On 3rd May 1913, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released Indian cinema’s first ever full length feature film Raja Harishchandra that most people claim gave rise to the overpowering phenomena of Indian Cinema. Phalke, an employee with the Archaeological Society of India, was heavily inspired by French film ‘Vie et Passion du Christ’ which released in 1903 that pushed this idea of making a film in his head.

However, the claim that it was this silent film that catapulted the overwhelming effect of Bollywood wouldn’t be entirely correct in terms of facts. While Raja Harishchandra was indeed the first feature film of Indian cinema, the naïve efforts began with shooting a wrestling match in the year 1898 in Bombay by a man popularly known as Saave Dada. He worked on his second and third film in the next few years till 1903.

Raja Harishchandra
Raja Harishchandra

While we mention Indian cinema, the term is indeed dicey. What exactly are we referring to? The brilliant work of still photographers in putting together short films and documentaries without any technical aid are entirely negated in this umbrella term. Technically short films and documentaries do make up for a large part of relevant cinema that is alien to the general masses mostly. But Cinema insiders, who live, breathe and sustain on this field euphorically emphasizing today as 100 years of Indian cinema is a statement that comes unexpectedly from a sheer lack of adequate knowledge.

By celebrating today as the eve of 100 years of cinema we unknowingly martyr the valiant efforts of many such film makers who gave Phalke the impetus to work towards a fully bound feature presentation in 1913.

In Bengal, the concept of short films travelled when Hiralal Sen recorded theatrical performances and reached it to far flung areas where theatre artists could not reach and perform due to lack of commuting services in those days. The Bengal Film Business was established in 1902 in a tent named Bioscope, which later in 1907 also became the stepping stone in setting up Elphinstone Picture Palace. It was in West Bengal, specifically Calcutta, where the seeds of film marketing was first conceived, way before Phalke conceptualized Raja Harishchandra.

It was the theatrical filming of plays that went on to become the first films of Indian cinema. Docu style and educational, those films despite being gritty and gutsy efforts dissipated in history.

Even the history of Phalke is faulty. Those who opine that Raja Harishchandra is Phalke’s first film have their historical inferences in the wrong place. Dadasaheb Phalke does earn the credit for creating the first Indian film but interestingly it wasn’t Raja Harishchandra but an experimental venture by Phalke named the Birth Of A Pea Plant, which gave him the confidence to gamble his entire life’s savings on Raja Harishchandra, which thankfully for him was a hit!

So given this lesser known facet of the cinematic history of India, what Raja Harishchandra was, would be an organized culmination of the efforts that had been valiantly evolving since the advent of the 20th century. Talking from the purview of films, Raja Harishchandra clubbed the ideas experiments of all previous short films and created a 40 minute tale more ethnically relevant for India.

It is also the Indian-ness of concepts and actors that played a crucial role in justifying it as the first Indian film. But after six decades of earning independence from the English, the bubbling grievances mellowing down, on today’s eve while we celebrate the gallant celluloid celebration of cinema, we are being inexcusably uninformed in ignoring various documentaries that served as a prelude to the film. Due to improper recording of those films, it fizzled out in front of a more popular and lustrous (by the standards in those days) Raja Harishchandra !

Not intending to induce a spoiler in the celebratory mood that prevails in Bollywood and media today, in my opinion Raja Harishchandra though duly noteworthy in its repute, denies the efforts of many short documentaries which should rather more deservedly pass as the first films of Indian cinema!

(Facts taken from ‘Bollywood Yesterday Today and Tomorrow’ By Ramesh Dawar)

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