The silent film that launched 100 years of Bollywood

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Today, the Bollywood film industry produces thousands of films a year, seen by millions around the world. But it all started with a humble black-and-white silent movie screened for the first time 100 years ago this Friday.


Friday marked 100 years since the opening of the first ever Indian-made feature film, whose release is regarded as the birth of the country’s huge movie industry known as Bollywood.

Modern Bollywood films are often characterised by their vibrant and elaborate song and dance numbers, dramatic story lines - usually involving themes such as love triangles, scandal, family conflicts, sacrifice and redemption - and running times often exceeding three hours.

But the film that began it all was extremely modest in comparison. Raja Harishchandra, directed by Dadasaheb Phalke and first shown on May 3, 1913 in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, was a humble black-and-white silent production with a running time of about 50 minutes.

Nevertheless, many of the modern Bollywood themes are still evident. Based on an epic Hindu tale, Raja Harishchandra is the story of a noble king (Harishchandra) who sacrifices his kingdom, wife and son to fulfill his promise to the revered Indian sage Vishwamitra.

Impressed by his ideals, the gods declare him to be the living embodiment of truth and restore him to his former regal glory.

The film was an instant success, with crowds of bystanders gathering around the cinema to witness the first screening. It went on to become a hit across India, with audiences seemingly not put off by the fact that all female roles in the film were played by men – since women actors were widely frowned upon at the time.

Phalke, who started out as a small-town photographer, became an icon in India, going on to make 95 feature films up to his death in 1944 at the age of 73. He would become known as the father of Indian cinema, with India’s most prestigious film prize - The Dadasaheb Phalke Award - named after him.

Today, Bollywood is bigger than ever, producing almost 1,500 movies in 2012. According to figures from consultancy KPMG, the value of the Indian film industry is expected to grow from $2 billion to $3.6 billion over the next five years.

And its influence is no longer just limited to the Indian subcontinent, with the fashion, music and dance of Bollywood increasingly infiltrating Western culture.

Recent films such as Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge have taken a large dose of inspiration from Indian cinema, while the pop-music scene is also getting in on the act, as evidenced by Selena Gomez’s Bollywood-inspired performance at April’s MTV Movie Awards.

Meanwhile, in recognition of Bollywood’s centenary, India will be honoured as “guest country” at this month's Cannes Film Festival in France.

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