April 2013 has a special significance: this month marks 100 years of Indian cinema. The country’s first indigenously produced full-length feature film, Raja Harischandra, made by the legendary Dhundiraj Govind ‘Dadasaheb’ Phalke, was shown to a select audience at Bombay’s Olympia Theatre, on 21st April, 1913.
(Note: There is some controversy about this; some film historians believe that Shree Pundalik, 1912, was the first full-length feature film).
But. Celebrating the centennial of Raja Harischandra seemed good enough reason to dedicate this month to Indian cinema. Not just Hindi cinema, as I have been prone to do, but Indian regional cinema. I am painfully aware that the only regional language cinema I’ve reviewed so far has been Bengali, so this is a good place to make a start. April 2013 on Dusted Off is going to be when I set about exploring more of cinema from across the country.
I thought it appropriate to begin with Raja Harischandra itself.
This won’t be as much of a review as the kind I usually do, because the film itself doesn’t exist in its entirety any more. As far back as the 60s (or so I’ve been able to gather), only the first reel and part of the fourth (which was the last) reel of the film had remained. What can be viewed today—and what I watched—was the first reel, and one scene towards the end of the film.
Raja Harischandra, for those who’re familiar with Indian mythology, is the story of a very upright and truthful king of Ayodhya—the eponymous Harischandra (or, as it’s more commonly transcribed, Harishchandra). Harishchandra’s staunch adherence to his principles is the focus of the story: how, because he refuses to let his circumstances drive him to dishonesty or untruth, he loses his kingdom, is separated from his wife and son, and ends up with his dead son in his arms.
As a moral tale, Raja Harischandra was well-known and popular in India.
The story of Phalke and Raja Harischandra is fascinating, too [frankly, I find it more so than that of the king]. It’s said that Phalke, having watched an imported film—Life of Christ—in 1910, was fired with zeal to make a film too. Phalke travelled to London and made arrangements to import the equipment for filming and production.
Back in Bombay, while waiting for the shipment to arrive, he set about getting things ready. He created a dark room and a studio. He also trained his wife Saraswatibai [who seems to have been a very devoted and supportive spouse] to perforate film, develop it, and even load a camera.
Dadasaheb Phalke was faced with another challenge: financing the venture. Financiers were wary of investing in something that had never been done before, so Phalke chose the best way to convince them: in 1911, he created a short instructional film, a time-lapse one that showed a pea plant growing from seed to a full-fledged vine. The brief film, Birth of a Pea Plant, achieved what it had set out to do: it impressed the financiers sufficiently for them to fund Phalke’s film.
Phalke had already decided that the film had best be based on a theme that was religious and popular enough to draw crowds. He was torn between two stories: that of Krishna, and that of Harischandra. Harischandra won (though Phalke went on, in 1919, to make Kaliya Mardan—starring his little daughter Mandakini as Krishna).
Getting costumes and a place to film (the latter a bungalow on what is now Mumbai’s Dadasaheb Phalke Road, in Dadar) seems to have been relatively easy. What was tough was finding actors, especially to play the female roles. Theatre itself had been looked down upon by ‘respectable folk’, so even female roles onstage were typically played by male actors in drag. It was out of the question to imagine a lady acting in the film.
For the extras, there was no problem about using men dressed as women. But for the lead female role, that of Harischandra’s wife Taramati, Phalke decided he had to hire a woman.
He therefore resorted to advertisements in the newspapers— which, sadly, drew only a small bunch of pretty ugly prostitutes. Phalke sent them packing, but was eventually reduced to scouring the red light areas of Bombay, trying to find a beautiful woman who would agree. He drew a blank [one potential actress’s mother said that she’d let her daughter act if Phalke agreed to marry the girl!]
In a moment of serendipity, Phalke came across a somewhat effeminate young man, working in a restaurant [some sources say he was a waiter, others that he was a cook] on Grant Road. Krishna Hari, alias Anna Salunke, agreed to take on the part of Taramati. It took a lot of persuasion from Phalke to get Salunke to shave off his moustache [!! What could Salunke have been thinking about, to even imagine he could retain his mooch?], but at least it meant one less thing to worry about for Dadasaheb Phalke.
Shooting and production had its own hiccups, but Raja Harischandra was finally completed, all four reels of it, over a period of 6 months and 27 days. After that preliminary screening on 21st April 1913, it was commercially released on 3rd May the same year, and created a sensation. The following year, in 1914, Raja Harischandra was also released in London.
So what do the 11-odd minutes left of the film look like? (Note: Another disclaimer. Some film historians believe that this reel is actually not of the 1913 film, but of a 1917 version).
It begins in Raja Harischandra’s palace grounds. Harischandra (Dattatraya Damodar ‘DD’ Dabke) and his queen Taramati (Anna Salunke, looking well-shaved and pretty feminine) are proudly looking on as their only son, Rohitas (Phalke’s son, Bhalchandra) shoots an arrow from his bow. A maid fetches whatever little Rohitas has shot down [it looks like a rather spherical and dark coconut to me, but I could be mistaken. In fact, I’m almost certain I’m mistaken].
While they’re cooing over Rohitas’s archery, a group of the king’s subjects arrives, begging Harischandra to come hunting with them.
They set off purposefully into the countryside.
(An interesting anecdote here; the outdoor shooting was at a place called Wangani. When the cast turned up, dressed oddly and bearing spears and swords, the local villagers rushed off to alert the authorities—the patil and the faujdar. The members of the cast—Phalke had not arrived yet—tried to explain that they were here for the shooting of a film, but that must have sounded like double Dutch to the country folk. The result being that the entire lot was arrested, and released only after Dadasaheb Phalke arrived, showed the faujdar and patil what shooting and cinema was all about, and reassured them that all was above board).
Anyway, back to the film. Raja Harischandra and his gang of hunters are pottering about among the trees when Harischandra’s sharp ears detect the sounds of women crying. The king cups his ear, listening intently. Then he tries the other ear. In the background, his entourage—none of whom seem to have heard what the king’s hearing—are chattering away and creating such a ruckus that it drowns out all other sound.
Harischandra tells them to shut up, and having ascertained that there actually seem to be some ladies in distress in the vicinity, sets off to investigate.
In the meantime, this rather baffling intertitle appears:
(Raja Harischandra had intertitles in both English and Hindi, and the Hindi version too is a little puzzling).
Who are the ‘trigunashaktis’, or the ‘three powers’?
(Note: Google helped. On this page, I found a mention of trigunashakti: “As combined three forces, Ma Durga has Sattwaki, Rajoshi and Tamashi natures called ‘Triguna Shakti’.” For someone who’s not terribly clued into the finer aspects of Hindu mythology—like me—that’s clear as mud, but it covers the ground, so anyway).
The three young women that emerge from the fire in front of Vishwamitra (PG Sane) start waving their arms about and apparently yelling. From the previous intertitle, I assume they’re none too happy that Vishwamitra has gained control over them, and are trying desperately to escape, or at least to make their displeasure felt and heard. [Unfortunately, these three are pretty bad actors, and the rhythmic way in which they swing their arms make them look as if they’re doing some weird sort of dance rather than writhing in agony].
Into this tableau comes Harischandra, who—without pausing to see whom he’s come up against—shoots an arrow at the fire from which the trigunashakti has arisen. It goes out, the three shaktis vanish, and Vishwamitra stands up, in a towering rage. He’s furious at Harischandra for thwarting him thus. Harischandra tries to make amends, and offers to give Vishwamitra his kingdom in return.
Vishwamitra accepts [what is it with politics that attracts all these god men?!]. We next see him at Harischandra’s palace, having accepted the crown at the hands of the king. The king, Taramati and Rohitas, having been ordered by Vishwamitra to give him dakshina (presumably, this will restore Harischandra’s kingdom to him) are leaving the palace.
Their attendants stand around and sob, while Vishwamitra, adding insult to injury, tells the royal couple and their son that they can’t even go out into the world dressed in all this finery. Harischandra has given up his throne and all his worldly belongings; they must also give up these grand clothes. He flings some rough cotton clothing at them…and poor Harischandra, Taramati and Rohitas go out into the big, bad world, deeply mourned by all their ex-staff (whom Vishwamitra immediately chastises for being so weepy).
At this point, the first reel presumably ends. The story of how Harischandra gets separated from wife and son and ends up working as assistant at a cremation ground, while Taramati ends up as a maid and Rohitas ends up dead, is missing. The last, tiny bit of the extant film consists of the scene where a grieving Taramati arrives with her son’s dead body and asks the assistant to cremate the corpse.
There’s a poignant frame when husband and wife recognise each other (the years gone by have been harsh) and embrace. But Harischandra will not, even for his own son’s body, compromise: one gold coin has to be paid for a cremation, and Taramati must give that. Confused and desperate, Taramati sets off to find a gold coin…
…and ends up falling into a trap that Vishwamitra [who’s still not satisfied with having wrecked their lives] has set. He has had the prince of Kashi killed while on a hunt, and has left the corpse in Taramati’s path. Taramati, like countless other Hindi film protagonists to come, instead of raising the alarm or hightailing it, sits down and touches the corpse, picks up the prince’s scattered jewellery, and generally makes sure she’s well and truly caught red-handed when the Kashi ruler’s soldiers arrive and arrest her.
At which point, what’s available of Raja Harischandra ends.
Some thoughts on this film:
No, I won’t do a ‘What I liked’ and ‘What I didn’t like’ for this film, because, since I’ve been able to watch only about a fourth of it, that would be unfair. I’ll content myself with listing some things that made me smile (and some that made me laugh), some that impressed me, and some that intrigued me.
Among the things that impressed me was the obvious care taken over the costumes and the make-up. If I hadn’t known that the female parts were all played by men, I’d have been taken in. It’s not just Salunke as Taramati; it’s also the men who act as her maids and ladies-in-waiting: mostly, they look, move and act convincingly feminine.
The acting (and this didn’t surprise me) is theatrical. One reason, I guess, is that the acting technique seemed to basically be a carry-forward from contemporary theatre. Another reason I could think of was that Phalke used a mostly static camera (it pans a little in the scene in the countryside, but that’s it). He didn’t do things like close-ups of actor’s faces, which would have allowed a wider range of emotions to be shown more effectively. Thus the exaggerated gestures.
There’s also the fact that Phalke had to work with several people who had never even acted before, so besides directing them, he actually had to give them lessons in acting.
Lastly, the intertitles. While the intertitles in English are nothing exceptional, the equivalent in Hindi intrigued me, because they showed how Hindi was used at the time, and how it’s changed ever since. The language used is primarily fairly Sanskritised Hindi, but that doesn’t stop occasional Urdu words (like waqt or zabardasti), being included. What’s more, a number of conjunctions are written as part of the preceding word—something I’ve never seen done before I watched this film.
Whatever it is, good, bad or indifferent, Raja Harischandra is a landmark film. It gave me gooseflesh to watch these 11 minutes: I kept thinking, “This was happening a hundred years ago! How did they manage that special effect? And that?” and so on. An impressive feat, for a man who started off just a photographer, but became producer, director, script-writer, acting coach, costume designer (he is supposed to have based the costumes on Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Harischandra), editor, and more.
If only for its historicity, do watch Raja Harischandra. It is available on Youtube, here. A different, nearly hour-long film (available here) includes Raja Harischandra, along with clips from some of Dadasaheb Phalke’s other films, such as Sant Tukaram and Kaliya Mardan—plus footage of Phalke at work, whether directing or editing or scripting.