Exploring Silent Indian Cinema + Raja Harishchandra (1913)

BFI Southbank, London

                                                       20 May 2017

So, hands up, all out there with a good grasp of Indian silent film history.  I thought so,  not many!  So, this afternoon’s BFI Southbank event, Exploring Silent Indian Cinema, was a welcome opportunity to learn more about this little-known facet of silent film history from film historian and South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF) director Lalit Mohan Joshi.  The event would also include a screening of the first indigenous Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), accompanied by the first performance of a new live score written by renowned Indian composer and lyricist Pandit Vishwa Prakash.

But first, a little more on the history of Indian silent film.  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. 

A year later, Calcutta (now Kolkata) resident Hiralal Sen (left), also inspired by one of those early Lumiere screenings, began to shoot and screen his own short films to supplement the movies he was importing from Europe.  Initially producing film versions of theatrical plays, Sen went on to specialise in newsreels as well as taking commissions for short advertising films.  He may also have made India’s first political film with a short newsreel piece on an independence rally in Calcutta in 1905.  Sadly, all of Sen’s work was destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1917. 

India’s first film studio, the Elphinstone Production Company, was established in 1907 by J F Madan (right) 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. 

The next major milestone came in 1913 with the release of India’s first indigenous feature film Raja Harishchandra, directed by Dadasaheb Phalke (left).  An earlier film, Shree Pundalik (1912) directed by Dadasaheb Torne, is generally acknowledged to miss out on this accolade because it was simply a photographic recording of a popular Marathi play, and because the cameraman was a British national and the film was processed in London.  Phalke, a printer by trade, was inspired to take up directing after watching the film The Life of Christ in 1910, exclaiming that ‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gogul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on screen.’   With no knowledge of film making, Phalke travelled to Britain to learn the basics of the profession (seeking guidance from British film pioneers including Cecil Hepworth) and to purchase equipment.  On his return, Phalke set up his production company in Bombay (later moving to the small town of Nasik, about one hundred kilometres from Pune).  His first film was a simple stop-motion affair documenting the growth of a pea plant and entitled, perhaps not surprisingly, Birth of a Pea Plant (1913).  But he faced considerable obstacles in producing his and India’s first feature length film.  The film industry was a risky option for most investors, so funds were tight.  Phalke got around this by using his own extended family for many of the on and off screen roles and did most of the shooting, processing and editing in his own house and grounds but he apparently still needed to sell his wife’s jewelry and pledged his life insurance policies to finance his first feature.  

Raja Harishchandra (right) was released on April 21, 1913  at the Coronation Cinema in Bombay in front of special guests and members of the press.  The film, based upon a traditional Indian epic, the Mahabharata, telling of a king whose love of truth is tested by a god, was an immediate commercial and critical success, with Indian audiences apparently identifying immediately with images from their own culture. Its success would set the pattern for Indian film production for decades to come with recurrent emphasis on traditional mythological stories.  Despite this success, Phalke still encountered problems.  Film making was seen as a low form of culture, derided by the middle-classes and it was virtually impossible to get women to act in films.  In Raja Harishchandra he had to get a man to play the role of the female lead and it was not until the following year and the release of Phalke’s next film Mohini Bhasmasur (1914) that Kamlabai Gokhale (right) became the first female Indian actor to star in a film.  Phalke would go on to produce some of India’s greatest silent films including Satyavadi Raja Harischandra (1917), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kalia Mardan (1919, left), most with an emphasis on retelling traditional stories and with progressively more sophisticated use of models and special effects.  But by the 1920s, Phalke was becoming disenchanted with the increasingly commercialised nature of film production in India and he gradually withdrew from the business.  Although there may have been other Indian film-makers before him, Phalke’s innovations and influence have earned him the sobriquet ‘Father of the Indian Film Industry’ so that, even today, India’s most prestigious cinema award is named after him. 

As the film industry took off in India, the main centre of output was Bombay (Mumbai) but substantial production facilities also sprang up in Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai).  As the 1920s progressed, significant new Indian film pioneers emerged, in particular actor/producer/director Himanshu Rai (right) and play/screen writer Niranjal Pal.  Working alongside German director Franz Osten, this trio would be responsible for three of India’s best regarded later silent films, Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia (1925) a story about the life of the Buddha, Shiraz (1928) which told the legend of the building of the Taj Mahal and Prapancha Pash / A Throw of Dice (1929, left) which relates another episode from the Mahabharata.

But with the release of Alam Ara, India’s first talking film, in March 1931, the silent era was over.  As in America and Europe, the coming of the talkies  meant that most of India’s silent films were either discarded or deliberately destroyed to recover their valuable silver nitrate content.  And while in the west some 80% of silent films are thought lost, in India that figure is nearer 99%, with perhaps only a few dozen of the 1300 or so silent films made between 1899 and 1931 surviving, and then often only in fragments or as poor quality transfers to safety film.  As recently as 2002, a fire at the National Film Archive of India may have destroyed as many as 1,700 nitrate prints, including the original print of Raja Harishchandra (although there remains some speculation as to whether this was in fact the original or perhaps instead the negative from a 1917 remake, directed by Phalke himself, to replace the original 1913 negative and prints which were all either worn out or had been were destroyed in a fire.)

Interest in Indian silent film received a tremendous boost in 1994 with a major retrospective at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy.  Over 20 hours of film were screened, all with live musical accompaniment.  Following extensive restoration work, beautifully preserved copies of  Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia (1925) and Prapancha Pash / A Throw of Dice (1929) now exist and a new restoration of Shiraz (1928, left) will be premiered at this year’s London Film Festival.  But all of these films can trace their antecedents back to Dadasaheb Phalke’s release in 1913 of his and India’s first indigenous feature film, Raja Harishchandra

And so to the film itself, which was to be accompanied by composer/musician Pandit Vishwa Prakash on keyboards and vocals, Mitel Purohit on percussion, Avtar Singh Namdhari on taus and Surmeet Singh Dhadyalla on sitar with additional vocals from Kusum Pant Joshi and Uttara Sukanya Joshi.  Thought originally to be around 45 minutes long, only some 20 minutes of the film now survive (although there was some post-film discussion about projection speeds which could mean that less of the film might have been lost).   

The film follows the travails of the noble Indian King Harishchandra and his family.  While out hunting, the king disturbs the powerful mystic Vishwamitra and prevents him gaining control over the Three Powers. In penance the King offers the mystic his kingdom and is in turn exiled with his wife and son.  After his son dies and his wife is falsely accused of murder the gods reveal that it had all been a test of Harishchandra’s faith after-which his son is brought back to life, his wife freed and his kingdom restored.   Or that at least was my understanding of the story but I must admit, that I struggled somewhat with the plot.  This may have been a result of the film’s fragmented form and also the paucity of inter-titles but was also due to my lack of familiarity with the basic source story.  Clearly this would not have been a problem for an Indian audience, who would also likely have benefited from a vocal accompaniment in helping to follow the film and move the plot along.   The film also suffered from that traditional scourge of early silent films, the hugely over-dramatised acting (left).  But there were other innovative moments, particularly in the use of special effects such as the Three Powers appearing out of the mystic’s fire.  The emphasis on outdoor shooting and the use of such a large cast were also notable achievements for such an early production.   

But the real treat was in the musical accompaniment from Pandit Vishwa Prakash and his ensemble.  Despite having previously composed a score for Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia, Pandit did confess that the incomplete nature of Raja Harishchandra made this a more challenging task.  Nevertheless, I felt that the musical accompaniment worked well and the vocals were superbly synched with the actors on screen which added enormously to the overall screening experience.  If just fragments of Indian silent films are this enjoyable to watch then it makes the scale of loss of so many other Indian silent films even more of a tragedy.  But one positive aspect to arise from this screening was an offer of financial support from an audience member to enable the film and its musical accompaniment to reach a wider audience.  So that has to be good news.   




BFI Programme Notes

Indian Cinema: A Very Short Introduction   By Ashish Rajadhyaksha