05/05/2013 10:22 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2013

Raja Harischandra : Celebrating the Centenary of India's First Feature Film

If "Bollywood" could be given a birthday, it might well be May 3, 1913. It was on this day, one hundred years ago, that D.G. "Dadasaheb" Phalke presented before an audience at the Coronation Theater in Bombay his movie Raja Harischandra.

For a film culture that has come to be described as "escapist" and with scant regard for reality and truth, India's first feature film could not have had a more surprising subject. Raja Harischandra recounted the ancient story of a king who always stood for truth. After losing his kingdom, his wife, and his son and suffering innumerable sorrows, all to keep up the promise he made to a sage, the noble king is finally redeemed when the gods (and the sage) reveal that it was all just a test. Not surprisingly, the story of King Harischandra was a favorite of another great believer in truth from the early twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi.

For nearly two decades after the release of Raja Harischandra, Phalke and other pioneers of Indian cinema brought the timeless stories of India's religious traditions to life. Audiences delighted in watching the familiar antics of the child Krishna, or the mighty Hanuman, on screen. It wasn't just entertainment either. In the fascinating way in which the secular and the sacred entwine themselves in India, the films also reflected in many ways the fervent nationalist -- and reformist -- trends of the time. Phalke himself was a sincere nationalist, driven by a desire to create a truly Indian cinema that reflected its traditions and aspirations -- and yet, for this he was inspired by a screening of a movie about Jesus Christ. Indian cinema's eclectic religiosity, in my view, like India, to a large extent, wasn't exclusionary in the least. By the 1930s, as the talkies began, film-makers around the country began to make feature films in a variety of languages, marking the foundations of the other major regional film centers as well (which today are called "Tollywood," "Kollywood" and so on). They made stories about the gods too, and the saints, and often saw in them a very similar message of love, justice, and most of all, equality, that the Mahatma was advocating at that time.

Today, Indian cinema has become one of the largest film industries in the world. While the films of today seem less overtly influenced by the ideals of great men like Gandhi, the fact remains that India's film culture and political culture remain deeply reflective of each other in many ways. For one thing, more film stars have been elected to political office in India than in any other democracy than I know of, and it is not just a matter of charisma. Indian cinema's stories, themes, casting, and sensibilities have often reflected changes in the country's politics as well. Now, as India's film industry enters its second century, it would be worth thinking about what sort of a cultural vision its creators can offer the nation, and the world, in the years ahead. It may not quite be the sort of vision that can get Hollywood renamed as "Hombay"as Salman Rushdie recently said on the Bill Maher show, but it could be a vision that tells us that art, religion, and democracy can all coexist, and inform each other, and our lives a little more than commerce alone. That would perhaps be the greatest tribute to Dadasaheb Phalke, the "Father of Indian Cinema," and to the many great artists who have followed him in creating this wonderful world of meaning for the modern soul.

You can watch Raja Harischandra in all its silent and black-and-white glory here. I also highly recommend the delightful and inspiring recent biopic Harischandraschi Factory (you can watch a trailer here).