From Gods to Matinee Idols – Story of India’s First Feature

Thank you so much to Fritzi, Aurora and Ruth for hosting the Classic Movie History Blogathon. This was fun, and hopefully they will host it again. Go check the link, there are many interesting blogposts there on the Silent Era movies! I know I will!

It is not a wonder that the movie-making industry in India took off as soon as the concept of filming was introduced. We love stories! India has a long tradition of keeping stories alive through the Written Narratives and the Oral Culture that predates it. The learned as well as the regular folks everyone knew their stories. And if there was a chance to put it a magic box and reproduce it time and after time, who would say no?


Traditional Kathakali performance of the Epics

But in a country that is decidedly different, the themes of the movies may be predictable but the journey of film-making is very interesting, to say the least.

The Lumiere Brothers had their first show in London in 1895, and a year later in India in erstwhile Bombay. Almost immediately there was a burst in trend of making reels. Enthusiastic photographers from all over India experimented with this new concept of “pictures in motion”. But it was mere chronicling of events, the vision to use filmmaking for storytelling was acquired more than a decade later.

Dadasaheb Phalke: the man who made the first Indian movie and almost went blind for it.

Dadasaheb_PhalkeA full length film called “Shree Pundalik” was first made in 1912 by a person called Dadasaheb Torne but it was not qualified as a feature film as it was a mere recording of a play. The credit for making the first Indian feature film goes to Dadasaheb Phalke.

He must have been too odd a person for the Indian society, where the institution of family was too sacred and a man had to be a breadwinner. Phalke dabbled in different businesses, (amongst them, printing and photography, none of which took off,) before he discovered his love for cinema, all the while his family’s finances ruined due to these varied fascinations.

When he finally saw his first movie (Resurrection of Christ) it must have seemed like he found his destiny. He worked at the various places where they were showcasing the new concept of cinema, learning the craft from the British reelmakers. He would sit at the theatres even after everyone had left and spent so much time looking at each and every frame, that he almost went blind.

Once he learned the craft he didn’t dabble into the reels, unlike his contemporaries, his instinct was to make a feature film. He was so determined that he sold most of his belongings and went to London to get trained and buy the equipments. It was certainly an audacious act in a colonial India for a middle class person to attempt such a venture.

Epic Win! Family Comes to Rescue


Once he had trained and acquired his film-making equipments, Phalke’s next challenge was to train people to make his first movie. The thing is, there were many British and Indian film makers, and there were foreign collaborators that were making big budget movies outside India already, but considering Phalke’s budget, he was better off training people himself rather than hiring them.

Literally, his family members, including his kids were involved in all parts of film-making. Phalke started working on the script for Raja Harishchandra as soon as he was back from London. He set up a studio, sets were designed by extended family members or friends. Costumes were locally bought and stitched at home. Despite all these challenges the movie’s schedule from start to finish is less than eight months. And yet when the film was finally ready there is thorough professionalism, and intense hard work, and no suggestion of any stopgap arrangements.

Casting the actresses

This may have resulted in modern folks thinking women were not that beautiful back in the day!

This may have resulted in modern folks thinking women were not that beautiful back in the day!

Perhaps even Phalke did not anticipate this but he could not get a single woman to work in his movie. He even went to prostitutes who got very upset at his audacity to cast them in a movie that could be seen by thousands of people. Ultimately, he had to cast men to act the female roles.

A Media Plan Worthy of a Big Corporate

publicity poster raja harishchandraOne of the reasons Indian film industry grew so popular was because the seeds for publicity were laid with the first film itself. Phalke distributed a lot of promotional material for the film. They were distributed on trains and buses. Films being a novelty were costly and were attended by an elite audience in plush theatres. Phalke changed it, he sold tickets cheap and pulled in the crowds. The theme being a tale from Indian mythologies, it had an instant connect with audience. But the work did not influence just the Indian crowd, the movie was shown in London the following year and had a decent enough run, for the studios there to propose Phalke to set his base in London.

That is how Phalke Brought God To The Masses

What Phalke (and the artist Raja Ravi Verma,) inadvertently did was start a social revolution. They brought the Gods to the masses. See till this point, the upper castes were the only people who had access to the God. Idol/Image worship was strictly not allowed. So, these movies where people could see the Gods acting out their stories, were nothing less than a miracle. People understood the concept of acting and filming, but the fact that someone could essay the roles of these Gods was what made the screen Gods into idols. The actors in this movie, and those in other mythologicals were very popular, although they may not have made much money.

Influence on the Modern Movies

Even if one doesn’t know anything about India, they know that Bollywood is India’s film industry. Phalke was instrumental in making Bombay, the capital of India’s film industry. He was inspiration to new and indie filmmakers, that a person with a vision can make success out of it. The many elements introduced by Phalke continue to influence the movie industry. For instance, the movies may have gotten bigger, sets may have become more extravagant, and they may not make mythologies anymore, but any business minded producer knows that “culture” will ensure a good deal of profit when played well!

Film Preservation and Archiving – the India Story

filmheritage-logoThis post is for the Film Preservation Blogathon by Ferdie on Films. There are so many interesting entries, not surprising, since any film enthusiast would be eager to explore this gold.

We are only becoming aware of cinema as a legacy. Fortunately, Film Heritage Foundation, India, and its people, have been working tireless to preserve our legacy of films. We let you know more about their work through their own words. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Director of FHF, was kind enough to give us a sneak into the Foundation’s work.

Q) What inspired you to start this foundation?

A) In a sense, I have been an archivist and collector since I was a child. It may have started with the conventional route of stamps and coins, but cinema has always been a passion. I am also an avid diarist – a habit that started from my school days when I used to make copious notes about films that I had seen including details of the cast and crew. Besides, being a student of history and coming from a family with a long lineage, I think the establishment of a foundation to preserve and restore India’s cinematic heritage was a natural progression of events in my life. However, the person who inspired me to start Film Heritage Foundation was Martin Scorsese who is one of the greatest evangelists for the cause of film preservation and whose organizations the Film Foundation and the World Cinema Project have restored over 600 films since their inception. Many of these films have been neglected gems that would have been forgotten and lost forever if not for the fantastic work done by these two organizations.

The other inspiration was Gianluca Farinelli (who has been referred to as the pope of restoration). I had read an interview in 2010 where Martin Scorsese talked about a festival of restored films called “Il Cinema Ritrovato” conducted by Cineteca di Bologna helmed by Gianluca Farinelli  and the fabulous restorations being done at the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab there. My interest was piqued and I decided to go for the festival and see for myself what he was talking about. That was really a turning point for me. I discovered a Mecca for film archivists and cinephiles where you immersed yourself watching beautifully restored gems of cinema for a week. I have been going back every year since. Interacting with archivists, film historians and cinephiles from all over the world, I soon realized that our country was lagging far behind. It was Jaya Bachchan who suggested that I started my own foundation  to preserve India’s cinematic legacy.

As a first step, to draw attention to the precarious condition of India’s classic films, our foundation curated an Indian retrospective, their first, at Il Cinema Ritrovato last year – “The Golden ‘50s: India’s Endangered Classics.” In February this year, Cineteca di Bologna. L’Immagine Ritrovata, the Film Foundation and FIAF collaborated with us in a pioneering educational initiative – India’s first Film Preservation and Restoration School India 2015. Recently, I was invited to be a member of the Il Cinema Ritrovato Artistic Committee and I hope to use this platform to highlight India’s rich and diverse film patrimony and the urgent need to save it for posterity.

fhf 1

Q) What are the challenges of running this project in a country like India, where movies are not necessarily viewed as heritage (compared to literature or Arts,) but merely as mass entertainment media? 

A) India is a cinema-loving nation that has the most prolific and diverse film industry in the world. Yet the government, the film industry and the public at large view film as a medium of mass entertainment. The government’s engagement with the film industry is restricted to taxation and censorship and the film industry focuses on the business of filmmaking and the box office. The fact is that every kind of film is an important visual document of its time and the result of a creative process, but unfortunately there are very 

few, including the film industry, who subscribe to this idea.  When filmmakers and producers themselves do not respect their creations or care about their works being preserved for posterity, we are fighting an uphill battle.

India does not have a culture of preservation. We often speak about our ancient civilization and culture, but we have always had a cavalier attitude to its preservation and restoration. When people are fighting for the preservation of monuments, music, dance and art forms that are centuries old, saving our cinematic heritage, just over a hundred years old, does not even rank as a cause in most people’s opinion. But there is no taking away from the fact that cinema is an amalgamation of all these art forms and is an art form itself that has a fragile existence.

There is a general lack of awareness about the need to preserve films on celluloid and the challenges of archiving films on digital formats.  There is a common misconception that if a film is available on Youtube, dvds or even beta tapes, that it is equivalent to preservation. In this scenario, getting the support of the government, industry stakeholders and the public at large both in terms of funding and otherwise can be difficult. But we have made a start and we are working on creating a movement  to save our cinematic heritage.

 Q) The FH foundation has received support from Martin Scorcese, how has that helped the foundation?

A) Just the fact that a filmmaker of Mr. Scorsese’s stature has endorsed Film Heritage Foundation by collaborating on the Film Preservation and Restoration School India 2015, gave our very young foundation credibility and help put us on the map internationally. Locally too it helped to generate interest both with the press and the film industry and started them thinking about preserving and restoring our films.

 Q) Your first movie, Celluloid Man, is about India’s pioneering film archivist? Did the film attract you in this direction or did your natural interest in film archiving inspire the movie?

A) After my first trip to Bologna, I was curious to see where we were as far as the preservation of our cinema was concerned. I visited the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) –our only film archive that had been built singlehandedly by Mr. Nair during his tenure of almost three decades. I was deeply saddened to see that clearly since Mr. Nair’s retirement the NFAI had fallen off the map as far as the government was concerned and that films were being kept in conditions that were far from ideal. On the same trip, I discovered that Mr. Nair was still living in Pune, across the road from the NFAI.  I wanted to tell the story of the extraordinary life’ work and passion of Mr. Nair without whom Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema and other early pioneers and greats, would probably have been just footnotes in history books, with none of their films surviving to be seen by future generations. That was how the idea of “Celluloid Man” was born. The making of the film was a journey, one on which I discovered the colossal loss of our moving image heritage. My film became a tribute to India’s wonderfully rich film history and to the man who saved it, but it also mourned the irretrievable loss of thousands of films thanks to our attitude to cinema as a commercial industry and not an integral part of our social and cultural heritage.

Q) Have you discovered a gem/s that even you were not aware about, that you want classic film enthusiasts to watch?

Recently, a friend came to my office and handed over the last surviving reel of the first Konkani film “Mogacho Aunddo” that was believed to be lost. The reel was in very poor condition, but we have sent it to the lab in Bologna to see what can be salvaged. We are awaiting the update from the lab, but have also put the word out to see if we can find any further surviving material. It is discoveries like these that give us heart that maybe many more films presumed to be lost will turn up one day.

Q) How much of the legacy have we managed to preserve?

A) That is a difficult question to answer. Sadly, it’s easier to tell you how much we have lost. India made 1700 silent films of which only 5 – 6 complete films survive today.  By 1950 we had lost 70 – 80% of our films including India’s first talkie “Alam Ara”. Even though India celebrated 100 years of cinema in 2013 the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) can boast just about 6000 Indian film titles in their collection. Prints of films as recent as “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak” (1988), “Khamoshi” (1996) and “Black Friday” (2004) cannot be found.  

Q) What are the steps you have taken to educate the general masses about this legacy?

A) To begin with, I have made several presentations and given lectures about our vanishing cinematic legacy all over India and even internationally at film schools, film festivals and museums.  Film Heritage Foundation’s work has also been very well covered by the press both in India and overseas. 

The Film Preservation and Restoration School India 2015 while targeted at the students who participated in the workshop also was an exercise in creating awareness about the importance and urgency of preserving our film heritage.

Film Heritage Foundation also launched our first publication “From Darkness Into Light: Perspectives on Film Preservation and Restoration” edited by Rajesh Devraj, which is also India’s first book on the subject. The book contains articles by Martin Scorsese on the language of cinema, the restoration of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, essays by leading international archivists and film historians as well as Film Heritage Foundation’s list of India’s 60 most endangered films that are in urgent need of restoration.

We also have plans for several educational outreach programs in the pipeline that will educate people about our rich and diverse film history with the idea of rekindling an interest in the classics. 

Q) How can the public support this initiative?

A)As a foundation, we are always looking for passionate, committed people who would like to work with us or volunteer their services to help us build this movement. We need people to help us raise funds and get grants for our various programs and projects, to spread the word and attend any programs, lectures or festivals that we organize to learn more about our film heritage. People can also support us by contributing funds to the foundation. Details are available on our website. 

Q) What is the message you would like to give to classic film enthusiasts?

A)This would be a message for all film lovers and members of the film industry. Make your cinema your own and respect it for the art it is. Don’t be satisfied with poor quality DVD and Youtube uploads.  They are a very poor representation of the original maker’s intent and creation. We continue to remix and remake our classics; we still draw inspiration from them; realize that those that came before have made you what you are and pay tribute to them by saving films, both present and past, for future generations. Today’s film could be tomorrow’s classic.