Article Silent

Pundalik (1912): Is this India’s first ever film?

On Dadasaheb Torne’s 57th death anniversary (19 January), we look at the controversy behind the silent film, Pundalik, which has been denied the title of India's first film.

Ramchandra Gopal Torne

Sonal Pandya

One of India’s first silent films (and possibly first feature film) is Pundalik, which came out with a Hollywood silent film, A Dead Man’s Child, on 18 May 1912. The devotional film on the Hindu saint, Bhakt Pundalik, was actually the staging of a Marathi play by Ramrao Kirtikar performed by the Shripad Sangeet Mandali of Nashik.

Pundalik was filmed by an Englishman named Johnson at Mangaldas Wadi, near Grant Road in Bombay. It was reviewed by The Times of India newspaper a week later on 25 May where the reviewer wrote: 'Pundalik has the power to arrest the attention of Hindus. As a religious drama, it has few equals.'

The dual poster of A Dead Man's Child
and Pundalik.

Narayan Govind (NG) Chitre, the Coronation Cinematograph manager, PR Tipnis, and Ramchandra Gopal (RG) Torne all came together to put up a shooting script of the play and the ‘film’ was directed by Torne. Different publications have different views on the director of Pundalik. Sometimes Torne has been credited, sometimes it is Tipnis, and many a time all three names are attached to the film. The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema also suggests that Torne may have been marginally involved in the film.

After Pundalik was filmed, the negatives were sent to London for processing. The now-lost film was said to be 22 minutes long. Eventually, Torne set up his own studio, Saraswati Cinetone, producing films like Raja Gopichand and Aut Ghatkecha Raja.

Film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla defended the film, writing: 'It is obvious that Pundalik being based on a story, specially enacted for the camera by actors made up for their roles and taking up a half of the bill of fare, was a feature film in every sense and has, therefore, to be acknowledged as India’s first picture, preceding DG Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra exactly by a year. It also means that Indians saw their own first feature film earlier than the Americans, who, according to the noted film historian Arthur Knight, saw the France-made Queen Elizabeth as their feature film only on July 12, 1912. The only limitation of Pundalik was that it was shot by an English cameraman and was clubbed together with a foreign story film, whereas Phalke’s effort was completely indigenous.'

On the other side of the argument, according to the late PK Nair, founder of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), the reason why Pundalik does not qualify as a feature film is because it was only a photographic recording. Filmmaker Hiralal Sen also did the same as Chitre, Tipnis and Torne earlier and his productions were not considered as films. Therefore, Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913) is widely regarded as India’s first feature film.