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Home > History of Indian Cinema > History of Silent Films
History of Silent Films in India
Indian cinema, like most other cinemas, has evolved over time, responding to various social, cultural and political contexts and challenges. In order to understand the distinctiveness of Indian cinema, its distinguishing traits and privileged concepts, one has to examine the forces that shaped Indian films and the changes in theme and style over the nine decades of its existence.

The birth of Cinema in India can be attributed to the Lumiere brother`s. Only a few months after the Lumiere brothers introduced the art of cinematography in Paris in 1895, cinema made it`s presence felt in India. The Lumiere brothers` held their first public showing at Mumbai`s Watson`s Hotel on July 7, 1896 and the Times of India glowingly referred to it as the `miracle of the century`. Westerners, who were quick to realize the value of India as a site of filmmaking both because of its natural beauty and its `exotic` culture, were inspired to make films that used Indian scenery and culture. However, this phenomenon did not create much of a ripple. The Indian viewer took the new experience as something already familiar to him, thanks to the art of shadow play and the tradition of story-telling with hand-drawn images accompanied by live sound. The Lumiere brothers thus pioneered the art of film-making in India with the astonishing invention of CINEMA.

Lumiere BrothersThe Lumiere brothers` Cinematographe first show was a silent movie for 10 minutes. Six items, each of 17 meters, were included - Entry of Cinematographe, The Sea Bath, Arrival of a Train, A Demolition, Ladies & Soldiers on Wheels, and Leaving the Factory played at the Watson Hotel. On July 14, the shows shifted venue - to the Novelty Theatre, Bombay. Twenty-four items were on, including A Stormy Sea and The Thames at Waterloo Bridge. The shows concluded on August 15, 1896.

Given the `magic` quality normally associated with films and the potential mass appeal of cinema, it came as no surprise that Indians soon entered the domain of filmmaking. The first Indian to make a film was Harischandra S. Bhatvadekhar, popularly known as Save Dada. He was a still photographer, a dealer in equipment and an exhibitor of films. His interests led him naturally to the art of cinema.The public reception accorded to Wrangler Paranjpye at Chowapatty on his return from England with the coveted distinction he got at Cambridge was covered by Bhatwadekar. He was the first Indian to produce a film. All he had with him was a projector, but he didn`t have a camera, so he got one from London and shot only 2 scenes of 3 minutes each, which were titled Do Pahalwanon Ki Kushti and Bandar Ko Nachata Hua Madaari. It was released in December 1989... the birth of the first Indian topical or actuality film!

Next was F.B. Thanawala, who made his debut in 1900. Two of his films, Splendid New View of Bombay (1900) and Taboot Procession (1900) generated great interest. The first film explored some outstanding landmarks in the city of Bombay, and the second an annual Muslim procession.

In 1901, Hiralal Sen made his mark as a film producer with a deep interest in Indian history and mythology.In Calcutta, Hiralal Sen photographed scenes from some of the plays at the Classic Theatre. Such films were shown as added attractions after the stage performances or taken to distant venues where the stage performers could not reach. The possibility of reaching a large audience through recorded images which could be projected several times through mechanical gadgets caught the fancy of people in the performing arts, stage and entertainment business.

In 1905 film production was linked with exhibition. J.F. Madan, who had gained a wide reputation in the theatre world of Calcutta, went on to establish the Elphinstone Bioscope Company. In the years that followed, the Madan Theatre began to exercise great influence both inside India and outside. Madan was the first businessman to foresee the imminent business possibilities of filmmaking in India. Not only did he build a vast production empire on the lines of Hollywood but he also imported foreign actresses (Ermline, Patience Cooper and others) "to act in Indian mythological and folk tales, as Indian females were hesitant to expose themselves to the gaze of the film camera. For a time, the Elphinstone Company dominated film production in India.

The first decade of the 20th century saw live and recorded performances being clubbed together in the same program. The strong influence of traditional arts, music, dance and popular theatre on the cinema movement in India in its early days is probably responsible for its characteristic enthusiasm for inserting song and dance sequences in Indian cinema, even today. Film shows became popular thereafter, and on 1st January 1900, another silent movie was released at Novelty Cinema, Mumbai. Tivoli Theatre was the venue for a show of 25 pictures that included such titles as Japanese Dance by the Beauties and Fatima, an Indian Dance. The city of Calcutta held its first film exhibition at Star Theatre on October 2 1898.

StevensonBy now, Indian audiences were increasingly being exposed to Western films. Hence, the fascination with longer narratives and the desire to see Indian experiences and characters on screen resulted in the first ever mythological film produced in India by R.G. Tomey`s, which was "Pundalik". It was shown in 1912 and based on the legend associated with a well-known Maharashtrian saint. It was hugely popular among movie-going audiences. Mr. N.G. Chitre, of Bombay & a cinematographer Mr. Stevenson had jointly produced this film, which was released on 18th May 1912 at Coronation Theatre, Sandhurst Road. Although Pundalik was the first feature film to be made by an Indian, it was shot by an Englishman and never shown as an independent film. The trend of silent era continued from 1897 to 1930 and during this period of 34 years, around 1200 films were released, of which very few film prints are available now.

The honour of making the first Indian feature film by an Indian goes to Dhundiraj Govind Phalke. His Raja Harischandra released on 3rd May 1913, was totally Indian in terms of production, and was shown as an independent and self-contained work in its own right. His 50-minute film Raja Harischandra, which was instantly successful, due to the splendid special effects he created. It laid the foundation for a thriving film industry in India and for a vastly popular genre of mythological films. This genre is informed by a powerful moral imagination in which good triumphs over evil, so reinforcing the moral order. This mythological genre still maintains its mass appeal.

The successes of Phalke and Madan served to fortify the foundations of the film industry in India. Mass entertainment and moral education were amalgamated in a way that assured mass appeal. Once film achieved firm footing as a popular mode of entertainment, filmmakers began to make their presence felt in other parts of the country. In 1917 the first feature film was made in the south: Keechaka Vadham was based on the Mahabharata.

By 1920, that is seven years after the first Indian feature film was produced, Indian cinema appeared to be established on secure foundations - 18 feature films were produced in 1920,40 films in 1921, and 80 in 1925. As cinema began to grow more and more popular among the masses and a lucrative industry was established, a number of indubitably gifted film directors made their debut; among them Suchat Singh, Dhiren Ganguli, Himansu Rai and V. Shantaram.

Many good films made during this initial period were greatly inspired by the two celebrated epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Many of the directors sought to invest their mythological narratives with a clear social message relevant to contemporary society. The filmmakers associated with this phase in the growth of Indian cinema were Janus-faced. They looked back to the past lovingly and sought to reconnect with tradition; at the same time, they sought to draw on the resources and innovations of Hollywood.

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