Original release: May 3rd, 1913
Running time: 40 minutes
Director and producer: Dadasaheb Phalke
Writers: Dadasaheb Phalke, Ranchhodbai Udayram
Cast: D.D. Dabke, P.G. Sane, Bhalachandra D. Phalke
The topic of Indian films has been brought up several times before on Static Mass. We’ve looked at classics ranging from Awara (1951) to Sholay (1975) and Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and it’s always been with an emphasis on music and the spectacle of dance.
So it might come as a surprise now as we turn to Raja Harishchandra, a film dating back to 1913 which not only was India’s first feature film, but it was a silent film. That’s right, even in melodious India there was a time when film had no sound.
When the Lumière Brothers exhibited their collection of short films with the Lumière Cinématographe at Watson Hotel in Mumbai in 1896, they left audiences spellbound and captured the imaginations of future filmmakers. On July 7th of that year the Times of India called the exhibition the “Living Photographic pictures in life-size reproductions by Messrs Lumiere Brotheres” and who at that time could resist such magic?
In the years that followed, India would have its first filmmaker, Maharastra, H.S. Bhatvadekar (a.k.a.Save Dada), its first film, Return of Wrangler Paranjapee (1901), its first cinema, Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta in 1907 and its first short film, Savitri (1911). Still, it would be a while before the first feature film would come along and that didn’t happen until 1913 when Raja Harishchandra was shown at Coronation Cinematograph, Bombay, following its premiere on April 21st.
Said to be have been inspired by Life of Christ (1898), Dadasaheb Phalke (a.ka. Dada Saheb Phlke) set out to make films that depicted the Hindu gods and goddesses and mythological themes. The story he tells with Raja Harishchandra is based on the legend of King Harishchandra, the 36th king of the Solar Dynasty, Surya Maharishi Gothram who is famed for never telling a lie and never breaking his word.
Prior to 1930 many of these early cinematic gems have been lost to the world as preservation and restoration of Indian films has only become a concern in later years. As a result, Raja Harishchandra only exists now in fragments (1475 feet to be precise) and what I describe here is based only on what remains.
Raja Harishchandra first shows the King together with his wife and his young son as he teaches him archery. At the request of citizens he leaves on a hunting excursion. Following a mountain trail, he hears the cries of women and goes to have a look. He finds a sage, Vishwamita, keeping three fairies to help him against their will. The king shoots his bow and arrow at the fairies, making them disappear in a puff of smoke, much to the annoyance of the sage and as a gesture of goodwill, he offers him his kingdom.
The sage accepts the offer and the king is left to roam. Eventually he reunites with his wife and son but before that happens his integrity is tested and by the end we learn that it has all been part of a divine plan to see if Harishchandra would remain true to his word.
The film also features a bathing scene, the first to be shown in an Indian film and while it caused a stir it should also be noted that the females seen in wet saris clinging to their bodies are actually men. Phalke was unable to find any women to appear in such a scene.
There’s much to enjoy here for anyone who has an interest in the birth of cinema, but M.K. Raghavendra is more critical of Phalke’s contribution:
Although primitive by today’s standards, Phalke is regarded as a pioneer of early Indian cinema and after Raja Harishchandra he went on to make other features such as Pithache Panje (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Sri Krishna Janma (1918), Kaliya Mardan (1919), Sant Eknath (1926) and Bhakta Prahlad (1926).
By this time the film industries in Germany and America were also just taking off with the Weimar era and what we now refer to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. Without his contribution to the birth of Indian cinema I wonder if we would still have so many of these fascinating mythological classics to read about in history books, or to watch, if they still exist. Would the later films of the 40’s through to the early 80’s, that I love so much, still have been made as they are? Would we still have epics such as Mother India (1957) or the era defining classics like Daag (1952), Devdas (1955), Aan (1952) and Aradhana (1969)?
Dadasaheb Phalke, with his immobile camera, cross-cutting scenes and amateur actors dressed as women, ushered in the Indian feature film with Raja Harishchandra. He opened the door for an industry that’s defined itself with sound, the spectacle of dance and outpouring of deepest emotion, none of which can be found here on the surface, only in the roots.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .