3 May 1913: Raja Harishchandra, the first full-length Indian feature film, was released

A performance with 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for only three annas.”

~ Promotion statement for Raja Harishchandra, 1913

3rd May 1913 marked the event that changed the way India saw entertainment and popular culture forever. Raja Harishchandra, the first full-length feature film ever made in India, paved the way for other movie productions down the century. It was produced, directed and co-screen-written by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, whom we today respectfully call Dadasaheb Phalke.  Phalke, in fact spent his personal savings to make the film.

In the day, when people considered entertainment to be just plays and live performed songs, the first full-length feature film introduced Indians to a different way of spending free time.

Raja Harishchandra

The film, Raja Harishchandra belonged to the silent genre of movies, ran for about 40 minutes, and was made by an entirely Indian cast and crew. It was based on the mythological story of a king who was so righteous and honest that he sacrificed his kingdom, wife, and son to keep a promise to Rishi Vishwamitra. God eventually, impressed with his nobility and integrity, blessed him with divinity and returned what he had taken from him.

Phalke chose his film’s subject as Raja Harishchandra for mainly two reasons. First, it was one of the most popular stories played on stage, and second because he was highly inspired by Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings of the story.

Dadasaheb Phalke and Beginnings of his Film-making Dream

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was in the printing business when he saw a movie for the first time. It was “The Life of Christ”, a silent French film, which inspired him to make a film on Indian gods. Before starting his film-making, he studied its art and technicalities in London. While returning he brought with him the basic equipments required for filming – camera, raw film reels, perforator, and printing machine.

With technical part done, Phalke put in a team of actors and people to help him make the film. His wife and eight children were all involved in the film’s production. His eldest son, Bhalachandra Phalke, in fact, played the role of Harishchandra’s son in the film. Harishchandra was played by Dattatraya Damodar Dabke, a well-known Marathi stage actor. The most difficult casting was for Harishchandra’s wife, Queen Taramati. Phalke could not convince any female to act in the film, as it was not a “decent profession for women” in those days. He therefore had to cast a good looking male to do the woman’s role. This man was Anna Salunke, and Phalke found him in a restaurant’s kitchen as he was a chef there.

Harishchandrachi Factory

It took Phalke and his team over six months to complete filming Raja Harishchandra. Locations used were Mathura Bhawan in the Dadar Main Road (which is known as Dadasaheb Phalke Road today), and a village near Pune. Since working in a film was considered taboo in those days, Phalke instructed his team to tell people that they were working at the “Harishchandrachi Factory”.

One of the biggest roles in the film’s production can be attributed to Phalke’s wife, Saraswati. She was responsible for feeding the entire production team, washing actors’ costumes, painting the film’s posters, and taking care of many other technical details of the film. It is believed that she used to cook for 500 people every day, without any help.

Phalke was well aware of his limitations of making a silent film. In order to better the audience’s understanding of the movie, he inserted title plates between scenes. These plates explained parts of the story in both the English and Hindi languages. Along with this, Phalke used live music to accompany the moving imagery on the screen.

Screening and Thereafter

Raja Harishchandra was screened in a single theatre – Coronation Cinematograph. On its first screening, Phalke invited the press and many other people to watch. He promoted the movie with a catchy phrase – “Raja Harishchandra: A performance with 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for only three annas.” In order to increase the attraction for people, he also hired two European dancers to perform before the film begun, for the first few screenings. Needless to say, people came, watched, and went home saying good things about the “57,000 photographs”. The first full-length feature film was a success and ran for 23 days in the Coronation Cinematograph. A year later, the movie was screened in London as well.

This marked the beginning of the four reels long feature film in India. Raja Harishchandra not only brought Phalke grand success, but also encouraged female participation as actresses. The film also made Anna Salunke into a huge star. Phalke went on to make over a hundred films.

Raja Harishchandra is still remembered with great love and respect among the Indian film fraternity. There have been multiple attempts at restoring the original reels, but only the first and last remain. The story of the making of the film was told in another feature – Harishchandrachi Factory, in 2009.


Also on this day:

1939 – Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Indian freedom fighter, formed the All India Forward Block

1951 – Ashok Gehlot, the 21st Chief Minister of Rajasthan, was born

1969 – Zakir Hussain, the third President of India, died

1981 – Nargis, Indian actress, died

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