The history of cinema is recent, spanning just over a century. In its 123-year journey in India, several film industries have blossomed across the country. While Dadasaheb Phalke, Father of Indian Cinema, is credited to have created the first feature film of India, history has almost forgotten Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar, widely considered to be the first Indian to make a motion picture in the country.
On his 151st birth anniversary, ThePrint remembers the photographer who was part of the earliest motion picture history in India.
Brush with cinema
Born on 15 March 1868, Bhatavdekar was a portrait photographer in Bombay. His love for making cinema was influenced by the Lumiere Brothers, pioneers of the motion picture.
Having received praise in Paris in 1895 for their new camera, Cinématographe, that could capture motion, the Lumiere Brothers settled for screening six of their films in India at the Watson Hotel in Bombay in 1896.
For Bhatavdekar, a photographer and photography equipment dealer, this was a rare opportunity to see a new kind of technology. He reportedly went to the screening where tickets were priced at Re 1. The technology was termed the “miracle of the century” by The Times of India at that time.
The magic of the motion picture compelled Bhatavdekar, who had a studio in Kennedy Bridge, Bombay (now Mumbai), to procure a motion picture camera from London for 21 guineas, according to Silhouette Magazine.
Sawe Dada, as he was popularly called, then proceeded to create the country’s first film The Wrestlers. It was not a feature film like Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913), India’s first, but a short documentary or a factual film. The film was a recording of a wrestling match in Bombay’s Hanging Garden.
Courtesy the film, Bhatavdekar is now known as the “Father of Indian Factual Film”.
“At Lumiere film screenings in Bombay was present a local photographer — H.S. Bhatavdekar (Sawe Dada). He was keen on getting hold of the Lumiere Cinematographe which was the three-in-one apparatus — camera, projector and processing machine. Bhatavdekar was the first Indian to create moving images in India,” the National Film Development Corporation of India writes in Indian Cinema a Visual Voyage.
Throughout his life, he made a few short silent black and white documentary films based on subjects like training of monkeys (Man and Monkey, 1899), renovation of Parsi fire temple (Atash Behram, 1901), the life of a British Member of Parliament of Parsi Indian origin, (Landing of Sir M.M. Bhownuggree, 1901) and others.
Covering the ‘Delhi Durbar’
Another milestone of Bhatavdekar’s career was the coverage of the ‘Delhi Durbar’ — the coronation of Edward VII in 1903 — in Delhi’s Coronation Park.
While the event was primarily covered by Robert W Paul Company with around 30 cameras, Bhatavdekar also reportedly shot the proceedings of the royal affair. His film, however, is not available online.
Sawe Dada’s presence at the Durbar is also documented in Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c.1880-1950: “Bhatavdekar moved from wrestling matches to historical events of somewhat greater national significance, producing and screening short films on subjects like the Delhi Durbar of 1903, which marked the enthronement of Edward VII as Emperor of India.”
In the last phase of his life, Bhatavdekar became the manager of Gaiety Theatre in Bombay. He died on 20 February 1958.