It was a warm and sunny evening on April 21, 1913, when Mumbai's who's who trooped out in all their finery at the Olympia Cinematograph hall in the congested Sikka Nagar, Girgaum, in south Mumbai. The historic occasion, 104 years ago, was the premiere of India's first full-length feature film, Raja Harishchandra, produced and directed by the father of Indian cinema Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, now revered as Dadasaheb Phalke.
Many came in their single or double horse-drawn Victoria carraiges and buggies, some very aristocratic ones in their quaint old vehicles, the womenfolk glittering with dazzling jewels, even as hundreds of curious onlookers wondered what was going on.
"This year (2017) also marks the centenary of India's first blockbuster film, Lanka Dahan, made by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1917 and the Indian film industry's first 'double-role' character played by the legendary (male) actor Anna Hari Salunkhe," said Chandrashekhar Pusalkar, grandson of Dadasaheb Phalke. Salunkhe, who created history in 1913 as Queen Taramati, the wife of King Harishchandra in Raja Harishchandra, went a step further in 1917 by playing both Lord Ram and Sita in Lanka Dahan.
Raja Harishchandra signalled the dawn of the Indian film industry—now the world's biggest in terms of number of films made and released annually in different languages—while Lanka Dahan proved the immense potential of an entirely new line of business.
Marking these historic milestones, Pusalkar will inaugurate the first-ever official website dedicated to his grandfather and release a special interview on YouTube seeking posthumous conferment of the country's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, on Dadasaheb Phalke and his wife Saraswati, 10 days before his (Dadasaheb's) 147th birth anniversary.
"The new generation barely knows anything about Dadasaheb Phalke. They have no idea of the strong foundation laid by him for what is now the world's single-biggest film industry," said Pusalkar. He said Lanka Dahan earned so much profit that it became a turning point in Dadasaheb's film career, which was floundering after he left for England post Raja Harishchandra, and returned in 1914 when World War I began.
"The film was made on a shoe-string budget, mainly borrowed from friends, acquaintances and some princely states' rulers... But money was hard to get in the market owing to the fears of World War I. The entire film crew, including actors, was nine, and the lead double-roles played by Salunkhe was a cost-cutting measure," Pusalkar said.
It created cinema history running several weeks to full houses all over India, mesmerising audiences hitherto exposed to local or travelling theatres, the annual Ram Leela performances and the occasional bioscope showing still images.
In Mumbai's Naaz Talkies, Lanka Dahan mopped up a staggering Rs 30,000 in the first week; it was sold out for all shows daily from 7 am to 2 am in Pune's Aryan Talkies and angry patrons vandalised the cinema hall as they failed to get tickets; and in several towns, it attracted excited rural audiences, causing bullock-cart and horse-carriage traffic jams.
From Chennai, the hard cash earnings—all in coins since there were no currency notes in that era—were hauled to Phalke's home in Nashik in five bullock carts, with full police protection during the treacherous journey.
"It was an epochal event for the Phalke couple, a far cry from the days of Raja Harishchandra when Dadasaheb was immersed in film-making and his dedicated wife Saraswati handled all else," said Pusalkar of the rough and tough days.
"She cared for their nine small kids, held up white bedsheets in the blazing sun as a light reflector during outdoors shoots, mixed chemicals for developing the film, perforated the raw film sheets at night under candle light and even cooked food for the entire unit comprising five-six dozen people," said Pusalkar of his bold granny, now acknowledged as India's first film technician.
Lanka Dahan propelled Dadasaheb Phalke's film career into the big league and he set up the Hindustan Cinema Film Company in 1918, through which he made around 30 short films and another 45 full-length feature films, rejecting offers of permanent residency in England for a film company at a salary of 300 pounds per month—a king's ransom!
This was till the talkies era led by Alam Ara stormed the cinema scene and he made his last film Gangavaratan in 1937, which was also his first full-length talkie, after which he retired in his home town Nashik till his death on February 16, 1944.
Sadly, Pusalkar said, only a portion of Raja Harishchandra has survived and is now available in a restored version, while Lanka Dahan has been lost, though subsequent films are largely available in their original forms.
Marking the 104th anniversary of the Raja Harishchandra premiere, the creative team of the new website, Dadasaheb Phalke International Awareness Mission, comprises Veerendra Nayak, Vinay Wagh and Pusalkar. In the website and the YouTube interview, Pusalkar will reveal unknown facts of Dadasaheb Phalke's childhood, his struggles in early life and career, and his multi-faceted personality, packed with some rare, unseen images.
Phalke was a filmmaker, a top-rung photographer and later cinematographer, dramatist, magician, printing technologist who studied in Germany and owner of a small studio in Godhra, south Gujarat—all skills which ultimately helped him create Indian cinema history.