On May 3, 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was shown for the first time in public at Coronation Cinema at Girgaon, Mumbai.
In fact, Raja Harishchandra was preceded by Dadasaheb Torne’s Shree Pundalik, which released almost a year earlier on May 18, 1912. However, the fact that Shree Pundalik was processed overseas and was of only 22 minutes’ duration meant that it was Raja Harishchandra that was recognised as the first full-length indigenous Indian feature film, and its maker, the now iconic Dadasaheb Phalke, regarded as the Father of Indian cinema.
The silent film, which tells the tale of the virtuous and noble king, Harishchandra, in around 40 minutes received a rapturous response and thus began India’s love affair with the movies – a passion that has only grown stronger with the passage of time; an identity that is so unique that it is arguably India’s strongest calling card when it comes to extending its soft power across the world; and a business that has grown exponentially to provide employment to millions and be recognised as an industry in its own right.
With the countdown having begun for a century of Indian cinema in the year 2013, on this page we will occasionally take a look at specific facets of our industry – the good and the not-so-good traits of our fraternity’s DNA, how certain areas have evolved over the years, and the milestones that we have crossed along the way.
Let us start this occasional series of ruminations on a positive note by acknowledging the one characteristic of our industry that serves as a fabulous example for the entire nation – our secularism.
Yes, we often resemble an unimaginative factory that keeps churning out assembly-line fare encompassing the ‘safe’ formula of melodrama, romance, action and music, week after week. Yes, we often airbrush the harsh realities of life with our candy floss offerings where ‘poverty stricken’ heroes and heroines romance against the scenic backdrop of the Swiss Alps. Yet for all the criticism one may throw at us, we definitely cannot be accused of communalism and sectarianism.
At a time when India’s much vaunted secular fibre is often under attack by communal riots; vicious – often violent – debates on religious conversions; and political stoking of the sectarian flames; our industry stands out as a beacon of harmony and non-discrimination in these divisive times.
Ours is a very religious industry. After all, any trade with a success percentage in the low single digits is literally living on a prayer! Coconuts are broken at the mahurat of every film – irrespective of the religion of the producer – and prayers for the success of the film are fervently made by the crew in temples, churches, gurudwaras and mosques.
However, despite personal religiosity, when it comes to work, the only religion that our industry knows is success. Casting and crew decisions are dictated by the talent and box office power of the personnel, not the religion they practice. You are only as good as your last film and your religion or caste in no way detracts from your success nor alleviates your failure.
And so a journey that began 99 years ago with Raja Harishchandra – a film that was rooted in religion – has spawned an industry that epitomises secularism Amen (and wah wah, Ram ji and Subhan’Allah) to that!