India’s First Long Film

Raja Harishchandra (Frgm.)
R: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke. B: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, Ranchhodbai Udayram (story). K: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, Trymbak B. Telang. D: D.D. Dabke, P.G. Sane, Bhalachandra D. Phalke, G.V. Sane. P: Phalke Films. IN 1913
Engl. titles

“Directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, the ‘father of Indian Cinema’, this 40-minute-long silent film is the very first full-length Indian feature — the beginning of Bollywood. The narrative of the film is based on the eponymous legend recounted in the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The story centres around the hero Harishchandra, a noble king, who, to honour his promise to the sage Vishwamitra, sacrifices his kingdom, his wife, and eventually also his children. By the end, however, having pleased the Gods with his actions, Harishchandra’s former glory is restored.
Phalke was apparently inspired to make films after watching the French film The Life of Christ (1902)*, twice in one day. He quit his job at a printing press and went to London to learn the technical ins and outs of making a film. Returning to India, he pledged in his life-assurance policies and his wife sold her jewellery to raise the capital needed. Struggling to find women willing to act in the film, Phalke had to instead cast men in the female roles, including Anna Salunke as Harishchandra’s wife. (…) Unfortunately, Raja Harishchandra only exists now in fragments.”
The Public Domain Review

* Maybe, he watched the 1906 Alice Guy Film La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ

“It took Phalke and his team over six months to complete filming Raja Harishchandra. (…) Since working in a film was considered taboo in those days, Phalke instructed his team to tell people that they were working at the ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’. One of the biggest roles in the film’s production can be attributed to Phalke’s wife, Saraswati. She was responsible for feeding the entire production team, washing actors’ costumes, painting the film’s posters, and taking care of many other technical details of the film. It is believed that she used to cook for 500 people every day, without any help.

Phalke was well aware of his limitations of making a silent film. In order to better the audience’s understanding of the movie, he inserted title plates between scenes. These plates explained parts of the story in both the English and Hindi languages. Along with this, Phalke used live music to accompany the moving imagery on the screen. Raja Harishchandra was screened in a single theatre – Coronation Cinematograph. On its first screening, Phalke invited the press and many other people to watch. He promoted the movie with a catchy phrase – ‘Raja Harishchandra: A performance with 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for only three annas.’ In order to increase the attraction for people, he also hired two European dancers to perform before the film begun, for the first few screenings. Needless to say, people came, watched, and went home saying good things about the ‘57,000 photographs’. The first full-length feature film was a success and ran for 23 days in the Coronation Cinematograph. A year later, the movie was screened in London as well.”

The beginnings of cinema in India
“The movies arrived in India on 7 July 1896, barely seven months after the Lumiere brothers’ first ever screening of a motion picture in Paris the previous December.  The location was the somewhat upmarket Watson Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai) where Marius Sestier, employed by the Lumiere brothers to demonstrate their cinematograph abroad, screened six short Lumiere films.  Amongst the largely European audience was an Indian national, H S Bhatavdekar (more commonly known as Save Dada) who was inspired by the screening to go out and order a camera of his own from the UK.   With his newly acquired camera (but having to return the film to Britain for processing) Save Dada shot India’s first short film, The Wrestler (1899), simply a filmed record of a wrestling match.  Dada went on to film other notable events, including the reception given to mathematics scholar R. P Paranjpye who achieved a First at Cambridge University and a Darber coronation in Delhi in 1903, in effect establishing himself as an early newsreel photographer. (…) India’s first film studio, the Elphinstone Production Company, was established in 1907 by J F Madan who had made his money up until then as a successful distributor and exhibitor of imported films.  He also opened India’s first purpose-built cinema the same year, the Elphinstone Picture Palace, in Calcutta.  Madan’s film businesses grew to dominate the Indian film industry in the 1920s and 1930s.

>>> Gabriel Veyre, Lumière operator