Seeds of Indian cinema grew from one photographer's obsession

MUMBAI Thu May 2, 2013 5:56pm IST

People buy tickets at a counter in a multiplex movie theatre in Mumbai November 22, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta/Files

People buy tickets at a counter in a multiplex movie theatre in Mumbai November 22, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Arko Datta/Files

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - Male actors dressed as women and scenes were projected on a white sheet for a gamble that almost bankrupted one Indian photographer, whose obsession with creating a "moving picture" sowed the seeds for the world's largest film industry.

On Friday, Indian cinema marks 100 years since Dhundiraj Govind Phalke's black-and-white silent film "Raja Harishchandra" (King Harishchandra) held audiences spellbound at its first public screening on May 3, 1913, in Mumbai.

Phalke's 40-minute film, about a righteous Indian king who never told a lie, was shot mostly at his house with a motley group of actors including his young son.

"He wasn't an ambitious man, but he was gripped by the immense possibilities of the movies and what they could do," said film-maker Paresh Mokashi, who chronicled the making of India's first feature film in a 2009 Marathi-language movie.

"He saw that if done properly, this art would prosper in India."

Prosper it did. Indian cinema, with its subset of Bollywood for Hindi-language films, is now a billion-dollar industry that makes more than a thousand films a year in several languages.

It is worth 112.4 billion rupees (over $2 billion) and leads the world in terms of films produced and tickets sold.

Phalke, who had been a photographer and worked at a printing press before movie fever gripped him, battled numerous hurdles to make "Raja Harishchandra" barely two decades after the first film commercial exhibitions began in New York using the kinetoscope.

Inspired by the screening in Mumbai of a film on the life of Jesus Christ, Phalke determined to make a movie about Indian heroes, according to Mokashi's film. He travelled to London to buy a camera, selling much of what he owned to make the trip.

But awaiting him at home were many hurdles, the least of which was convincing an actor to shave off his moustache to portray a woman because the idea of using female actors was unthinkable at the time.

Phalke's wife Saraswati cooked single-handedly for the 40-odd film unit, holding up white sheets as a screen for hours while her husband filmed "trick scenes", and stoically bore the sale of their belongings to fund the movie.

While Phalke subsequently went on to make 95 full-length movies and 26 short films in a career that spanned 19 years, the advent of the talkies meant he died in penury since he was unable to adapt to the new technology.

"He never looked at films from the commercial aspect, perhaps that's why later on in life he was disillusioned," Phalke's granddaughter Usha Patankar told Reuters, describing her grandfather as a dapper man who dressed in his best even to just stroll around the neighbourhood.

"He only wanted to make films because they fascinated him".

Phalke died in 1944 at the age of 73 but his name lives on in the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, instituted in his honour by the government in 1969 and which remains the highest and most coveted award in Indian cinema.

Besides Bollywood, which has global appeal, India also has a vibrant regional-language film industry, especially in southern states where film stars are often worshipped in temples specially built for them.

Several events have been planned to mark the centenary of Indian cinema on Friday. The Cannes Film Festival later this month is also celebrating with special India screenings.

But his family feels that Phalke, the man who began it all, didn't get his due.

"We really felt that he should be given India's highest civilian honour... but that hasn't happened," said Patankar.

"I think he would have been immensely proud to know what he started, if he were alive today". (Editing By Tony Tharakan and Elaine Lies)

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