The beginnings of Indian cinema

The year is 1896; the place is Mumbai. The weather is searing hot, yet people struggle to cram themselves into a room at The Watson Hotel.

Here, six films are being shown by The Lumiere brothers (French cinematographers) and the audience are astounded. Never before have they seen, or had the chance to see, moving images in any form. Never before have they seen anything other than still art, whether this be painting, picture postcards or illustration. In fact, such is their obliviousness to film that when the screen in front of them shows moving trains, audience members literally jump out of their seats. They are unable to grasp such a phenomenon.

This moment inside The Watson Hotel started something. It created inspiration and imagination. It started the incentive for the conception of moving films in India. Now more than 100 years old, Indian Cinema is one of the oldest in the world – and continues in indomitable strength today.

That it is just-over-a-century old is not entirely accurate, however. This figure comes from the release of the feature film Raja Harishchandra on 3rd May 1913, but this was not technically the first Indian-made film. Others were said to have been made in the years just prior to this, but unfortunately are not in existence today.

This loss of evidence represents one of the greatest tragedies of Indian Cinema. Out of more than 1300 films, barely 20 survive today. And because the reasons behind this loss are mundane factors like climate (the volatile material of film struggles to survive many years in humidity) and the economy (the expense of having to pay to store), the tragedy is even worse. The loss of such content and art is extensive – irreplaceable.

So, the evidence available is what historians go by. Raja Harishchandra, the film from 1913, was one of Dadasaheb Phalke’s – often called “the father of Indian Cinema”. His motive was “to make Indian films for the Indian market” – regardless of  obstacles or challenges. He wanted to create Indian film, pure and simple. The irony is, however, that when he died in 1944, he was living in complete poverty. At whatever cost, he followed his passion.

The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, created in his name, is India’s highest award in cinema. The Government of India awards it annually to a person who has made a lifetime contribution to Indian cinema. However, what is so fascinating about the award is this: in a country whose views are often far-rooted in tradition and male-dominated, the first recipient was Devika Rani – an early Indian female film star. (Rani is noted for starring in Karma in 1933; a film known for having the longest kissing scene in cinema, lasting four minutes.) The Light of Asia is also a noted film; created by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai in 1925, the film was of Indo-Germanic production.

In short, Indian Cinema is much more than just Bollywood – as the West, perhaps, believes. It is instead a construction of various styles, stories and techniques; a film culture so full and engaged in its history, but able to remain contemporary, that it is little wonder (and just recognition) that it finds itself celebrating such a long life.


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