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The Birth of the Indian Film Industry By Salim Arif (Part 1)

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It was the 7th of July 1896 at Watson Hotel in Esplanade Mansion of the museum area of Bombay that the first moving images were projected or shown in India. It was the third such event in the world after the first projection of Lumiere’s International debut in Paris on 28th December 1895 and Edison Vitascope show at New York City on 23rd April 1896. It was a show comprising short films brought by touring agents of Lumiere Brothers. Called ‘living photographic pictures’, these comprised of ‘Entry of Cinematographe’, ‘The Sea Bath’, ‘Arrival of a Train’, ‘Demolition of a Wall’, ‘Baby’s Breakfast’ and ‘Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels’. This new show caught the fancy of our public and soon another show was added on Novelty Stage Theatre.

The initial enterprise also became an organised commercial activity. Watson had a flat rate of one rupee (Re.1). The Novelty offered a price range with two rupees (Rs.2) for the orchestra stall and dress circle, one rupee for what was called second seats and eight annas for the back seats. These ticket rates imitated the live theatre rates of Parsi plays, where the front row was more expensive than the last rows. Something that eventually changed in cinema later. But there is no doubt that projection of films at play houses gave it the potential of becoming a mass medium, since it created separate spaces for eight anna crowd with the elite that could pay two rupees. The concept of moving out of a private space like a hotel to a public place devoted only to projection and viewing of a film took roots.

This clubbing of audience in various fee structures in a combined hall was like recorded incidents and events rather than a live play. Very soon this shared experience had the benefit of a live band led by Mr. Seymour Dove added at the Novelty Theatre. Colour also made a brief entry in a short called ‘Can Can Dance’ in 1897 as a one-off attraction. And a primitive form of talkie came with the synchronizing machine of Professor Von Geyer in 1899, suggesting the possibility of cinema becoming an audio-visual medium later. These innovations in the silent film era led to a broad based commercial exploitation of this new medium and evolved a system of distribution and exhibition of films in India.

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The popularity of these films with significant profits led to a succession of imports of cinematographic shows by Mr.P. Stewart and Professor Anderson and his Lady companion Mlle. Blanche. The shows were held in tents, playgrounds, small halls, institutes like Framji Cowasji at Dhobi Talao and even at Town Hall of Bombay. Regular theatres like Gaety (Capitol opposite CST station) and Tivoli also held shows. The tent show set up of films were a precursor to the later Touring Talkies which started moving into the countryside. This influx led to competition and very soon exhibitors began to offer ticket price rate cuts and prizes for the audience like children and women. One theatre offered late night post show Victoria Drop facility to its esteemed audience.

Small companies like Clifton and Metzer started importing cameras, projectors and even short films besides offering printing and developing facilities. Foreign cameramen started going into interiors of India and shot film clips of Delhi, Lucknow and ‘A Panorama of Indian Scenes and Procession’.

H.S. Bhatvadekar also known as Save Dada was a pioneer of sorts in Indian Cinema making the first short films with his imported camera of two wrestlers in combat and a man training a monkey. These films he had shown with his package of imported short films in 1899. He also had the distinction of covering the Great Delhi Durbar of 1903, celebrating the coronation of Edward VII.

F.B. Thanawalla was another Indian photographer to shoot moving images of Bombay like the Taboot Procession of Murarram rituals after Dada Save. Hiralal Sen in Calcutta shot extract of popular Bengali Plays and other such items. J.F. Madan in Calcutta with his Elphinstone Bioscope company made several short films and launched his very famous chain of Madan Theatres to become the first organized film production house with distribution and exhibition networking much like the big production houses in India like Rajshri or Yash Raj of today.

Between 1901 to 1907, thematic story films though shorter in length than what a feature film required started coming in from several countries. The titles included films like ‘Life of Christ’, Georges Melies’s ‘Trip to the Moon’, Edwin Porter’s ‘Great Train Robbery’ and Uncle Tom’s ‘Cabin’. Mr.T.G. Torney and Mr.N.G. Chitre of an amateur dramatic club got together his team of actors, borrowed a camera and cameraman from Bourne and Shepherd company and attempted a story film ‘Pundalik’ which got released on May 18, 1912 at the Coronation Cinema in Bombay. Because of a foreign cameraman working in ‘Pundalik’, Mr.T.G. Torney and Mr.N.G. Chitre’s effort lost out to Raja Harishchandra as the first Indigenous Indian Film. It was at the same cinema a year later on 3rd May 1913 where Dada Saheb Phalke’s ‘Raja Harishchandra’ was released, as an all Indian crew enterprise of feature film production by Indians in India.

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Dada Saheb Phalke

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke more famously called Dada Saheb Phalke was born at Trayambakeshwar, thirty kilometres from Nasik on April 30, 1870. He was committed to be a religious scholar, a Shastri. Coming to Bombay with his family where his father got a teaching job at Wilson College, Dhundiraj joined J.J School of Arts in 1885 for a course in drawing and continued his art studies at Baroda’s Kalabhavan, now known as Art Department of the University of Baroda. Sensing an extraordinary potential in the young man, then principal of Kalabhavan Professor Gajjar put him in charge of the photographic studio. Making full use of this exposure to a new medium, Dada Saheb made several experiments in photo chemical processes, did short courses in clay moulding and architecture. He also helped in production of dramas. He also worked with famed painter Raja Ravi Verma. This varied understanding of several crafts and arts led to an all-round growth of the man who was to be later called Father of Indian Cinema.

Starting as a portrait photographer and scene painter for theatre companies, Dada Saheb Phalke joined the Archaeological Department of India as a draughtsman and photographer in 1903. Influenced by the Swadeshi Movement, he resigned from the Government job and started an independent professional life. Setting up an engraving and printing business in partnership, Phalke as Chief technician and senior partner went to Germany in 1909 to get new three-colour printing machinery to expand his business enterprise. The business flourished but led to him leaving this venture due to differences with his partner friend.

A chance visit to America-India cinema hall at Sandhurst Road in Bombay,(the current place of Harkisondas Hospital) to see Life of Christ film was to become a turning point in his life. He later wrote about that experience in Navyug Issue of November 1917 stating that while watching the film, he had a parallel film running in his mind with characters of Rama and Krishna, the two mythological heroes and Gods of India. He visualized their native places of Ayodhya and Gokul in his mind’s eye. He was caught up with the impact of his experience in the film and saw the next show again. This time he could set the film in place and wondered if ever he would be able to see Indian characters and images in a feature film on screen in his lifetime. He spent the whole night in restless stupor. He visited the show again with his wife, who asked him how these images moved. He took her to show the projection machine and said it was all done by that machine and she would soon know everything about it since he would be making film in near future. He got home some thrown away pieces of film the next morning and saw them in magnified form. He also got a toy cinema from an English company and got a reel of some film. Putting a candle in the machine, he projected the film on the wall of his house. The next two months were spent in watching and analysing each and every film he could see in Bombay cinema halls. Each film made him question the possibility of doing something similar in India. He could see the utility of this medium and could also understand the commercial potential, but how should he start was the big question.

Odds were against him at the age of forty without a regular dependable income to support this venture. His responsibility towards his family was also a big hurdle to cross in the absence of a consistent source of livelihood. Dada Saheb Phalke was also adamant in not doing anything except his experiments in filmmaking. The insecure future was staring him in the face but Phalke was confident. He kept selling his assets and continued his varied experiments. For the next one year, he collected a price-list of all possible equipment he would need to make a film. Books kept him good company during these days and he would have hardly slept for more than three hours each day. Like a man possessed, he worked on endlessly towards his goal. His eyesight was affected due to the strain of watching films, constant mental strain, lack of sleep and continuous experimentation in photography. The corneal ulcer he developed in this phase of his life was treated by Dr. Prabhakar, restoring the ability to see back to Phalke. Still Phalke had to fight with contempt of his relatives and pressure of maintaining his family remained besides the fear of all this effort coming to naught. But destiny was in the making for Phalke.

Dada Saheb Phalke made a small short film with his five pound imported film camera titled ‘Growth of a Pea Plant’. This film convinced his friend Yeshwant Nadkarni, a dealer of photographic goods in Bombay to part with a loan to him. He also raised a loan of Rs.10, 000 against his insurance policies. Putting a lot at stake, he wanted to be sure before starting to shoot. It meant travelling abroad to see for himself if his ideas had some relation to the actual practice of filmmaking. On the 1st of February 1912, Phalke left for London, taking all the catalogues and lists of equipment suppliers and their addresses with him, but his troubles were far from over.

(To be continued…)

Disclaimer: The copyright of this article is with Salim Arif. No part of this article should be reproduced without prior permission.

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