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Still from vintage Bollywood film

Vintage Cinema: Bollywood’s First Film Ever


Though what remain today are but fragments, Raja Harishchandra remains a hidden legend in world cinematography.

The cinema of India crosses into American cultural horizons like something from another planet. The ascendance and acceptance of the country’s a film market – and this, a country of a linguistic and geographical diversity like few others in the world – is added to a taste for the mixing of the ancient with the modern. This is then added into an entertainment culture with millions of supporters across South Asia. Since the 1970s, the film industry has been known as “Bollywood,” a combination of the names of Bombay (today’s Mumbai) with the American capital of cinema, Hollywood.

But the boom didn’t happen all on its own. Early movie enthusiasts like Dadasaheb Phalke were charged with creating some of the magic of the filmmaking being done in the United States and in Europe and with bringing it back to India. Phalke, still considered the father of cinema in India, began his career with a silent film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913.

The film emerged from two of the most important books in the Hindu tradition, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. Epic tales, they’re moral and spiritual guides in which the ancient gods meet and instruct people. In Phalke’s movie, Harishchandra, the king, promises an unreasonable sacrifice: his kingdom, his queen, his heirs, and everything he owns, to satisfy the gods. Being pleased, they restore everything sacrificed, and so the ending is a happy one.

Beyond being a classic tale, the odyssey of Harishchandra is similar to that of Phalke himself. Having become obsessed with the cinema some 10 years earlier, Phalke quit his job, left India and went to study film in London. Upon returning to India, Phalke and his wife cashed in their life insurance policies and sold everything they owned to finally produce Raja Harishchandra. That was just the beginning of his prolific career in movie making.

Phalke’s story perhaps recalls those of Orson Welles or Werner Herzog, who also embarked on film careers that involved both epic scales and Utopian premises. The sacrifices demonstrated by these three directors, over the course of their careers, were to be rewarded by the fact that they produced and brought their dreams to the big screen, with no compromise, and after suffering tremendous difficulties, only eventually to be handsomely rewarded.



*Image: Wikimedia Commons

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