Only if there was the plethora of choice the filmmakers today have for selecting the cast of a prospective movie, we could have had a female playing the role of Raja Harishchandra’s wife in the first silent Indian cinema. Yes, it is as surprising as it is true that the first Bollywood movie “Harishchandra” had an all-male cast, even the female role.
On 3rd May 1913, the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke released the first full length silent cinema, “Raja Harishchandra”, based on a mythological character and that marked the beginning of Bollywood. The story revolves around the character of a kind and righteous king Raja Harishchandra, his wife and his children, and his adventures with the sage Vishwamitra.
For the role of Raja Harishchandra, D.D.Dobke, a Marathi stage actor was selected. But at that time, acting in a movie was such a taboo, that inspite of intense advertisement and a lot of struggle, Phalke couldn’t find a woman willing to play the female role in the movie. Not even the nautch girls (dance girls) would agree.
Anna Salunke who was a former cook and waiter in a restaurant on Grant Road in Mumbai was later roped in to play the role of queen Taramati in the movie. Dadasaheb Phalke, a frequent customer of the restaurant, got the idea of casting Salunke in the female role, seeing his effeminate figure and slender hands. Salunke was working in the restaurant for Rs 10 per month, Phalke coaxed him by offering Rs 15.
Anna Salunke later played the first double role in 1917, in another Dadasaheb Phalke movie called, Lanka Dahan. He played the roles of both Rama and Sita. In the next 20 years, Anna Salunke acted in several movies including five female roles. He became the most popular actor and actress of his time. Later when his masculine features were more obvious, he couldn’t act in female roles any more. Even while playing the role of Sita, his biceps were seen. After 1923, he quit his acting career and started working as a cinematographer.
So that was the story of the cook cum actor cum actress cum cinematographer, who mesmerized the Indian audience for almost two decades and helped Bollywood gain popularity which today is one of the biggest film industry in the world.