Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #35 - Raja Harishchandra

04/03/2018

Every Year In Film #35 - Raja Harishchandra

Thoughts On: Raja Harishchandra (1913) & The Birth of Indian Cinema


A look at Dadasaheb Phalke's mythological films and their place in Indian film history.


Today in the Every Year series, we will be exploring the emergence of Indian cinema. This is one of the most difficult subjects we have yet come upon because Indian cinema is an incredibly gargantuan subject. For a start, India is very much so less a country and more a continent, a subcontinent, with a population of over 1.3 billion people and a history going back over 30,000 years. Most will know Indian cinema via 'Bollywood'. Bollywood accounts for the industry in Bombay.


'Bollywood' is this a sobriquet, a combination of Bombay and Hollywood. The term came into wide use around the 80s and 90s outside of the nation when popular Indian cinema began to gain more global recognition. It was in the mid-90s, however, that Bombay became Mumbai and so, though the term 'Bollywood' is still in popular use, it refers to this one element of Indian cinema.

Indian cinema is made up of well over 20 regional cinemas distinguished by, primarily, language, but also culture, style and form. The most prominent industries include Hindi cinema (Bollywood), Telugu, Tamil and Bengali. Other industries include Chhattisgarh, Marathi, Punjab, Assam and even Indian English. On top of this, there is an independent, Parallel or arthouse, cinema of India, which most non-natives are more likely to be familiar with. Parallel Indian cinema is often represented by Satyajit Ray, who is one of the greatest all time - let alone Asian or Indian - directors.


All of these industries and more conglomerate into the most prolific movie industry in the world, an industry that has made hundreds more movies than, and has sold hundreds-of-thousands of more tickets than, Hollywood per annum for the past few years. What's more, Indian cinema represents one of the most unique and culturally significant cinemas in the modern day. Whilst its reach outside of its own nation and its economic gain is still developing, one cannot tell a history of film without considerable focus on this industry.

Though Indian cinema's scope makes the subject so daunting, it is the unfamiliarity that most Western audiences hold that makes the topic such a difficult one. Within this post, however, these obstacles will not press upon us too intensely. It shall be difficult for us to get a sense of where and what this industry is developing towards if we are unfamiliar with its history. However, the difficulties of dealing with India's silent era are linked with issues we have been grappling with for over 30 posts already.

It is estimated that over 1300 films were made during India's silent era (1913-1931). Little is known about a very small portion of these films. And of the few dozen of which that the director, studio, shooting conditions, reception, etc. are known of, a mere 30-odd (if that) have survived - and this is largely in fragments. The history of Indian silent cinema is, as you may remember, then a little like the history of Japanese silent cinema: neglected, ravaged by fires, decay and accidents, by-and-large forgotten. What we will attempt to do today is look at some of what has survived from the early to mid-silent era, note some significant figures and look into Indian silent cinema's impact on the world.

To start, however, it is best we try to situate the emergence of Indian cinema in history itself. And in doing so, we must see much of what we will watch explore today in the context of colonialism.


In the 16th century, 1526-30, India, a majority Hindu region, was taken over by a minority Muslim rule. The Mughal Empire was born. Over the next century, the Mughal Empire expanded, integrating Persian culture into the land and developing it into one of the world's leading economic forces. This marked what is seen to be the last Golden Age of Indian history and is an age that, for example, saw the construction of the Taj Mahal.

Through the 18th and 19th century, the Mughal Empire declined economically and began to fall apart. In this same era, Britain's Industrial Revolution began and its Empire was founded. The Empire has its foundations, as many empires do, in trade.


The East India Trading Company was Britain's first significant contact with India, in the early 17th century, and it facilitated trade that would eventually see Britain become a major world power. The Trading Company gained a monopoly in India over a century or so and thus built up power and control over certain regions that, after rebellion against the company in 1857, saw a trade relationship turn into imperial rule. In 1858 India became the crux of the British Empire, and thus India came under the control of the British Raj (British Rule).


Britain ruled India - which, we must remember, includes regions such as modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh - quite indirectly. At various times throughout the Empire's history there would be a mere few thousand, sometimes less than a thousand, British administrators ruling over India's population of over 300 million people. This was possible because they ruled through pre-existing governments and princes already in place and in control of various regions. A lot of what the British Empire rested upon was then posing and military (naval especially) threat. When British rule was non-violent in India, British administrators were then essentially trying to make Indians believe that they were lucky to have been colonised by the superior Europeans.


Over the 19th century, Britain saw India technologically, agriculturally and commercially develop. But, this, of course, didn't uniformly benefit most of the population - who were the ones who suffered during any economic decline, who enforced British rule by making up the majority of fighting forces in the country, who endured devastating famines, some of which saw the deaths of millions upon millions natives, who were heavily dependent on Britain, and who were generally being exploited. After all, the core goal of the British Empire was monetary. To this day, former colonies are referred to as the Commonwealth of Nations. The Empire, whilst it injected wealth into its colonies, was also extracting all the resources it could out of them. Symbols of this can be found in museums all across Britain and even in the monarchy's crown jewels.


When we come to the late 1800s and early 1900s, to the time in which cinema emerges, we are around 50 years away from India becoming independent. The Empire was in a rough spot, but is still somewhat stable (how stable it ever was is questionable) despite the breakout of a major famine just before the turn of the century, and despite the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885.


The INC were a nationalist political party, lead by Mahatma Gandhi, who pushed the Independence Movement. This movement was in existence from the instant the Empire was formed; the rebellion of 1857 was conducted by groups of wanted independence from Britain. However, with the rise of the INC came a new spark of nationalism. The heart of the nationalist independence movement was in Bengal, but, in 1905, the British partitioned the state with the hope of quashing the movement. This act was a means of dividing and conquering; the British trying to keep the Muslims and the Hindus from unifying and rising up against them.

Rule through division is, arguably, one of the most damaging aspects of Britain's colonial rule. The British did not invent the religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus. The conflict is centuries upon centuries old, dating back to the emergence of Islam and its spread into the Indian subcontinent in as far back as the 7th century. When the British took control of India, they were taking over from the mentioned Mughal Empire, who were minority Muslim rulers. Over the course of the British Raj, this pre-existing rift was exacerbated and manipulated in the British's favour. So, when it came time for Britain to leave India after WWII, the country was divided into four sections: India, Pakistan, Kashmir and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). The ensuing mass migration of Muslims and Hindus caused an absolute catastrophe, leading to the deaths of millions due to religious in-fighting. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are still at odds to this day because of this.


Without looking too far ahead in history, let us remain in 1905. With Bengal partitioned, the initial nationalist movement saw an end, and a new movement saw a beginning: swadeshi. All of this history, and swadeshi in particular, is important in regards to early Indian cinema because the swadeshi movement was an offshoot of nationalism that was public, widespread and was concerned with India's economy. The swadeshi movement was then against the import of British goods.


Import was part of what made India so important for Britain; they imported their own goods into the country for their own gain. So, not only were entities such as the Manchester cotton industry highly dependent on selling to the Indian market, but the British also tried to push their own cinema into India. In the end, this actually never worked. Because of WWI, because British silent films weren't necessarily the best in the world, because India developed its own industry, and despite a kind of apartheid in India that privileged the British and Europeans there as well as their films, British movies always failed to make inroads in the economy. And you could argue that this shaped so much of cinematic history. After all, if Britain could capitalise upon the Empire and build a lucrative cinematic industry that could actually rival Hollywood on its own, who knows what film history would look like.


Keeping this important idea in mind, what the swadeshi movement also emphasised was the development of indigenous business. Swadeshi was a potential way for Indians to develop financial autonomy without, and often to the detriment of, the British. That said, there wasn't necessarily a literal co-op of businessmen that set out to break the British down from the inside out. This was just the basic idea of the movement and political ideology. Whilst many labelled themselves swadeshi, this can be thought of as a mindset and a way of conducting yourself economically in India at the time. What you will then find in many popular Indian silent films are 'swadeshi' producers who were essentially working around the British system through 'temporary businesses' and their own financiers. But, before we jump into that, let us actually start to formulate a cinematic history of India.


Here we are in 1913, 35 posts into the series, and we again come back to the same old name: the Lumières. This is why the Lumières are credited as the first filmmakers and the inventors of cinema despite that being pretty much incorrect: they have a notable place at the start of almost every single major strand of cinematic history. As you could have then presumed, the Lumières were the first to introduce India to the moving pictures in 1896.

Before the Lumières, theatre, for centuries, played a significant role in Indian and Hindu culture as a form of entertainment and a means of sharing Hindu mythology. During the 19th century, the magic lantern would have began to play a role in theatre, much like it did in Europe. We can then imagine the first Lumière screenings to have been received in a similar manner to the way they were elsewhere. As you'd expect there is a myth that the first screenings in Bombay dazzled audiences who jumped when a train came hurtling towards them. How true this is doesn't necessarily matter; India was introduced to film around the same time the rest of the industrialised world was.

Cinema developed into a popular attraction as more films were imported and screened over the first two decades of the silent era. Whilst film stayed in India because it proved a significant market that the population took to in a big way, films initially came to the nation because of the European settlers. The Europeans, as well as the upper-class Indians that they mingled with, were those who could pay higher admission fees and were generally looked upon as more civilised and clean by the foreign and upper-class presence. The main cinemas in the big cities largely catered to them, and more generally, the amount you payed for a ticket determined how good your seas were and who you sat with. Satyajit Ray, who would have been a young kid born to a well-off family in the late 20s and 30s, has described what it was like to go the cinema in British India:

The cinema we loved to go to then was the Madan, where the mellifluous tones of the Wurlitzur organ drowned the noise of the projector while heightening the drama on the screen. The Glove was nice too. It didn't have an organ, but it had turns on the stage during the intermission. Both the Globe and the Madan showed the first-run foreign films, as did the Elphistone, the Picture Palace and the Empire. They all stood clustered at the heart of Calcutta's filmland, exuded swank and boasted elite clientele. 
On the other hand, the cinemas showing Indian films, such as the Albion, were dank and seedy. One pinched one's nose as one hurried past the toilet in the lobby into the auditorium and sat on hard, creaky wooden seats. The films they showed, we were told by our elders, were not suitable for us. Since the elders always decided what we should see, the choice inevitably fell on foreign films, usually American. We thus grew up on a wholesome diet of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix and Tarzan, with an occasional drama-with-a-moral like Uncle Tom's Cabin thrown in.

This comes from chapter 11 in the book Satyajit Ray On Cinema where he also describes one of his first experiences of Indian film, as a 9-year-old, being an accidental viewing of Kaal Parinaya (The Doomed Marriage), which he says turned out to be a soft porno. (Film history books very rarely mention pornography, but I think it's a safe bet to assume that there is always some floating about). That aside, what Ray shines light on here is the divide in film exhibition. It seems that there was a very clear distinction, especially for the Europeans and upper-classes, between Indian and foreign films, or rather, their audiences; certain cinemas seemed to have been for certain castes. As Ray points out; you'd avoid those showing Indian films, and he alludes to sanitary issues as the reason why.

All across the world around the turn of the century, we see cinema and theatre halls described in quite a similar manner. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, would romanticise his days as a young vaudeville actor in Britain during the late 1800s, describing the venues as pretty seedy, nasty places - places that were sometimes called drug houses, sex dens, etc. In India, we are seeing the cinema places of the lower classes described similarly. However, it is particularly telling that certain films were attached to certain cinemas; foreign films for nicer places, native films for the rest.

We cannot take Ray's remembrance of these times as representative of hard fact and the state of cinema all across India in the silent era. However, this is a somewhat rare glimpse into what it was like to see a film in these times, one that emphasises the place of foreign film in India - American films in particular, which are said to have had a share of around 80% of the market after Universal set up offices in India in the late 1910s. Moreover, this implies how profoundly foreign input shaped exhibition in India for decades to come.

Taking a step back in time, it is probable that the vast majority of films shown in India around the 1900s would have been foreign imports from France, America, Britain, Germany, etc. What's more, much of the filmmaking done in the country in this period would have been conducted with or by Europeans. An example of this comes from the Warwick Trading Company (UK).


Not actually a Panorama of Calcutta, but Varanasi (which is an 11 hour train ride from Calcutta, so, quite far off), this was shot by a British filmmaker, possibly for exhibition in England, and is one of the oldest surviving films we have that was shot in India. These kind of shorts depicting India in such a way weren't too rare. They form a genre of street scene or actuality that we can describe as ethnographic or exotic. And so they would probably be shown across the Western world, depicting far off lands such as Japan, Egypt, various other places in Africa, the Canadian Arctic, India, etc. Early examples of these films, such as the one we have just seen, are rather benign. However, ethnographic pictures are so often tied to colonialism, and so, as they evolved, were marred by ethical issues concerning truthful representation that would project supremacist attitudes and racist perceptions. It is obvious why we then wouldn't really consider Panorama of Calcutta to be the first Indian film.

Though the majority of films shown in India during this time were foreign, there were active Indian filmmakers present and working. H. S. Bhatavdekar is said to be the first Indian filmmaker. He went by the name Save Dada and was a professional photographer. Having seen an initial Lumière screening Save Dada imported equipment and a camera, and later a projector, from London. He would use the equipment to shoot what is considered the first Indian film, Wrestlers, in 1899 (some sources suggest that this was shot in 1896, but the majority say 1899). Unfortunately, we cannot see this as it is a lost film.


Save Dada would go on to shoot other similar scenes, such as Man and His Monkeys (1899), process them in London, before exhibiting his collection along with imported films as part of a larger show. In the following years, Dada would capture politicians on film as well as the Delhi Durbar of Lord Curzon in 1903:


Save Dada seemingly operated much like most filmmakers during this time. His initial wrestling film would then remind us of the Skladanowsky's first efforts...


... and his streets scenes are, of course, actualities that would be incredibly common. We are then in the very familiar cinema of attractions era again. But, for India, this era is a complete blur. There might have been a selection of filmmakers experimenting with street scenes and popping up to photograph and record significant events, but we cannot know for sure, and little remains as evidence today. The landscape of Indian silent cinema as we know it remains pretty still until the late 1910s and 20s. But, there are a few significant names that follow on from Save Dada and precede this later era.


Hiralal Sen was a relatively prolific filmmaker who worked between 1898 and 1913, creating over 40 films. His film, Dancing Scenes From The Flower Of Persia is dated (by the Indiancine.ma) to the year 1898. That would suggest that he is the very first Indian filmmaker, not Save Dada. However, no book I have come across suggests this. Many mention an illusive 'Professor Stevenson' who is said to have been one of the first to screen films in India. It is said that Hiralal Sen borrowed a camera from Stevenson and shot his Dance Scene in Calcutta, but, this detail is not in any of the books I have read. The reason for this seems to be that Hiralal was using a European's camera and/or was born in Dhaka, the capital of present-day Bangladesh. Bangladesh wasn't formed in 1898, but, Hirala is nonetheless considered a Bangladeshi filmmaker, not an Indian one.

Indian or Bangladeshi, Hiralal Sen would go on to found one of the very first production companies in India, the Royal Bioscope Company, with his brother around the turn of the century. This company is notable because they not only made actualities and filmed stage performances, but also shot advertisements and political films. They would have been some of the first to have done this, apparently capturing the footage of the swadeshi movement in 1905. Little is known about these films and this filmmaker, however, because all of his films went up in flames in 1917.


Another figure active in this time was Dadasaheb Torne, who is and isn't credited with making the first feature-length Indian film. In 1912, seemingly following in the footsteps of Hiralal Sen, he shot a stage play: Shree Pundalik. Having shot 22 minutes of the play, this is considered by some to be the first feature-length narrative film from India. Many of you may be shaking your head, however, not only because this was only 22 minutes long, but because it was a recording of a play, not a cinematic production of its own. What's more, this had British cinematographers in the crew, so the identification of 'Indian' is also debatable.


With yet another Dadasaheb (likely a popular first name, one meaning Honour To Grandfather), this time Dadasaheb Phalke, we find one of the first definitive points in early Indian cinema. Phalke is called the 'Father of Indian Film', and it is his first picture - which is also said to be the first feature-length Indian film - that, arguably, marks the birth of Indian cinema. This film, Raja Harishchandra, is our main subject for today.


Phalke's interest with imagery is marked by one of his earliest moves in his career: photography. After his wife and child died during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the late 1800s, Phalke moved away from photography and onto various other jobs. He made his money through the printing press. The business was troubling for Phalke. But, his life was completely changed by one night. Saraswatibhai Phalke, Dadasaheb's wife and collaborator, has described this night thusly:

We both went to see the 'cinema' in an illuminated tent on Sanhurst Road, where a band was playing. It was called America-India Cinematograph. The first-class tickets were priced at eight annas. It was Christmas 1911 and the hall was crowded with Christians and Europeans. The lights were then switched off and there appeared the picture of a cock moving on the screen. [e.g:]


This was the trade mark of the Pathé Company. Then, a comic picture started, featuring an actor called Foolshead. [André Deed, e.g:]


After every part of the film the lights were switched on and stage items of magic, or physical feats, were performed. The main picture that day was The Life of Christ. [Which version is unclear. An example from 1903:]


People were weeping on seeing the sufferings of Christ and the crucifixion. The film was coloured in Kinemacolour process. On the way back, Dadasaheb said, 'Like the Life of Christ, we shall make pictures about Rama and Krishna.' I was not at all happy to hear that and kept quiet.

What seems to have motivated Phalke was a sense of split identity that many well-off Indians under the British Raj might have experienced.


This still of Phalke is taken from the 1917 picture, How Films Are Made. This would have been a very early example of a 'making of' or 'behind the scenes' film that Phalke would have made, in the Griffith-esque way, to sell himself as the founder and the father of Indian cinema. In 1928 at the Indian Cinematograph Committee Phalke famously agreed; 'Yes, I began the Indian film industry in 1912.'

What this picture of Phalke portrays is how heavily influenced he, like other upper-class Indians, was by the British and Western world. He thus sits in what looks like a Western home, with Western decor, wearing Western clothes, holding film, a Western invention. Picking up on this is not a means of speaking down upon Phalke. There is merely a conflict in Phalke, his films and the cinema of India - especially in this period. Phalke was a British-Indian. He made mythological Hindi films after seeing a biblical epic. He helped build a national cinema that was overshadowed by American imports, that has come to be known as Bollywood. The irony and conflict is self-evident.

As contradictory as the phenomena of cinema around Phalke may appear to be, his films bear an identity that is unambiguously Indian. Why this is shall become clear as we move on, so let us now introduce his first film.


Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra) is a mythological film based on the legend of the same name that is recounted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are different versions of the legends surrounding Harishchandra. All involve a sage or deity who obliges the king to sacrifice something after interrupting, or failing to complete, a ceremony. In some versions, the king has to sacrifice his son. The son refuses to be sacrificed, however. Depending on which version you read, either the son or the king will find a replacement by paying a sage for his son. The son of the sage is ultimately saved from sacrifice by praying to deities. Another version of the tale does not involve the sacrifice of the king's son, instead, he is obliged to give up his kingdom and all of his material possessions, later his wife and son. And after this he even chooses to become a slave himself.


Phalke's film is a take on this version of the legend. The legend is, at face value, a seemingly nonsensical one. However, the core theme - which you will find throughout all Hindu mythology and religious practice - is sacrifice.

Hinduism is a religion very much unlike Islam or Christianity. The mythologies are similar in that the concept of sacrifice is emphasised, but, Hinduism is polytheistic - a key oppositional factor of Abarahamic religions, which only have one god. What's more, Hinduism doesn't have one central text, nor does it have an official scripture. This is what makes the religion so complex. Hinduism is a dharma. This has no literal translation to English, but it essentially means the right way of living. Hinduism is then best thought of as a way of life before all else. However, there are stories sourced in the Vedas and Upanishads, also in the Pashads, that form a core Hindu literature or philosophy that informs the Hindu conception of dharma. There are also epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata that do this, too. Whilst these texts all perpetuate the Hindu philosophy, they are a hugely complex representation of the religion.


One of the major tenants of Hinduism is samsara, a cycle of life, death and rebirth. This is represented Brahman, the universal, truthful essence and the cause of everything, and the three major deities, the Trimurti. Brahma, the creator (re/birth), Shiva, the destroyer (death), and Vishnu, the preserver (life), are seen as forces of the universe that are in constant flux. They manifest on Earth in many different forms, for example, Krishna is the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Their stories map out a plethora of answers to the question: How do you live your life? And this is such an important question precisely because life is thought of as a continuous cycle. Thus, karma comes into play. Karma means, in essence, action. Actions can be good or bad, and their consequences do not disappear. Good actions make for a better life. Bad actions make for a worse life. A bad life can simultaneously be the consequence of bad actions in previous lives. The same is true of a good life; it may be the result of good actions in other lives. From this, the Hindu caste system is derived. Your caste (there are 4 major castes) implies how both you now and you in your previous lives have or have not performed good actions.

Hindu literature works with samsara as an overshadowing concept. This is true for Raja Harishchandra. The core themes of the story are, unambiguously so, suffering and sacrifice. The reason for the king's suffering is not literalised. However, in certain versions of the text, the king accesses memories of his past life and realises all of the bad actions he has performed. By giving up all that he has, living a life of asceticism and pure duty, the king is paying retribution for his past sins and paving a path towards heaven. This story is then a commentary on the pinnacle of society - a great king - being fallible and susceptible to the tests of the universe which, whilst it created him and preserves him, also wants to destroy the evil within him. To transcend his current plane of being in this life, to achieve oneness with Brahman or the universe, to break the cycle of samsara (moksha), the king must lose everything he has and still remain a good Hindu.

Christians could compare the story of Raja Harishchandra to the story of Christ - which, we must remember, is the story that inspired Phalke to make his first film. Christ was the apex of goodness in man, and yet he suffered and died on the cross. In remaining faithful to his father as he died, Christ was reborn and moved into the plane of the transcendent; the abstract realm of the father, the son and the holy ghost. Here we are seeing similar sentiments (with some fundamental differences) projected. The ultimate good must be met with ultimate tragedy if it is to transcend itself and be a beacon of being for the generations to come. Such is the story of Christ and Raja Harishchandra.

We have delved so deep into this story before looking at the film because, unfortunately, what survives of Raja Harishchandra is pretty incomprehensible. With only 11 minutes of a 40+ minute film surviving, it will be hard to make out a basic plot let alone find coherent meaning in it. Nonetheless, this story and meaning was present when Phalke first made the film and it would have been the quality that drew so many Indians to it. Let us then take a look at the film:


What you have just seen is, most probably, not the 1913 version of Raja Harishchandra. Instead, the footage here is probably taken from a print of the 1917 remake, produced by Madan (who we will return to) and made by Phalke and his family. And in mentioning family, let is also be noted that the Phalke family was one of the very first 'film clans'.

Entire families participating in making films is not a significant part of Hollywood film culture, instead you could argue that (temporary) celebrity relationships always have been. That said, there are certainly many figures in the American film industry that are essentially fathered in. In other regions in the world, Spain for example, this is more prevalent. Indian cinema, however, has this concept embedded deeply in it with some of the most famous filmmaking families being the Kapoors, Chopras, Bachans and Khans. With the Kapoors and Chopras, we have some of the oldest families who have a lineage that goes all the way back to the 1900s and 1910s. The Phalkes don't have a long lineage of filmmakers. But, they are one of the early film clans. And it is in recognising this that we come back to cinema and swadeshi.

Phalke, his family and his friends made and produced films on his estates with very few outsiders. He built a minor economy around himself and has said that 'My films are swadeshi'. Phalke meant this 'in the sense that their capital, ownership, employees and stories are swadeshi.'


The cinema of Phalke developed alongside the industry that Jamshedji Framji Madan built. Madan was one of the very first movie moguls in India. It was anticipated around the 1900s that the Parsis - which Madan was - would be the ones to build an Indian movie industry. The Persians collaborated with the British in trade since they first landed in India, and thus they played a significant role in industrial development and even the popularisation of cricket. Madan's family, however, weren't in the best shape in the latter half of the 1800s due to the failing of a bank system. Madan had to make money for himself through theatre. He would also be a supplier in WWI, would sell liquor, real estate, food, pharmaceuticals, ect. Madan is nonetheless known for his transition from theatre into film exhibition and production before and after WWI.

Madan probably wouldn't be considered swadeshi as an Officer and Commander for the British Empire. But, the Madans, as Mihir Bose describes, 'were like a giant banyan tree...[under which] others could grow.' So, whist Madan set the foundations for a cinematic infrastructure that would allow for other Indians to make films in the 20s, Phalke paved the way as one of the first major filmmakers. After all, Madan's cinemas were built on, and largely showed, foreign imports. Phalke made distinctly Indian films that he claimed were swadeshi in nature, and so were nationalistic.

The nationalism, the distinctly Indian essence, of Phalke's cinema is of course in its telling of Hindu mythology. We have seen this in Raja Harishchandra, but can also see it in films such as Lanka Dahan, The Birth of Shree Krishna and Kaliya Mardan. These films speak to, on one level, the Italian epic peplums that we covered previously for the way in which they project nationalism through a culture's history. However, though Hindu nationalism has proved very troubling as it is linked to partition and the ongoing conflict between Muslims and Hindus, Italian and Indian political history needn't be compared for us to see the two nations using cinema in a similar manner. The rather simple roots of Phalke's mythological cinema are in the unification of people under narrative. What makes his cinema so significant is that it was an early force that saw Indian cinema integrate with Indian culture, and thus Phalke's cinema is a building block of modern-day Indian filmmaking, which is arguably not just a means of building a national identity, but is itself a part of national identity.

It turns out, then, that Madan helped build the skeleton of Indian cinema whilst Phalke was one of the first to breath into it spirit. In doing this, Phalke didn't just put the Gods on the screen, but he experimented with trick photography to do just so, made films with multi-lingual subtitles and also confronted social customs in an attempt to legitimise cinema. Phalke's confrontation of social norms wasn't just based in him picking up a European invention and using it for Indians, but was also based on who he put on the screen.

In early Indian cinema, Indian women very rarely were on the screen. Some of the biggest female stars of the time were Jewish Anglo-Indians such as Seeta Devi (born Renee Smith).


Phalke would quickly discover why this was to be the case when trying to cast roles for Raja Harishchandra in 1913. Phalke wanted a female to play the king's wife. He asked women he knew and they all turned him down. He would ask prostitutes, and they too would turn him down. The few that considered being in the movies wanted far more money than Phalke could pay them - or were 'too ugly'. One time, Phalke thought he had an actress, but she brought him to her mother, who supposedly would only allow her to act for the camera if Phalke married her. That wasn't going to happen.

Most Indian women simply weren't ready to accept the risks of appearing on screen and facing ridicule - all because women contributing to the arts was taboo. This remained so for much of the silent era. As a result, one of the recurring stars of Phalke's films was Anna Salunke.


Salunke is in both the original Raja Harishchandra as well as Lanka Dahan. In Raja Harishchandra, he plays alongside a troop of male actors who also play females that had to prepare for filming by taking on female domestic roles in Phalke's home. And in Lanka Dahan, Salunke plays both Rama and Sita, meaning he was one of the very first actors to play a double role in Indian cinema.


Breaking this custom, seeing the practice of filmmaking as a legitimate one for his whole family, Phalke would have his daughter, Mandakini, star as Krishna in both Kaliya Mardan and The Birth of Krishna. And this was not the first time he put a woman on the screen as, in 1913, he stared Durgabai Kamat in Mohini Bhasmasur, India's (lost) second feature-length film.

The final element of Phalke's cinema that we will end on concerns the British's reaction to his (and others') mythological narratives. In 1876, the British passed the Dramatic Performances Act, which would be used to censor anything they saw to be socially disruptive in art and drama. In 1918 the British also passed The Cinematograph Act and in 1927 they set up the Indian Cinematograph Committee. Among other things, these acts and entities were there to monitor the content of Indian films and so they were used to cut out any messages that they saw to be immoral. The Cinematograph Committee were also put in place to bolster the presence of British film, but, as we alluded to early on, this never worked out. Mythological films and depictions of religion would be looked upon with heavy scrutiny by the British, and all because they saw them to be swadeshi, and so a threat to the Empire.

The British could do little to stop Indian cinema inheriting culture, and they could also do little to prevent Indians making money with cinema in their own country (the exportation of Indian film is a different story). Phalke was one of the first to set down this genre of cinema, and it is considered to have been the dominant genre until deep into the 1940s when India gained independence and Indian cinema radically changed. There is, nonetheless, much to be said for the power that Indian cinema had in those first decades that allowed it to remain popular and prevalent whilst foreign films, literally, flooded the market and censorship reigned. In fact, much of what Indian cinema is--much of what makes it so brilliant and unique-- revolves entirely around censorship - even in the modern day. Alas, a subject for another time.

As India moved into the 1920s, countless production companies sprouted, the mythological film strengthened, styles evolved and the industry grew, building the infrastructure and setting the creative foundations of the Golden Age of Bollywood. The 30s, of course, saw much change as India adopted the talkie. And though the early years would be forgotten all too soon, 99% of all prints lost entirely, their mark remained.

That more or less concludes our look at the emergence of Indian cinema. If you found this subject intriguing, I recommend watching more silent Indian films at indiancine.ma. I also recommend some follow-up reading. The books Indian Cinema: A Very Short Introduction by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Bollywood: A History by Mihir Bose and Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen were my main sources of research. Knowing the historical context is also quite key, and a good place to start there would be the 2012 BBC documentary Empire. That said, I hope you enjoyed today's entry of the Every Year Series and are looking forward to the next.

< Previous     post in the series     Next >







Previous post:

End Of The Week Shorts #47

Next post:

The Terror And The Time - Poetry & Politics

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielslack

No comments: