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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 :)


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