Indian Silent Films

The history of cinema in India extends back to the beginning of the film era and its industry is one of the oldest in the world. Following the screening of the Lumière and Robert Paul moving pictures in London (1896), animated photography became a worldwide sensation and by mid-1896 both Lumière and Robert Paul films had been shown in Bombay.

In 1897 a film presentation by one Professor Stevenson featured a stage show at Calcutta’s Star Theatre. With Stevenson’s encouragement and camera, Hiralal Sen, an Indian photographer, made a film of scenes from that show, namely The Flower of Persia (1898). The Wrestlers (1899) by H. S. Bhatavdekar, showing a wrestling match at the Hanging Gardens in Bombay, was the first film to be shot by an Indian and the first Indian documentary film.

The first Indian film released in India was Shree Pundalik, a film in Marathi by Dadasaheb Torne on the 18th of May 1912 at Coronation Cinematograph, Bombay. Some have argued that Pundalik was not the first Indian film, because it was a photographic recording of a play, and because the cameraman was a British man named Johnson and the film was processed in London.

The first true full-length motion picture in India, Raja Harishchandra, was produced by Dadasaheb Phalke (1870-1944). Phalke was a scholar of India’s languages and culture and is often spoken of as the Father of Indian cinema.

Phalke employed elements from Sanskrit epics to produce Raja Harishchandra in Marathi, basing it on the legend of Harishchandra, recounted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The film features Dattatraya Damodar Dabke, Anna Salunke, Bhalchandra Phalke, and Gajanan Vasudev Sane and, being silent, had English and Hindi language intertitles.

Phalke decided to make a feature film after watching The Life of Christ (1906) at a theatre in Mumbai. He went to London for two weeks to learn film-making techniques and founded Phalke Films. He imported the hardware required for the film-making and exhibition from England, France, Germany, and the United States. Phalke shot a short film Ankurachi Wadh (Growth of a Pea Plant) to attract investors for his venture. He published advertisements in various newspapers calling for the cast and crew. As no women were available to play female leads, male actors performed the female roles. Phalke was in charge of script, direction, production design, make-up, editing, along with film processing. Trymbak B. Telang handled the camera and Phalke completed filming in six months and 27 days producing a film of 3,700 feet, about four reels.

Only one print of the film was made and it premiered at the Olympia Theatre, Mumbai on the 21st of April 1913, and had its theatrical release on Saturday, 3rd of May 1913 at the Coronation Cinema, Girgaon, Mumbai. It was a commercial success and laid the foundation for the film industry in the country. The film is partially lost and only the first and last reels of the film are preserved at the National Film Archive of India. Some film historians believe they belong to a 1917 remake of the film by Phalke titled Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra.

Phalke made 95 feature-length films and 27 short films in his career, spanning 19 years, until 1937, including his most noted works: Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919). The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for lifetime contribution to cinema, was instituted in his honour by the Government of India in 1969. The award is one of the most prestigious awards in Indian cinema and is the highest official recognition for film personalities in the country. A postage stamp bearing his likeness was released by India Post to honour him in 1971. An honorary award from the Dadasaheb Phalke Academy Mumbai was introduced in the year 2001, for lifetime achievement in Indian cinema.

The first chain of Indian cinemas, Madan Theatre was owned by Parsi entrepreneur Jamshedji Framji Madan, who produced Phalke’s 1917 remake of Raja Harishchandra. Madan oversaw production of 10 films annually and distributed them throughout India beginning in 1902. He founded Elphinstone Bioscope Company in Calcutta who merged into Madan Theatres Limited in 1919, which had brought many of Bengal’s most popular literary works to the stage.

The first silent film in Tamil, Keechaka Vadham was made by R. Nataraja Mudaliar in 1916. It was shot in five weeks at Nataraja Mudaliar’s production house, India Film Company, although no print of it is known to have survived, making it a lost film.

The screenplay, written by C. Rangavadivelu, is based on an episode from the Virata Parva segment of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, focusing on Keechaka’s attempts to woo Draupadi. The film stars Raju Mudaliar and Jeevarathnam as the central characters.

Released in the late 1910s, Keechaka Vadham was commercially successful and received positive critical feedback. The film’s success prompted Nataraja Mudaliar to make a series of similar historical films, which laid the foundation for the South Indian cinema industry and led to his being recognised as the father of Tamil cinema. Nataraja Mudaliar’s works were an inspiration to other filmmakers including Raghupathi Surya Prakasa and J. C. Daniel.

Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu (1887-1941) was an Indian artist and a pioneer in the production of silent Indian films and talkies. Starting in 1909, he was involved in many aspects of Indian cinema’s history, like travelling to different regions in Asia to promote film work. He was the first to build and own cinema halls in Madras. The Raghupati Venkaiah Award is an annual award incorporated into Nandi Awards to recognise people for their contributions to the Telugu film industry.

Film steadily gained popularity across India. Tickets were affordable to the masses (as low as an anna (one-sixteenth of a rupee) in Bombay) with additional comforts available at a higher price.

Young producers began to incorporate elements of Indian social life and culture into cinema. Others brought ideas from across the world. Global audiences and markets soon became aware of India’s film industry.

In 1927, the British Government, to promote the market in India for British films over American ones, formed the Indian Cinematograph Enquiry Committee. Officially it was established to “investigate the adequacy of censorship and the supposedly immoral effect of cinematograph films”, and subsequently the Indian Cinematograph Committee Evidence and Report 1927-1928 was published in the following year. The ICC consisted of three Brits and three Indians, led by T. Rangachari, a Madras lawyer. This committee failed to support the desired recommendations of supporting British Film, instead recommending support for the fledgling Indian film industry. Their suggestions were shelved.

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