Beginning of the dream world...

Indian cinema

Nineteenth century was about to end. India was still a part of the British Empire. Mumbai (Bombay in those days) was an important city then too. The city, and India, witnessed a new marvel. Life-like moving pictures could be seen on screen. The date was July 7, 1896.

The first show of ‘cinema’ was held in India. And the place was a hotel in Bombay. Lumiere Brothers’ moving pictures were presented to the Indian audience — perhaps a selective one, at the Watson Hotel. It is a very important date in the history of Indian culture, particularly popular culture.

The show was well advertised and well attended too. Lumiere’s short films were shown at the Watson Hotel and at a theatre called Novelty. (Theatres in that period were not meant for cinema as it was unheard of. Theatres for plays used to turn into cinema houses.)

The programme ran till August 15, 1896 to packed houses. The lowest admission ticket was four annas (fourth part of a rupee) for gallery and as high as two rupees for the upper class or ‘orchestra’.

This short programme left Indians asking for more. From January 4, 1897, films from the UK and America started flowing in. Enterprising Indian minds were quickly attracted to this new ‘technological discovery’. Efforts began to create such shorts. H S Bhatavadekar from Maharashtra imported a camera from Britain and filmed two shorts and those films were shown in 1899. Similar efforts were made by F B Thanawalla from Mumbai and Hiralal Sen from Calcutta.

Of course, short films (early documentaries?) were not enough for talented Indian artists. They were trying to make a film to tell a story. R G Torne (some write his family name as Torane or Torney) was an enterprising person. Though he was serving in a private company and was not in a creative field, he still was very much interested in ‘moving images.’

He made his first attempt at making a dramatic film. With the help of his friend N G Chitre, he brought raw film, camera and cameraman from the local branch of a British company called Bourne & Shepherd. Torne was associated with an amateur drama club. The club performed the life story of Pundlik (a saint from Maharashtra in the middle ages), which was shot to make a film. It is said that the film was processed in the UK.

The film opened on May 18, 1912 (in today’s term, it was ‘released’ on that day), at Coronation Cinematograph. The theatre was owned by Torne’s friends and aides, Tipnis and Chitre. Though it was a part of the ‘double bill’ show, it soon became the main fare. The film ran for two weeks. The local leading newspaper took note of the film. There were two reasons for the success of the film. One, people could relate to the film’s story easily, and another, it was an indigenous production. Due to this, some film historians tend to label this film as the ‘first feature film of India’ because Phalke’s film came a year after.

Raja Harishchandra, made by Dadasaheb Phalke, is known as the first feature film of India. If one has to apply cinematic criterion, then Harishchandra clearly scores over Pundlik. Though Torne did attempt to make a feature film, Pundlik was seen as a ‘filmed’ play.

There are different versions about the director of the film. By popular belief, the credit goes to Torne, but no evidence is available. No one knows for sure as to who wrote it. It is said that Torne ‘cut’ and ‘rejoined’ the film to make it effective before the screening and thereby accidently discovered the art and craft of “film editing”. But there is no clear proof to validate the claim. No single photograph from the film is available, let alone the footage of the film.

In those days, a film with a running time of 30-40 minutes was considered a feature film. Raja Harishchandra was a little over 2,900 feet long (according to the censor certificate) and was a four reeler, while Pundlik was about half its length (about 1,500 feet long with a running time of 22 minutes). Besides its length, the content and style of the film are also very important. Phalke was trained at filmmaking in UK. He wrote the story for a film (now we call it a screenplay).

His equipments were Indian. He used locations, sets and different camera positions to shoot the film. He also edited it. Raja Harishchandra hit the screen at the very Coronation Theatre on May 3, 1913. Indian Cinema had arrived. Torne’s efforts are also imperative, but Phalke is unquestionably the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’.

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