BIOSCOPE: The Forgotten Dadasaheb

 ‘Pundlik’ by Dadasaheb Torne was released a year before ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and is actually the first Indian feature film. So why has the filmmaker’s legacy been eliminated from the Indian film industry?

Aditi Kamat Bengaluru 

About a year before Dhundiraj Govind alias Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harish chandra was screened at Coronation Cinematograph in Bombay on May 3, 1913, another Indian, equally passionate about movies, made a film and released it. Ramachandra Gopal alias Dadasaheb Torne — the forgotten father of Indian cinema — made the first Indian film, Pundlik, which was screened at the Coronation Cinematograph on May 18, 1912.

The advertisement of Pundlik in The Times  of  India (May 25, 1912), states, “The popular Hindu drama. Almost half of Bombay Hindu population has seen it last week; we want the other half to do so before
the change.”

Pundlik was a movie adaptation of a play based on the mythological story of Bhakt Pundalik. The movie was shot on a Williamson camera bought from Bourne & Shepherd for Rs 1,000 which had the facility to load 400 feet of film. They also provided a cameraman, one Mr Johnson. The cast and crew were members of the drama company that enacted the same story in a play. The movie suffered budgetary problems as it was a new venture and everyone was an amateur. Times were apparently so hard that Torne had to mortgage his mother’s jewelry, yet, the money problems continued and they decided to approach Bourne & Shepherd again. They said that they would help with the finances and also get the film processed in London in exchange of the Williamson camera.

The movie was completed and sent to London for processing. After developing, the positive print was sent to India. The movie was then edited and released.

‘Pundlik’ was not  recognized as the first Indian feature film over some technicalities. Film historians have concluded that it cannot be accorded this status as it was shot by a cameraman who was not an Indian, it was a recording of a staged play, it was not processed in India, and so on. This has rendered its maker an unsung hero in the history of Indian cinema

Torne was a self-made man who had fought tremendous odds. Born on April 13, 1890, at Sukalwad in Malvan taluka of Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, he lost his father when he was three years old. His mother, Radhabai, brought him up. Due to financial difficulties, he couldn’t complete higher studies.

He found a job with the Greaves Cotton Company which promoted him and posted him in Karachi which was then a part of British India’s Bombay Province .Along with his routine work, he also started the first-ever distribution office in India and called it Famous Pictures which imported Hollywood films and distributed them in India.

It is also said that he imported and supplied the equipment used in the making of the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara. He launched many artistes such as Rose, Shahu Modak, Dada Salvi, Jayashri (Shantaram), Dinkar Kamanna (Dhere), Ratnamala (Kamal Desai).

He founded his own studio, Saraswati Cinetone, in Pune. Under its banner, he produced memorable movies like Shyamsundar, Aut Ghatkecha Raja, Bhakt Pralhad, Chhatrapati Sambhaji, Thaksen Rajputra, Savitri, Raja Gopichand, Bhagva Jhenda, Majhi Ladki and Devyani. Shyamsundar was the first Indian movie to mark a silver jubilee.

Torne also introduced the first double role in Aut Ghatkecha Raja. He was a self-taught technician and was very proficient in editing and sound recording. He successfully experimented with and executed trick scenes in Bhakt Pralhad and Savitri in the 1930s when film technique was not advanced.

He scripted, directed and edited 22 films during his career. He died on January 19, 1960 in Pune. Some of his films, such as Bhakt Pralhad and Savitri are preserved at the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune. 

 As for the  hired cameraman, since movie cameras were new, many people did not know how to handle them. If this made ‘Pundlik’ a foreign film, there would be a long list of Indian films made after it which should be put into the same category

Anil Torne, youngest son of Dadasaheb, once told me that his father incurred huge losses in the 1940s and so rented out his studio to a person from Karachi. This person apparently took a loan on the equipment and the land, and fled overnight to Pakistan during the Partition. Dadasaheb was then ordered by the court to repay the loan, around Rs 40,000. He got a lawyer and fought the case, and the court finally reduced the settlement amount to Rs 2,000, which he paid.

Although simple by nature, at home he was a devout son and, as a father, a strict disciplinarian who loved his children dearly. He always encouraged them in studies and sports. Gardening was his hobby.

Pundlikwas not recognized as the first Indian feature film over some technicalities. Film historians have concluded that it cannot be accorded this status as it was shot by a cameraman who was not an Indian, it was simply a recording of a staged play, it was not processed in India, and so on. This has rendered its maker an unsung hero in the history of Indian cinema.

A book by Shashikanth Kinikar on Torne refers to Marathi journalist Isak Mujawar, who, in his book, Maharashtra: Birthplace of Indian film industry, has mentioned that the total length of the film was 8,000 feet. This book was published by the Maharashtra Information Centre, government of Maharashtra. If that is so, the running time of Pundlik would be one hour and 30 minutes, that of a feature film.

The theatre plays of that period went on for days, so it would have been physically and economically impossible to record a staged play. The movie was an adaptation of the play and the genre was drama.

As for the hired cameraman, since movie cameras were new, many people did not know how to handle them. If this made Pundlik a foreign film, there would be a long list of Indian films made after it which should be put into the same category.

And, indeed, Bourne & Shepherd sent the exposed film to London for processing, since there were no film processing units in India.

The theatre plays  of that period went on for days, so it would have been physically and economically impossible to record a staged play. The movie was an adaptation of the play and the genre was drama

The film underwent all the stages of filmmaking, that is, pre-production, production and post-production, such as story writing, screenplay adapting, scripting, indoor and outdoor shooting, editing, distribution, previewing and reviewing.

After more than two decades of writing to the concerned authorities and asking them to acknowledge Dadasaheb’s contribution to Indian cinema, the Torne family has finally filed a PIL in Bombay High Court. The tragedy is that the positive of the film was lost when the Panshet Dam burst and caused floods in Pune in 1961. Hence, tracing its history is now a Herculean task.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2013