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Raja Harishchandra’s French connection

100 years of Bollywood
7 April 2013

The Life of Christ captivated Phalke so much that he gave up everything at the age of 40 to make the film

On April 21, 1913, the editors of selective newspapers along with some imminent personalities of Bombay queued up at the now defunct Olympia Theatre to witness a phenomenon, which eventually marked the birth of Indian Cinema. The 40-minute long film was called Raja Harishchandra and the plot was based on a mythological character. Not having witnessed anything of this sort earlier, the film was a success when it was opened to the public on May 3, 1913 heralding the era of silent films in Indian Cinema.

Passion of the Christ
But this wasn’t a mean feat to accomplish but so captivated was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (Dadasaheb Phalke) with the silent film, The Life of Christ, in 1910 that he decided to give up his career as a printing press owner and travel to London to learn and procure film making equipments. In the 1917 issue of Navayug, Phalke writes, “While witnessing Christ on the Screen, I was visualizing in its place Bhagwan Shri Krishna, Bhagwan Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I saw the picture again the same day. I spent a restless night. Fortunately, I was well up in all arts and crafts which go to make a motion picture such as drawings, paintings architecture, photography, drama, magic etc. I was fully convinced that it CAN be done.” At the age of forty, with all circumstances against him, with friends even enrolling him in an asylum (One of them even tried to make me go to the lunatic asylum at Thana, he writes), Phalke set out to establish a Swadeshi film industry.

Wheel of fortune
On February 1, 1912, Phalke left for London and with the help of few people, he managed to buy the best available Williamson camera, printing machine, a perforator and some raw negative films. He was introduced to Cecil Hepworth, a prominent film producer at Walton who gave valuable advice and information about film-making. With no time to lose, he set sail back to Bombay to put his knowledge to practice.
After pawning his wife’s jewellery and procuring the funds to start the film, Phalke put out an advertisement in Bombay’s Induprakash towards May 1912-‘Handsome faces wanted for films’ but it only drew junior stage artists, so much so that he had to add one more line in the subsequent advertisement ‘ugly faces need not apply’. The cast of the film was all-male since working in showbiz wasn’t considered respectable at that time which compelled him to cast Salunke for the role of Taramati, Harishchandra's wife. Phalke discovered him in a restaurant where Salunke was the cook. Salunke would later play the role of both Rama and Sita in Phalke's 1917 film Lanka Dahan and become the most popular actor and actress of his time. Once he was start to shoot, Dadasaheb Phalke advised his crew to tell everyone that they were working in his factory (which gave birth to the acclaimed Marathi film ‘Harishchandrachi Factory).

With no modes of publicity in that era, Phalke decided to lure the audiences with a dance programme of two European girls on the stage for 10-15 minutes during the first few days. Phalke came out in flying colours with what could be called the first film promotion of Indian Cinema.

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