Early & Silent Film

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Raja Harishchandra

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2013


The screening of this film on May 3rd 1913 at Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph is the centenary celebrated by Happy Birthday, Indian Cinema. This four-reel film is generally credited with being the first Indian feature. Actually there had been several non-fiction short films and several stage versions of theatrical plays: all now lost. But it was D. G. Phalke’s dramatising of a traditional Indian mythical tale in the new medium of cinema that provided a starting point for an Indian film Industry. In this sense Phalke is, like the Lumière Brothers, not the first but the key innovator.

As with so much of India’s early film heritage the film survives only in a truncated form. It was originally 3700 feet in length, now only 1475 feet survive. These consist of the opening reel and most of the final reel. What remains provides the basic outline of the plot. The film opens with King Harishchandra and his children shooting arrows. He deals with a petition from his subjects. He then goes on a hunt in the forest. He hears the cries of women. These are the furies. His investigation leads him to the hut of a sage living in the forest. Having intruded in the space of the sage the king has to undertake a penance. This is to surrender his kingdom to the sage. Returning to his palace the king breaks the news to his wife and children. Later he is sent from the palace, to the consternation of his subjects. The king and his family now have to reside in the hut in the forest.

In the final reel the wife is falsely accused of murder. A court finds her guilty and the king is forced to carry out the sentence of beheading. At this point the god Shiva appears, prevents the execution and also cures the king’s sick son. Having proved his virtue the king is restored to his kingdom and returns to his place to the rejoicing of the people. The surviving print runs out just before the end.

The film’s story is taken from the great epic Mahabharata and was an established tale in theatrical adaptations. Phalke was consciously taking a popular cultural story of India and translating it to the new and increasingly popular medium. As elsewhere the new entertainment medium [Cinematograph, Vitagraph, Bioscope,…] spread quickly. A Lumière operator had presented India’s first screening in Bombay on July 7th 1896. Exhibitors and distributors developed and soon urban centres had their own picture houses and rural areas ‘travelling picture show men’. Nearly all the screened material was imported, mainly from Europe still the centre of the new industry, but also from the rapidly developing US industry. Apparently two early successes were Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage de la Lune, (1902) and Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Phalke himself had some experience of engraving and photography. In 1910 or 1911 he saw an imported film The Life of Christ. This was an event that sparked his interest in bringing Indian stories and myths to the screen. In fact he made a short trick film, Growth of a Pea Plant. Then he journeyed to England to master the techniques of the new medium. He visited and learnt from one of England’s most important filmmaker, Cecil Hepworth. He also purchased a Williamson camera and Kodak film. With these he returned to India to make his mark.

The film shows the influence of the early western film style. Phalke uses standard black and white film.  Many of the shots are set like a tableaux. The performances and action are set within a proscenium just as in a theatre. Off-screen space appears equivalent to off-stage space in a theatre. Even the melodrama seems familiar: in the final reel the Queen finds a corpse and picks up the knife that committed the murder just as guards enter and arrest her for the crime. However, this is one distinctive feature as all the female characters are played by men. At this early stage, as in theatre, it was not considered a respectable activity for women. Indeed the first Lumière screening had provided separate seating for the two sexes.

But the characters, plot, and importantly the moral lessons of the drama are essentially Indian. The English speaking elite took little notice but the film immediately won over the popular urban and rural audiences. Phalke organised his own travelling film shows. And in 1917 he made a new version of the film. He continued making popular feature films, mainly with traditional Indian subjects, right through the Silent era. He is considered the ‘Father of Indian Film’ and still today in ‘Bollywood’ and other regional cinemas the sort of stories he adapted remain immensely popular.

Unfortunately the Indian National Film Archive has very limited resources. So the screening in the Bradford International Film Festival used a copy on Blu-Ray. This was a straight copy, which on film runs at 16 fps. On Blu-Ray at 24 fps it was running too fast, but the difference was not too bad: [a running time of 16 minutes instead of 22 minutes]. Rather more unfortunate the copy was cropped on one side, which was especially noticeable in the English language titles, [the film has English and Hindi titles]. The surviving film was screened at the 13th Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1994. In fact just about the whole surviving corpus of Indian Silent films was presented then: a real privilege.

Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934, edited by Suresh Chabria for the Festival has a listing of all the films produced in this period: nearly all now lost.


2 Responses to “Raja Harishchandra

  1. […] up the first production company with its own studio, Phalke Films, in Bombay. In 1913 he released Raja Harischandra: the surviving print runs for 23 minutes at 16 fps with titles in Hindi and English. The original […]

  2. […] Source: wordpress […]

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