We begin our decade-by-decade tribute to 100 years of an indigenous art form that reaches, with its melodrama, magic and music, where other cinemas cannot reach. On the first day of our illustrated tribute to 100 years of Bollywood, we look at 1913-1923.
The cutting edge: laying foundations in the silent era
Dhundiraj G Phalke
He came from a family of priests but when D G Phalke watched a film on the life of Christ, he decided that he was going to turn this new medium into a vehicle for the stories of the subcontinent. And he did exactly that, going to Germany to learn his craft, training boys to play women's roles when even the sex workers of his city turned down his offer to play female roles in his films. He was obsessed; when his son was ill, he didn't rush him back to the city from the outdoor shoot of Raja Harishchandra, his great epic. He simply placed him on a funeral pyre and shot a scene in which the king's son dies. As in Harishchandra's story, it all came out right in the end. The boy recovered, the film made history and Phalke fathered the film industry in India. The highest award the government of India bestows is named after him.
Jehangir Framji Madan
By 1905, J F Madan had two prominent theatre companies, the Elphinstone and the Khatau-Alfred, which he had bought down to the rights to their repertoires. This meant that when he got into the motion picture business — by 1902, some say, though the accepted date is 1905 — he had a ready stock of scenarios and plays. He was a distributor, too, and had the agency rights for Pathé. Madan & Sons, at its peak, had 172 theatres and accounted for half of India's box office.
She was billed as "Glorious Gohar" but she was not just a pretty face who could look like the drunkard's wife in Typist Girl. Like so many of the women of the silent era, she had a shrewd sense of business and went off to form Jagdish Films and Ranjit Movietone, both of which were successful in their own right. Gohar represents one of the women who understood that it was a man's world out there but who knew that if she was going to last, she would have to follow the money trail into production.
Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar
Bhatavdekar sold cameras and camera equipment but he is also, almost certainly, the first of the Indian filmmakers. Like George Melies, he took his cues from what he saw around him, shooting the antics of monkeys and an Indian-style wrestling match. He stayed a documentarist and as we all know, the documentary boys always take a backseat to the feature filmmakers, and so he and others like him (Hiralal Sen comes to mind) lost the race to Phalke.
Baburao Mestri, to give him his real name, was a Renaissance man. His company Maharashtra Film was one of the most sophisticated of its time. He experimented with filters and with backdrops of red and yellow that would give him the right grey tones in his films. He brought in filters — using coloured glass — and used his training as a painter and sculptor in the academic style to create a look for Indian cinema, a look that runs in subterranean spaces, under the gloss and Hollywood looks of Bollywood today.
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