Raja Harishchandra’s versions on Film
I have often wondered about the route India cinema must have taken had it not got its immense treasure trove of mythological characters and ready made story lines packed with the entire Navarasas. It would have been a very dreary history, after all. The Kings, Queens, conniving Ministers, over-patriotic Commanders-in-Chief and the rest of the entourage we had in our myths were, in my humble opinion, the best a Nation could get. It must have been also the very reason why Dada Saheb Phalke chose to immortalise on celluloid as he planned for India’s first full-length feature film, in 1913.
With its strong palette of values and ideals that even forces a King to forsake everything thats dear to him, including his family and his kingdom, Raja Harishchandra’s story was a guaranteed draw regardless of the medium in which it was conveyed, be it theater, katha or by 1913, the medium of cinema. I feel, it is this very reason that also makes it one of the most indigenously adapted story across regions in India, in almost all languages, and in some places three times over !
From what I can gather from the sources of film history that I trust, there is no surviving copy of the Phalke’s 1913 production! For that matter, the Government has not even bothered to preserve Dada Phalke’s Laboratory in Nashik nor his bunglow. You can read a great account of the Father of Indian Cinema here. What the National Archives has is the 1917 remake of the same story, and that too the first and the last reel of the production. It didn’t stop there. In the Silent Era that ended with Alam Ara ( 1931), there were 7 versions of Raja Harishchandra, and more than 25 versions in regional languages till date that were produced in India, according to Indian Films historian, B Vijayakumar !
From Prithviraj Kapoor in the popular Hindi version to NT Rama Rao in Telugu, Dr Raj Kumar in Kannada, PU Chinnappa in Tamil, Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair in Malayalam, Raja Harishchandra should be the luckiest King in our mythology to be celebrated by the best of our film greats. But it is the Southern Franchisees of the King that delight me the most and will share whatever I know and could gather next.
Dr Rajkumar in Satya Harishchandra.
A clipping from Harishchandrachi Factory, the movie based on the life and times of Dada Phalke’s life, the genius visionary who started it all!