This is the earliest surviving talkie of Indian cinema. The prints of Alam Are (1931) were burned in an accident in 2003 in Pune, so this is the only one we know of.
In Ayodha King Harishchandra rules. The sage Vishwamitra comes to his kingdom, saying that if he promises to give up everything he has, the reward shall be all the greater. Soon King Harishchandra, along with Queen Taramati and their son Prince Rohitashwa go into the world to earn he money to pay the sage his due. They are met with trouble in the Kingdom of Kashi. In resigning his position as King, Harishchandra has given his kingdom to another, one who does not do the duties as well as he did.
This movie, though being the first talkie – a Marathi film – carries already hallmarks that would end up defining Indian cinema in the later decades. There is splendorous sets and costumes, references to mythology and singing and dancing are fully taken advantage of with the new system. The story is the same as India’s firs full-length movie, a silent movie named Raja Harishchandra (1913). Made during the time when India was still under the British Raj, this movie, with its story and splendour, seems very removed from the realities of that time. Being a mythological tale, this has the addition of being a distraction from the British Raj for the time. Yet the story slowly starts confronting the realities of life that was no doubt very familiar to the audiences.
On the technical or story side, this is not the most interesting movie. You can hear the use of the camera, the humming in the background, during scenes. The acting is of the time, stiff and very much like it was taken from the stage to the screen in the most literal way.
The acting is of the time, stiff and very much like it was taken from the stage to the screen in the most literal way. The Maharjirao of Kashi, being the most moustache-twirling villain – with a brilliant moustache to twirl, indeed. Compared to him, the ever kind and selfless Govindrao Tempe as King Harishchandra is less impressive. He sings a lot in this movie with his lovely voice, even if his character is less colourful than those around him.
For me, the highlight of the movie was Durga Khote as Queen Taramati, who would later be Jodhaa in Mughal-e-Azam (1960), another epic. Her second introductory scene, where she sings in her bed as a maidservant brushes her hair. Then the king enters the room and she turns, her crown glittering and her smile unabashedly of a woman in love. She is the good sanskari wife, but she has a biting tongue and when she berates the Maharjirao of Kashi for wanting to have sex with her. She has spirit and is the rock of the family. Her eyes speaking volumes.
There is a nice scene at the end of the first hour, where the Prince asks why in the city they are selling people as slaves in the market. Taramati answers: “For the happiness of the wealthy people and for the sorrow of the poor.” Both a dig at the rich and slave trade, which was very nice to see.
Indeed, this film has a very anti-capitalist stance. Harishchandra and Tarimati may do good work for long hours, but they will together earn only ten coins. People are sold in the market, even Harishchandra has to sell himself to pay a debt. When Harishchandra requests to have a thousand coins, to pay a debt, by just earning a new one that he will have to repay all his life. He, it turns out, is only worth 50 coins, while his wife is 950 coins. So, yeah, it is a sad scene that is contrasted with Tarimati’s innocence in paying the debt. While the sacrifice is for them both to go into slavery. The separation of the family scene is very sad indeed, with all the longing looks, hugs and tears to soften even the hardest heart.
Probably a good one time watch, with its quality and all. Not for everyone, I guess, unless you are an avid film fan or are interested in India’s film history. Really, if you need to watch it for anyone, then do so for Durga Khote – she truly makes this movie hers.
Thank you for reading!