The story of Raja Harishchandra was a popular subject among early filmmakers, with Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, creating the first silent feature film about the story in 1913.
Spurred on by the popularity of mythological and historical films, a few others adapted the fable but with little attention to costuming and set design. It was Ayodhya Ka Raja (1932) by V Shantaram, directed by Prabhat Film Company, which gave us a definitive film based on the story.
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Founded by Vishnupant Damle, Syed Fatehlal, V Shantaram and Keshavrao Dhaiber, Prabhat Film Company was the only studio entirely owned by filmmaker-technicians.
The company had found success with silent films such as Gopal Krishna (1929), Khooni Khanjar (1930) and Chandrasena (1931) where the mythological or historical subject was interpreted through the prism of contemporary reality.
The arrival of walkie talkies in India saw the release of a multitude of films to take advantage of the novelty of sound films. The emphasis was on song, music and dance, and the era precipitated the rise of singing stars. Despite the mad rush to make sound films, Shantaram was in no rush to jump on the bandwagon and took his time to switch to sound with the first bilingual film, Ayodhya Ka Raja, titled Ayodhyecha Raja in Marathi, in 1932.
The Marathi version would have been the first sound film in the language but was beaten by Sant Tukaram (1932) by just one week!
With Govindrao Tembe, Durga Khote, Baburao Pendharkar and Master Vinayak, Ayodhya Ka Raja is based on a well-known story from the Ramayana. The truth-loving Raja Harishchandra (Tembe), the king of Ayodhya, resides comfortably in his kingdom with his queen Taramati (Khote) and their son. The sage Vishwamitra challenges him to abandon his kingdom and demands a thousand mohurs or coins, which he must obtain as alms.
Accepting this spell with folded hands, Harishchandra sets out and tries to earn some money. The family faces several difficulties and the queen is sold into slavery to earn the required amount. His new owner attempts to assault Taramati and his young son intervenes, getting killed in the struggle. Taramati is charged with the murder and sentenced to be executed. However, the deity Kashi-Vishveshwara brings the boy back to life and restores Harishchandra as the rightful king.
The production cost was over Rs1 lakh, an astronomical sum at the time, and both versions of the film, which boasted elaborate and realistic sets, were hugely successful, knocking lakhs at the box office, according to the May 7, 1939 edition of The Bombay Chronicle, a newspaper that no longer exists. In fact, the Hindi version was even screened in Burma, Java, and Sumatra.
The film was photographed by Dhaiber while Damle and Fatehlal served as sound engineer and art director respectively. Ayodhya Ka Raja also stood out for introducing Khote, an educated Brahmin woman, for the first time as a high society woman.
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Although Khote debuted with a small role in the silent film Farebi Jaal (1931), the film was a wet squib and it was not until V Shantaram in Ayodhya Ka Raja that she was introduced to the acting profession.
In her autobiography, I, Durge Khote: An Autobiography, she recalled: “Acting had to be natural but appealing at the same time – Shantarambapu taught me that lesson. I cried copiously in a scene from Ayodhyecha Raja, but the impact of this whole streak was reduced to some degree by my lack of control over the flow of tears How to control emotions, how to make them appealing – this guru taught me painstakingly.
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We get a glimpse of the grueling filming schedule and the filmmaker’s keen attention to detail when Khote recalls, “There was no electricity in Kohlapur at that time. We had to be in the studio at dawn because all the shooting had to be done in natural light. The make-up, the costume, the hairstyles had to be finished by seven-thirty when the filming started. This lasted until about five o’clock when the last rays of the sun faded. There was a one hour lunch break in between. After my make-up removal and when the rehearsals for the dialogues and the songs, the narration of the scenes of the next day, etc. were over, and I was going home, it would be seven o’clock in the evening. Then I did my exercises to lose weight and I gave myself a massage to take away the fatigue of the day. By the time I had finished the massage and bath and had dinner at nine o’clock, I was totally exhausted.
In 1932 alone, the Prabhat Film Company made three Marathi films, Agni Kankan and Maya Machhindra, except Ayodhyecha Raja. All three were directed by Shantaram. The studio has dominated Marathi cinema for over a decade and fueled by Shantaram’s thirst for experimentation and socially powerful themes have given us some of the seminal films of Indian cinema.