100 Years of Indian Cinema – The Creative Roots

Advertisement of First indian movie, 'Raja Harishchandra', appeared in Bombay Chronicle on 3rd May, 1913.

Advertisement of First Indian movie, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, appeared in Bombay Chronicle on 3rd May, 1913.

Precisely 100 years ago an unabashed dreamer – a crazy genius, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released a silent movie, “Raja Harishchandra” at the Coronation Cinema, Mumbai. Many great institutions start with a dream. Quite often a shameless – fearless dream and an equally fearless dreamer. Dhundiraj, better known as Dadasaheb was one such dreamer. The story of his travails and troubles have been very beautifully captured in Marathi movie ‘Harishchandrachi Factory, released in 2009.

Dadasaheb Phalke had to beat several odds. There was very little that could be called resources. He didn’t have properly trained talented actors. But above everything else, performing arts in general, had very little social approval. Also, whenever a new medium or a new technology emerges, society always resists to accept it. Dadasaheb was intelligent enough to understand these issues. But, he was crazy enough to ignore them and that’s what made him brave enough to go ahead with his project.

Dadasaheb Phalke - Working

Dadasaheb Phalke – Working

Interestingly, Dadasaheb was the first Indian who made an entire feature with an all-Indian crew. He was neither the first maker nor the first exhibitor. A year before the release of Raja Harishchandra, another movie maker Dadasaheb Torne had made a movie called ‘Pundalik’ with the help of British cinematographers though. Dadasaheb Phalke got inspired to make movies when he went to a screening of a silent movie titled, “Life of Christ”.

If movies were already shown in India, what made Dadasaheb so special? Well, precisely what made many of his successors like Raj Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, B. R. Chopra, Yash Chopra or even Manmohan Desai, successful and special. Understanding Indian audiences and its sensibilities. When Dadasaheb Phalke saw “Life of Christ”, he immediately imagined a film with Hindu deities and characters from Indian mythology. Because somewhere deep down he knew that  it would work. Most of Dadasaheb’s movies were about Hindu deities. In his movies when Lord Krishna or Rama would appear on the screen, people would stand up or bow down in front of the screen. Interestingly, the foreign movies continued to be exhibited in India. But Dadasaheb always thought that despite them being interesting enough, those movies could never strike a bond with Indian audiences. His movies created a national frenzy. When ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’ was released in Chennai (erstwhile Madras) there were traffic jams. His movies, ‘Lanka Dahan‘ and ‘Krishna Janma‘ were in circulation for almost a decade. In fact, he understood the economics of Indian movies very quickly. He realized that there is one class of audience that would never like his work and he never bothered to cater to them. He hardly ever advertised in English newspapers. He always tried to appeal his audiences through vernacular media. In the movie ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’, he is even shown coming up with promotional schemes like free pair of clothes with the movie ticket. All this made the movie a commercial success. Raja Harishchandra’s success allowed Dadasaheb to keep making films and probably that’s what planted firm roots of our Film industry.

Sources:

1. Indian Film, by Erik Barnouw and S.Krishnaswamy. Columbia University Press, 1963

2. Raja Harishchandra

3. Dadasaheb Phalke – Wikipedia

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