Retro Review: Raja Harishchandra (1913).
The first feature film from India, Raja Harishchandra, may not have aged well, but offers a glimpse into another era.
Sometimes a movie’s cultural impact is more interesting than its actual quality. Raja Harishchandra fits neatly into that category. This was the very first feature film to come of the nascent film industry in India, and as such it was a tremendous technical leap. Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, was a photographer who felt the allure of motion pictures so deeply that he created India’s first feature film by force of will. He went abroad to learn the techniques of film making, and returned home to write, direct, produce, and edit the film. He even did the make-up and set design! While much of the production value of the film has aged poorly, it still stands as a testament to its creator and to the cradle of film making that India would go on to become.
Raja Harishchandra (1912).
King Harishchandra heads out to the forest on a royal hunt. There, he hears sounds of distress and finds a man who seems to be imprisoning three young women. The King releases the women, only to discover that they are supernatural, and that the old man is actually a sage who was performing a ritual for a blessing. To atone, the King gives the sage his entire kingdom. Not satisfied, the sage requests an additional tithe – and the blameless king sells himself and his family into servitude to pay it. Over the course of several years, Harishchandra, his wife Taramati, and their son are continually tested, and ultimately are rewarded by the gods for their selfless devotion.
A Tale of Loss.
The actual film stock of Raja has seen better days. Only two reels of the four reel film are extant, and even those two reels are in doubt. When fire claimed the original print, Phalke re shot the film in 1917, but this version was much shorter than the original. To this day, film historians debate which film’s reels it was that were preserved. The 1912 or the 1917? Either way, we luckily also have some documentary footage of Phalke shooting the film to draw insight from.
Depsite a digital scanning, the footage is heavily marred. Due to either novice technique or over-exposure, much of the film is washed out and over-saturated. The usual suspects such as imperfections in the film/lens are visible, and several frames have had portions of them damaged in the transfer process. The original stock was highly combustible, so it’s kind of a miracle that it was around to be digitized at all!
Learning on the Job.
On a technical level, Raja Harishchandra does come out much better. In many of the scenes, the camera is unsteady and bobs about before settling on the subject. Lighting is a constant problem, either being too dark or too bright. The cuts are fairly well done, but simplistic. The surviving scene with the three supernatural figures uses rudimentary jump cuts to make the trio appear and disappear. Other technical problems highlight that the film is definitely a first effort.
The version I was able to watch had the archival footage and what appears to be several other Phalke projects appended to the short sequences that survive from Raja. These later films show a better understanding of camera techniques, blocking, and lighting.
The action that unfolds is credible. While it doesn’t have the polish of other contemporary films such as Cleopatra or Quo Vadis? (both released in 1913) it doesn’t feel like a difference in type but of degree. Some of the costuming looks great, while others a bit chintzy. The settings are generally impressive and well composited, even if they sometimes get mugged by the lighting. The acting is in line with much of the films from the time. It’s heavy on pantomime that can look unnatural, but watching scenes from 1913’s Cleopatra, it was pretty much industry standard. The story of Harishchandra is fascinating, but its hard to tell how much of that story would come through without having a synopsis of the legend handy.
Raja Harishchandra is at once disappointing and impressive. The sheer amount of dedication it took to make a 2 1/2 hour mythical epic astounds me. That it was also the director’s first film is even more astounding. What little of the film that survives won’t knock your hat off visually, but it’s a fascinating artifact. Having seen it makes me want to see more of Phalke’s catalog (if any of its still exists!) It’s a historical curiosity, and a heck of a personal achievement, but I can’t say any but film historians should run out and hunt this artifact down. Those interested in the story of Harishchandra have about half a dozen versions from 1952 to 1985, so track those down if you want to find out what happens to the honest-to-a-fault king.