by Sanjit Narwekar
The noted Hindi film comedian, filmmaker and resident wit I.S.Johar, was once asked why India only made musicals. Never at a loss for an answer he replied, “We not only make musicals but also dancicals.” This may have been said in jest but the answer reflects the state of genre films in India. They simply don’t exist and all Hindi films can be wrapped together in a slapdash embrace-all variety which Johar chose to call “musicals and dancicals” or more formally “socials”. But more of that later!
The first feature films made in India were mythologicals. In fact, the first seven years of film production (1913-1919) saw the production of a little less than two dozen films – a majority of which were mythologicals. The exceptions were a historical The Death of Narayanrao Peshwa (1915) and a social Vichitra Gutika or The Enchanted Pills (1920), both directed by S. N. Patankar. The concept of an industry did not exist and, even if it did, it was more as an extension of the Swadeshi movement, almost a cottage industry!
Dadasaheb Phalke who made the first Indian feature film Raja Harishchandra in 1913 wrote about the moment he first dreamed of making an Indian film in the November 1917 issue of Navyug: “While the life of Christ was rolling before my physical eyes, I was mentally visualizing the Gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell … I felt my imagination taking shape on the screen. Could this really happen? Could we, the sons of India, even be able to see Indian images on the screen?”
The mythological, therefore, became the first genre of Indian cinema and it remained so till well into the 1920s when the fledgling trade acquired the size and extent of an industry. The stupendous commercial success of Phalke’s Lanka Dahan – the monies earned by the film is said to have been carried away in bullock carts – first showed the cash-potential of the film trade. Other entrepreneurs were attracted to the business and in a matter of a few years there were several film-producing companies, the more enduring of the lot being Kohinoor, Sharda, Krishna, Maharashtra, Sagar (all on the western coast), Surya, Mahavir, Associated, Star of the East (in the South) and Madan (in the East).
The dynamics of the genre were also unwittingly defined by Phalke. Searching for a truly Indian look for his films, Phalke gravitated towards the paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, best known for his visual depiction of scenes from the Puranas. Raja Ravi Verma was the first Indian painter to use human models to depict Indian Gods and Goddesses. In 1894 he set up a lithographic colour press in Bombay (later shifted to Lonavala) so as to take his art to the widest possible audience. The masses loved his litho prints, particularly those depicting divine beings and, to this day, that is the image that any devout Indian carries in his mind. It was, therefore, natural for Phalke to borrow heavily from Raja Ravi Verma’s portraiture and drapery for the visual look of his films.
Story-writers, as yet an unknown breed, scoured the Puaranas as well as the two main Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to come up with stories for the screen. Other sub-genres which flourished within the realm of mythologicals were devotionals like Sant Sakhu and Sati Toral, legends like Vanraj Chavdo, classicals like Ratnavali and Chandan Malaygiri, costume dramas like Surya Kumari and Chandrakanta, fantasies like Princess Badar and Gul-e-Bakavali.
The other genre that surfaced during the silent era was the historical making its first appearance as early as 1915 but more regularly from the mid-1920s. Films like Poona Raided, Prithviraj Chauhan, Life of Buddha and Sati Padmini were made in 1924 itself and the historical as a genre came to stay as a part of Indian cinema. V.Shantaram made his debut as a director with a historical Netaji Palkar in 1927 and so did his guru...