Skip to main content

The Beginning of Indian Cinema

Like all things in India, this story too begins with religion.

In around 1664 a Jesuit named Athanasius Kircher in his writings described a magical device that could be used to project demons. Later when this device got made, this Magic Lantern * became a favorite of conjurers, magicians and missionaries. Although people found it magical, but for some it still wasn't magical enough. The images couldn't move. And they remained immobile for another one hundred and fifty years till in around 1828, a Belgian researcher named Joseph Plateau got an idea on how to make the images move.

In around 1832, Plateau came up with a device called Phenakistoscope that could create an illusion of motion. Soon all kind of devilish ideas started popping in human head. Man wanted to see motion. See himself in motion. In 1891, Edison came out with a Kinetoscope. That motion could be captured on camera became a well known fact. Now the question was, could it be done in a simpler way.

On December 28, 1895 at Grand Cafe, Paris, Lumiere brothers unveiled their cinematographe to a spellbound audience. Three months later, to cash in on the invention, they assigned agents to travel the world with the device. The objective: spread the word and get the cash.

In around 1896, one of these shows reached Bombay. An ad for first of these shows published in The Times of India dated July 7, 1896, screamed: "The Marvel of the Century", "The Wonder of the World", "Living photographic pictures in life-size reproductions!!"

The show at Watson Hotel, Bombay was a roaring success despite the rains the poured from sky that day. Additional shows were held at Novelty theatre from 14 July for people who couldn't have enough of moving pictures. These shows were mostly patronized by Indian anglicised 'gentry' and for the common man it was another one of those fads of men and for the Indian 'elite' it was another one of those fads of angreez log.

But not all was lost. One of these shows was caught by a man named Harischandra Sakharam Bhatvadekar who was a professional photographer. He was so inspired by the spectacle that for twenty-one guineas he bough himself a movie camera. This was India's first recorded import of a movie camera. In 1897, Bhatvadeka shot his first film, a wrestling match held at Bombay's Hanging Gardens. He shot moneys. He shot Cambridge returned Indian topped named R.P.Paranjpye. He shot Dilli durbar of King Edward the VII. He was India's first documentary film-maker. The first Indian filmaker.

By 1912, Indian had developed a taste for films. But most of these films were imported. Mostly from France, United States, Italy , Denmark and West Germany.

Then in 1912, we had Pundalik, which could be hailed as the first Indian film and its director Dadasaheb Torney be called the first Indian director. But that fact is over shadowed by the aura of a filmmaker named Dadasaheb Phalke.

In the year that west saw Louis Mercanton's Queen Elizabeth. Dadasaheb Phalke came out with his Raja Harischandra.

Trained to be a Sanskrit scholar, studied photography at J.J School of Arts, been to England, inspired to be a filmmaker by watching a film on the life and death of Christ, learnt cinema basics from a book called 'The ABC of Cinematography', Dadasaheb Phalke opened the flood-gates of cinema in India with his 3,700 feet long creation.

It is believed that between 1912 and 1934 about 1200 films were produced in India.** Of these hardly ten films like Himanshu Rai's "Light of Asia", "Shiraz" and "A Throw of Dice" exist. Besides these, also preserved in Indian Film Archives are some parts of early Phalke films and quirkily, some documentary footage of the very first Lumiere Brothers' short films shown in India on July 7, 1896.


Phalke Images

Young Dadasaheb Phalke/ Dhandiraj Gobind Phalke
Dadasaheb Phalke directing a scene from Raja Harischandra

Salunke as Taramati, Bhalchand and Dattaraj
Ad for Raja Harischandra published in The Bombay Chronicle

Another Ad from around the time .
"Sure to appeal to our Hindu patrons"
Phalke Studio Nasik

Read my other post Tamasha comes to Kashmir for an account from 1903 on travels of a Magic Lantern or Tamasha as it was called in this part of the world, to Kashmir with the Christian Missionaries.

1200 number come from article '60 years of Indian Cinema' by Abdul Ali, Star&Style, May 26, 1972.

Images from:
Filmfare March 8, 1963. Celebrating 50 years of Indian Cinema.
Filmfare July 1-15, 1988. Celebrating 75 years of Indian Cinema.
Cinema in India, August 1990. Khalid Mohamed on early days of Indian Cinema.

You can catch major chunks of the film at Soumyadip's India Public Domain Movie Project


  1. Super post, thanks for this. I have posted the link to this Blog on my FB page.

  2. What an amazing post. On this day today too :)


Post a Comment

I always like to hear back :)
However, irrelevant comments and irrelevant links will not be published. Needless to say, same goes for abusive comment and spam. Leaving back links related to the topic is encouraged. I know it can be tempting but try not to leave your email ids, phone nos and CVs in the comment.

Popular posts from this blog

Famous Old Faces of Doordarshan

Some people recall the faces and some people recall the names. Here are images of some of the famous readers and presenters of Doordarshan down the years. If you recognize any of them, leave a comment. [ Update 1 : Most of the faces now have names thanks to helpful comments by olio-gallimaufry ] [ Update 2 : Included image of one of the earliest presenters, Gopal Kaul. Send in generously from personal collection by son, Ashutosh Kaul. Sept, 2010.] [ Major Update 3: Got a tip-off about a documentary about the famous faces of Doordarshan from the makers   of     “The Golden Trail , DD@50 :Special feature on Golden Jubilee of Doordarshan ” from which these caps were taken. I managed to catch the incredible documentary and am adding some more faces/name and part of the docu here. New ones can be found after the image of  Narotam Puri. 30th Oct, 2010]  Pratima Puri. Believed to be the first Doordarshan reader.

Indian Cigarette Vintage Ads

He put a cigarette in his mouth and, as a matter of silent routine, offered one to Gwyn, who said ‘No thanks.”Richard looked at him.”I packed it in.”"You what?”"I stopped. Three days ago. Cold. That’s it. You just make the life choice.” Richard looked up and inhaled needfully. He gazed at his cigarette. He didn’t really want to smoke it. He wanted to eat it. Almost the only thing that he still liked about Gwyn was that he still smoked…Paradoxically, he no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking. Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn’t be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette. The need was and wasn’t being met… While it would always be true and fair to say that Richard felt like a cigarette, it would now be doubly true and fair to say it. He felt like a cigarette. And he felt like a cig

Woman by Arun Kolatkar

a woman may collect cats read thrillers her insomnia may seep through the great walls of history a lizard may paralyze her a sewing machine may bend her moonlight may intercept the bangle circling her wrist a woman my name her cats the circulating library may lend her new thrillers a spiked man may impale her a woman may add a new recipe to her scrapbook judiciously distilling her whimper the city lights may declare it null and void in a prodigious weather above a darkling woman surgeons may shoot up and explode in a weather fraught with forceps woman may damn man a woman may shave her legs regularly a woman may take up landscape painting a woman may poison twenty three cockroaches - a poem by Arun Kolatkar from year 1967. Translated by Adil Jussawalla. Found it in New Writing in India (1974) ed. by Adil Jussawalla.