Silent Era: The Early Cinema of India
The first film screened in India was at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay on 7 July, 1896, by the Lumière cameraman Marius Sestier. H. S. Bhatavdekar made The Wrestlers (1899) which showed a wrestling match at the Hanging Gardens in Bombay. It was the first film to be shot by an Indian. Until 1912, the exhibition of films was entirely dependent on imported films. The desultory efforts of filmmakers like Dadasaheb Phalke and Shree Nath Patankar laid the foundation of Indian Cinema.
It is debatable as to who is deserves the title of ‘father’ of Indian cinema. We remember Dadasaheb Phalke as the founding father of India cinema for his 1913 film Raja Harishchandra even though Dadasaheb Torne made Shree Pundalik a year before Phalke made his, in 1912. What goes against Torne is that his film was processed overseas in London, his cameraman was a Bristish man named Johnson and it was a photographic recording of a play. However, it is certain that the first Indian film released in India was Shree Pundalik which released on 18 May, 1912 at Coronation Cinematograph, Bombay.
With almost 2000 feature films produced in 2017, the Indian film industry is now the most prolific film industry in the world. The early years of Indian cinema, the sojourn of silent cinema is an intriguing period for it endured the position of a ‘public secret’ as it was subject to obloquy from the upper class. The colonial government paid little attention to what was happening in the cinema industry as all the attention was centered on the political uprising of the educated class.
The cinema theatre was a magical place where students and tired workers could escape to a world where they could reel in their forbidden pleasures and thrills. Even today, it is either the youth or the hard-headed businessmen who are the most die-hard patrons of the industry.
Dadasaheb Phalke is credited with the production of the first full-length motion picture in India. He was an inventor-draughtsman and when he saw an imported film which inspired him and decided to make his own film. He was knowledgeable about the diversity and culture of India and used the epics of India written in Sanskrit for his first film Raja Harishchandra which was a silent film with Marathi title cards. Only one print of the film was made and it was a commercial success and ran for 23 days. However, only after the success of Phalke’s 1918 film Lanka Dahan did the filmmaking business became feasible for Indian filmmakers.
Dadasaheb Phalke’s other films were Mohini Bhasmasur (1914), important for introducing the first woman actor-Kamalabai Gokhale; Satyawan Savitri (1914), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kalia Mardan (1919). By 1920 India was producing more than 27 films a year which was a big number.
Hindustan Cinema Film Company was established in 1918 in Nasik, Maharashtra. It was the first purely indigenous film production company. It was started by Dadasaheb Phalke to replace the ailing Phalke Films.
Parsi businessman Jamshedji Framji Madan owned the first chain of Indian cinemas, Madan Theatre and produced 10 films annually and distributed them throughout India starting in 1902. It brought many of Bengal’s most popular literary works to the screen. He also produced Satyawadi Raja Harishchandra in 1917, a remake of Phalke’s 1913 film.
Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu, the father of Telugu cinema was the first to build and own cinemas in Madras. Keechaka Vadham was the first film in Tamil and it was made by R. Nataraja Mudaliar in 1916.
Gujarati entrepreneurs and artists came together between 1921-1925 to give shape to the industry which was entirely based in Bombay and reliant on local capital to compete with imported European and American films. Cinema became a constituent part of Bombay’s cultural urbanization and as the city grew, so did the film industry. Cinema halls and advertising were pertinent in the setup of movie-going activity in the city that helped in the growth of film production. By 1925, the studio system had emerged which were shooting multiple films at once, had developed distribution chain and soon happened the birth of Stars.
Some of the most famous films of the Silent Era:
Shree Pundalik (1912): Pundalik was about 1,500 feet or about 22 minutes long. The film had a shooting script, was shot with a camera, and its negatives were sent to London for processing.
Raja Harishchandra (1913): Based on the mythological story of Harishchandra, the 40-minute-long film is about an ancient king of India who loses his kingdom and family as a test of character by the gods. It had an all-male cast who were Marathi actors. He cast Anna Salunke, who worked as a cook in a restaurant, for the role of Taramati and his own son, Bhalchandra Phalke as Lohitashwa, Harishchandra’s son.
Lanka Dahan (1917): Phalke’s aim to make ‘Swadeshi’ films reflecting Indian life and culture was realized when he completed the first Indian feature Raja Harishchandra in 1913. The success Lanka Dahan is said to have convinced exhibitors and other filmmakers alike of the viability of making indigenous films.
Keechak Vadham (1918): Based on the Mahabharata legend, it was produced on the back of success of Lanka Dahan. It was shot in five weeks and opened to critical and commercial success.
Shakuntala (1920): The motion picture industry of India kept making rapid strides with Suchet Singh, the director of Shakuntala experimenting with the treatment of the Kalidas’ epic poetry. It was produced by Oriental Manufacturing Company. It wasn’t commercially successful for the same reason.
Bhakt Vidur (1921): Also based on Mahabharata epic, it is about the rivalry between Pandavas and Kauravas. It was the first Indian film to face a ban because of its political references. It was produced by Kohinoor Film Company and directed by D N Sampat in 1921.
Prem Sanyas (1925): A popular film, Prem Sanyas was directed by Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten. It was based on the life of Prince Buddha. The film managed to avoid the usual exotic depiction of Indian culture. Himanshu Rai’s wife, Devika Rani played the lead actor and did the set decoration for this film.
Devdas (1928): We all remember the 1955 Bimal Roy classic melodrama starring Dilip Kumar. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s evergreen Bengali novella has been successfully adapted many times in the history of Indian cinema. Naresh Mitra’s 1928 silent was the first version of “Devdas” starring Phani Burma, Tarakbala and Niharbala. It is famous for its accurate depiction of Bengali lifestyle.
In 1910 Phalke saw a film of The Life of Christ. He was inspired:
‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualizing the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on screen.’ (Quoted by Suresh Chabria, 1994).
Phalke quit his job at a printing press and convinced his financiers to learn filmmaking technique in London by making a short film, ‘Birth of a Pea Plant’, that used “stop-motion photography to capture the plant’s progress.”
Dadasaheb Phalke had a unique way to promote his film: “A performance with 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for only three annas.”