May 3: The Birth Of Bollywood

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery year, the Indian film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, produces more films than any other nation. For comparison purposes, let’s look at the year 2009, the last year I could easily find stats for both Indian and American film. In 2009, 558 films were produced by American companies. India on the other hand produced 2961 celluloid films in 2009, 1288 of which were feature length. Today, we’re going back to the birth of Bollywood and celebrating the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, which premiered on this day in 1913.

The 40 minute silent film tells the classic legend of Raja Harishchandra, a noble and righteous king who swore to never break an oath and never lie. The gods and a local sage decide to test Harischandra’s twin vows and over the course of the legend Harischandra loses his kingdom, his wealth and his family, eventually having to sell himself into slavery. As the story goes, Harischandra stays true to his word and eventually the gods reveal themselves, and offer him an instant place in heaven for he and his wife. However, Harischandra says that although he may no longer be king, he could not leave his subjects behind. The gods refused, but when Harischandra asked if he could remain on Earth and allow all of his subjects to go to heaven in his place, the gods recognized his honor and piety and allowed all members of Harischandra’s kingdom to come to heaven with him.

For Raja Harishchandra director Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, making the film was a struggle worthy of the film’s protagonist. Phalke and his wife ran the entire production; he was the director, writer, producer, set designer and casting director while his wife was in charge of washing costumes and making food for the cast and crew of roughly 500 people. It’s amazing that the Phalkes were able to get 500 people to work on the film, as at the time it was considered taboo to work in motion pictures. Due to this, the film has an all-male cast, as no woman wanted to be a part of the film. To get around this taboo, Phalke told those involved with the film that if they were asked where they were working, they should simply say that they were working at a factory owned by a Mr. Harishchandra.

A small private screening was arranged in April 1913 for many influential Indian citizens and journalists. The film was met with rave reviews, and when it officially opened to the public on May 3, the lines stretched for blocks. The film was an instant success and the taboo against working in film quickly fell. By 1930, India was already producing 200 films a year. Tragically, although bits and pieces of Raja Harishchandra remain, the complete film is believed lost.

So, in celebration of Bollywood, let’s drink an Indian inspired cocktail. The Madras is named after the famed pink Indian shirt whose color this drink resembles.


  • 1 1/2 ounces Vodka
  • 3 ounces cranberry juice
  • 1 ounces orange juice

Pour vodka and cranberry juice into an ice filled highball glass and stir. Top off with orange juice.

Tomorrow: A master of French cinema.


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