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Not Just Iconic Paintings, Raja Ravi Varma Helped India Get Our First Film!

Not Just Iconic Paintings, Raja Ravi Varma Helped India Get Our First Film!

When we talk about India’s first film, the legend who comes to mind is Dadasaheb Phalke. Because few Indians know about his unsung connection with Raja Ravi Varma. #LostTales #History

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For his 2020 calendar collection, G Venket Ram, a Chennai-based photographer, roped in twelve famous personalities from the southern film and dance industries and adapted masterpieces by Raja Ravi Varma into photographs.

Featuring Shruti Hassan, Samantha Akkineni, Ramya Krishnan, Shobhana and Lissy Lakshmi, the exquisite photographs which recreate iconic paintings like ‘Woman Holding A Fruit,’ ‘There Comes Papa,’ or ‘The Maharashtrian Lady,’ have left viewers in awe. 

While the actors look resplendent, and the photoshoot was no-doubt meticulous, its interesting to note that Ravi Varma’s connection with films can be traced way back in the pages of history, with another stalwart—Dadasaheb Phalke.

In a way, Varma was the unsung hero behind India’s first film Raja Harishchandra. We took a walk down the memory lane to resurrect the untold story! 

A trusted employee and companion

In 1894, Ravi Varma was at the peak of his popularity. For the first time in the country, perhaps, a painter’s art was no more restricted within the four walls of his studio and his closely-knitted circle of connoisseurs. 

Varma’s paintings of Hindu goddesses were replicated in bulk and worshipped at almost every Hindu household, especially in South India. 

From advertisement pamphlets to high-end exhibitions— his works unbridled entry everywhere in the daily life of an average Indian. 

It was at this juncture that he decided to make his art further ubiquitous, and set sail towards Bombay (Mumbai). At Ghatkopar, he established a press which used oleography and lithography for mass printing of his paintings. At that time, his press happened to be one of the most innovative in India, featuring a horde of cutting-edge machines. 

A young photographer named Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was one of Varma’s most trusted employees at the press when it came to perfecting the craft of photo-litho transfers of his art. Gradually, Phalke became one of his most trusted companions.

Ravi Varma’s generous gesture

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in the form of Bombay’s infamous plague epidemic at the turn of the century that claimed over millions of lives. His printing business went downhill following the crisis, and by 1899, it became deeply debt-ridden.

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In 1901, the press was sold to Fritz Schleicher, the German technician associated with the company for supplying machinery.

After selling the property, Ravi Varma decided to offer Phalke, his favourite employee, a considerable share of the sales proceedings. He was well-aware of Phalke’s dream to work on movie-making and provided the necessary support, both financially and morally. 

Dadasaheb Phalke

Ravi Varma’s influence on Phalke’s filmmaking

On 3rd May 1913, Raja Harishchandra, India’s first full-length feature film directed by Phalke, was released at Coronation Cinema in Mumbai. For the first time, the Indian audience witnessed the magic of the motion picture. 

Its impact was tremendous—Phalke went on to become Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, and the film is considered by many to be the foundation for the film industry in the country.

It is argued that Ravi Varma’s grand gesture helped Phalke produce his dream project, and film historians have continuously reiterated the unmistakable influence of Varma’s paintings in Phalke’s movies. 

A scene from Raja Harishchandra (Credits: IMDb)


From lightings to set decor, the mythical characters in Phalke’s movies often resembled Varma’s paintings. In fact, Raja Harishchandra opens with tableau, which is most probably inspired by Ravi Varma’s portrait of a king with his wife and son. 

Phalke remained an ardent enthusiast of Raja Ravi Varma till his last day. The amalgamation of their creative geniuses gifted India with some of the best pieces of art till date. 


Also Read: Raja Deen Dayal, the Unsung Legend Behind Some of India’s Oldest & Rarest Photos


(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

Featured Image Credits: Wikimedia, IMDb

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