the first significant historical -Sairandhari (1920) with Balasheb Pawar, Kamala Devi and Zunzarrao Pawar in stellar roles. Because of his special interest in sets, costumes, design and painting, he chose episodes from Maratha history for interpreting in the new medium and specialised in the historical genre. The exploits of Shivaji and his contemporaries and their patriotic encounters with their opponents formed the recurring themes of his ‘historicals’ which invariably had a contemporary relevance to the people of a nation, who were fighting for liberation from a colonial oppressor. The attack against the false values associated with the Western way of life and their blind imitation by some Indians was humorously brought out by Dhiren Ganguly in his brilliant satirical comedy – England Returned (1921) – presumably the first ‘social satire’ on Indians obsessed with Western values. And with that another genre of Indian cinema known as ‘the contemporary social’ slowly emerged. Baburao Painter followed it up with another significant film in 1925 – Savkari Pash (The Indian Shylock) – an attempt at realistic treatment of the Indian peasant exploited by the greedy moneylender.
In Bengal, a region rich in culture and intellectual activity, the first Bengali feature film in 1917, was remake of Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra. Titled Satyawadi Raja Harishchandra, it was directed by Rustomjee Dotiwala. Less prolific than Bombay based film industry, around 122 feature films were made in Calcutta in the Silent Era.
The first feature film in Tamil, also the first in entire South India, Keechakavatham was made during 1916-17, directed by Nataraja Mudaliar.
Marthandavarma (1931) produced by R Sunder Raj, under Shri.Rajeswari Film, Nagercoil, directed by P V Rao, got into a legal tangle and was withdrawn after its premiere. Based on a celebrated novel by C V Raman Pillai, the film recounts the adventures of the crown prince and how he eliminates the arch-villains to become the unquestioned ruler of the Travancore State. The film has title cards in English and Malayalam, some of which are taken from the original text. A few of the title cards and action make obvious reference to the Swadeshi Movement of the time. Had it not been for the legal embargo, the film would have had a great impact on the regional cinema of the South.
Indian Cinema Starts Talking
Still from Alam Ara (1931)
In the early thirties, the silent Indian cinema began to talk, sing and dance. Alam Ara produced by Ardeshir Irani (Imperial Film Company), released on March 14, 1931 was the first Indian cinema with a sound track.
Mumbai became the hub of the Indian film industry having a number of self-contained production units. The thirties saw hits like Madhuri (1932), Indira,M A (1934), Anarkali (1935), Miss Frontier Mail (1936), and Punjab Mail (1939).
Among the leading filmmakers of Mumbai during the forties, V Shantaram was arguably the most innovative and ambitious. From his first talkie Ayodhya ka Raja (1932) to Admi (1939), it was clear that he was a filmmaker with a distinct style and social concern whose films generated wide discussion and debate. He dealt with issues like cast system, religious bigotry and women’s rights. Even when Shantaram took up stories from the past, he used these as parables to highlight contemporary situations. While Amrit Manthan (1934) opposed the senseless violence of Hindu rituals, Dharmatama (1935) dealt with Brahmanical orthodoxy and caste system. Originally titled Mahatma, the film was entirely banned by the colonial censor on the ground that it treated a sacred subject irreverently and dealt with controversial politics. Amarjyoti (1936) was an allegory on the oppression of women in which the protagonist seeks revenge. It could perhaps be called the first women’s lib film in India.
Duniya Na Mane (1937) was about a young woman’s courageous resistance to a much older husband whom she had been tricked into marrying. Admi (1939) was one of Shantaram’s major works.
Still from Admi/Manoos (1939)
Calcutta film Industry
Madan Theatres of Calcutta produced Shirin Farhad and Laila Majnu (1931) well composed and recorded musicals. Both films replete with songs had a tremendous impact on the audience and can be said to have established the unshakeable hold of songs on our films. Chandidas (1932, Bengali), the story of a Vaishnavite poet-priest who falls in love with a low caste washerwoman and defies convention, was a super-hit. P C Barua produced Devdas (1935) based on Saratchandra Chatterjee’s famous story about frustrated love, influenced a generation of viewers and filmmakers.
Still from Devdas (1935)
The South Indian Cinema
Tamil cinema emerged as a veritable entertainment industry in 1929 with the creation of General Picture Corporation in Madras (Chennai). Most of the Tamil films produced were multilingual productions, with versions in Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada until film production units were established in Hyderabad, Trivandrum and Bangalore. The first talkie of South India, Srinivas Kalyanam was made by A Narayanan in 1934.
India got independence on 15th August 1947 but to give exposure to some more significant films that were released immediately post independence, I have considered all releases upto 26th Jan 1950 when India officially became an independent republic. Mubi members are encouraged to point out any film in the database that I might have missed. Thanks for reading.