18 May 1912: Shree Pundalik, the first Indian film, was released

“Half of the Mumbai population has seen [Shree Pundalik], the remaining half should also see it.”

~ quoted from an advertisement of Shree Pundalik,in the second week of the film’s release

In the era when theatres showed live plays and foreign films, a man decided to show an Indian film for the first time. This visionary was Ramchandra Gopal Torne, better known by contemporaries as Dadasaheb Torne. He was responsible for making the very first movie in India. The film, named Shree Pundalik, was released on 18 May 1912, which was approximately a year before Dadasaheb Phalke released his full-length film, Raja Harishchandra. Despite controversy, as to which film should be considered as the first Indian film in history, Dadasaheb Torne’s contribution is remembered with great respect and admiration.

Dadasaheb Torne

Ramchandra Gopal Torne, born on 18 August 1890, was a Marathi boy from Malwan village, raised in a poor family. After dropping out of school at the age of 10 (or 11), Torne travelled to Mumbai to make a living for himself. He learnt the skills for repairing instruments and installing electrical devices, while working at the Cotton Green Electrical Company.

Torne was an avid fan of plays organised by the theatre company called Shripad. Torne was also in awe of foreign films that were shown in the Mumbai theatres. His love for both these entertainment domains gave him the idea of making a movie in India. He was just 21 or 22 years old when he convinced his friend Nanasaheb Chitre to finance, in order to procure raw film reels and a movie camera from a British company. Although, no one knew how to use the new machine. The British camera company offered to send a man for operating the camera. This British man, named Johnson, became the first cinematographer for a movie made in India.

Making of Shree Pundalik

Shree Pundalikwas a much loved Marathi play about a Hindu saint. It was written by Ramrao Kirtikar. Dadasaheb Torne’s initial idea was to record the play using the imported camera. He along with Chitre and Kirtikar wrote a ‘shooting script.’ There was although no dialogue, and the film was without sound (silent film). The play was then staged in Grant Road in Bombay, and directed by Torne. The film was shot by Johnson. The earlier recording was non-stop and from a fixed platform. Torne was quite unsatisfied after seeing the recorded ‘film’. He decided to shoot the play in parts and join them later. This may be called as the beginning of ‘film editing’ in India.

After the film shooting was complete, Torne sent the negatives or reels to London for processing into positives. The movie was 22 minutes long.

Shree Pundalikwas released in the Coronation Cinematograph Theater in Girgaum, and it was showcased here for two weeks.

Controversy over the ‘first Indian film’ tag

According to official records, Raja Harishchandra, released in May 1913 is considered as the first full-length feature film in India. This statement although was contested in the Bombay High Court by the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association’s Director, Vikas Patil, and Torne’s surviving family members in April 2013. Patil had collected newspaper cuttings of all the news pieces regarding Shree Pundalikat the time of its release. He also produced the film’s review published in the newspaper. This controversy although still continues.

One of the most prominent defense arguments was given by the director of National Film Archives of India, Prashant Patharbe, who mentioned that a full length feature film is supposed to be at least 40 minutes long, and should include “elements like casting, location, story and costumes.” According to him a play “shot with a still camera” did not qualify as a feature film. Moreover, the facts that a foreign national was involved, along with processing of the negatives in London could not be unnoticed when considering a movie to be given a “first Indian feature film” tag.

No matter the arguments and counter arguments, the fact remains that Dadasaheb Torne’s tiny step towards “recording a play” slowly but steadily opened new paths towards a new genre of entertainment in India.

Also on this day:

1933 – H D Deve Gowda, the 11th Prime Minister of India, was born

1974 – India for the first time conducts nuclear testing under the covert project named Smiling Buddha

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