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A silent foundation

Nikhil Gajendragadkar, Oct 28, 2012 :

Cinematic evolution

Indian Cinema, world over, is known for its music, dance and grandeur in general. In a way, films tend to give a false impression about reality in general. Films depict people’s aspirations — what an average person wants, or desires to have, in his life are shown on screen. The reel world is not the real world, however.

Silent start: A scene from Phalke’s ‘Raja Harishchandra’.Filmmakers in the early days of Indian cinema were aware of the environment they live in and the socio-political situation of the nation.

Films from the ‘silent era’ were rooted in Indian literature, popular beliefs and local music, and religious sentiments were carefully protected


Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913) heralded the dawn of Indian cinema and soon many silent feature films followed.

Now, very few films from that era are available, but we can say that many trends were introduced in the silent film period. They influenced people who watched these films and later dominated the film industry.

Mythological, devotional, historical, and folk were the major genres could seen in the early days of Indian cinema. Live musical accompaniment was an integral part of the show, which later became background music as technology advanced. There was no censor board to certify films, even though a censor code was introduced in 1918.

As per the code, the police commissioner of the city or the district magistrate could take action against films which posed a threat to public peace or made a direct attack on British rule. Public peace also included any speech or action which may provoke people against British officers or British rule in general. But on the whole, the British did not interfere much with filmmaking.

So, films with stories based on episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata, or on the lives of famous saints belonging to different regions, films based on the lives of historical heroes, warriors, prince and princesses were aplenty.

Films with stories depicting a tyrant king or nawab, or thakur, people’s revolt under the leadership of the protagonist, the fall of the tyrant and installation of a good ruler were in abundance. With such films, filmmakers expressed their anger and protest against the Raj.

Phalke used the theme of a righteous king in Raja Harishchandra. Many filmmakers from other parts of India repeated the story and a trend was set. But all were not patriotic; they wanted to cash in on the popular sentiment of freedom that was  prevalent at that time.

The silent period was the foundation on which this industry was built. Many trends were set, genres were born and redefined, and ‘myths’ were created. From 1912 to 1934, a total of 1,279 silent films were made.

The mass production of films was evident in India from the beginning. However, in this period, content was also experimented with, along with the art of filmmaking itself — be it camera, editing, or the story itself. And thus began the growth of the Indian cinema industry.

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