(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)
By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia
In 1895, the Lumière brothers launched their “living photographic pictures” in Paris. A screening soon came to Bombay, catered to a mainly British audience at a posh British hotel. Like the rest of the world, the audience was fascinated with this new magical technology.
The First Recording
An Indian photographer, HS Bhatavadekar promptly ordered a movie camera from Britain. In 1899, he shot the first film in India–a documentary showing a wrestling match at Hanging Gardens in Bombay. He also shot the Delhi Darbar of 1903, the second of three grand imperial spectacles that were held to celebrate the succession of a British Emperor or Empress of India.
The First Indian Film
Western movies were a big hit in India, but Indian filmmakers started entering the fray. Dadasaheb DG Phalke is considered the father of Indian movies, with his Raja Harishchandra, which released in 1913. Interestingly, as acting was not considered respectable for women, all women’s roles were played by male actors (as was the norm in popular theatre as well).
Dadasaheb Phalke was a Sanskrit scholar, who had many creative hobbies, like photography, lithography dramatics, painting, set-design and even magic. He became quite influenced by Raja Ravi Varma’s portrayals of Hindu gods and goddesses. He was self-taught and went to London in 1912 to buy cinema equipment. His first film was a one-man affair; he directed, wrote, photographed, printed and edited it himself! Phalke wanted his films to inspire nationalism and was a close friend of Lokmanya Tilak.
But, Not Really…
But, in fact, the first Indian movie was Shree Pundalik, shot in 1912 by Dadasaheb Torney. However, since it was a recording of a play, the cameraman was British, and it was processed in England, the credit doesn’t go to him.
Indian movies took off immediately. About 1200 silent films were produced between 1912 and 1934 in India! But today, barely 10 of these survive. The material used was highly inflammable and also prone to decay, but most of them were intentionally destroyed for the silver content in the film!
The First Talkie
It was the end of the era of silent movies when Ardeshir Irani produced India’s first talkie, ‘Alam Ara’ in 1931. Tamil and Telugu talkies followed in the same year. Songs and dance now became an integral part of Indian cinema. ‘Indra Sabha’, produced in 1932 has 71 songs (still the record!) Studios emerged in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. “Sant Tukaram” became the first Indian movie to be screened at an international film festival–Venice in 1936.
While movies about the freedom movement would often get censored by the British, movies about social injustice became popular, such as ‘Achhut Kanya’, ‘Aurat’ and ‘Ek hi Rasta’. India’s first Superstar was K L Saigal, who got a huge fan following after his Devdas in 1935.
Heroines from Everywhere
As it was a big taboo for Indian women to perform in public, many of the heroines of silent movies were immigrant Baghdadi Jews who did not speak any Indian languages! Ruby Myers from Poona became the highly paid Sulochana, appearing in movies like Anarkali and Madhuri! Esther Victoria Abraham and her sister Sophie Abraham took on the stage names Promila and Romila, respectively.
The first Indian stuntwoman, the swashbuckling ‘Hunterwali’ Fearless Nadia, was actually an Australian actress called Mary Evans!
Once talkies came in, these heroines couldn’t survive in the industry, and Indian actresses gradually started coming in.
The Talented Tagores
Devika Rani was Indian cinema’s first lady. From the Tagore family, she was educated at an English boarding school, and studied architecture and textile design. Along with her barrister-turned-filmmaker husband Himanshu Rai, Devika started a movie studio called Bombay Talkies in 1934 and became a famous actress. After Rai’s death in 1940, she successfully ran the studio herself for many years. Another legend was Shobhana Samarth, whose daughters Nutan and Tanuja became stars, as did her grandchildren, like Kajol!
With song and dance, Indian films kept getting more and more popular, and today India produces the most movies, and sells the most tickets every year in the world!
(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the recently released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India. Follow on twitter @shrutigarodia_)