The first known film about the life of Buddha was Buddhadev (English title: Lord Buddha) which was produced by the well-known Indian filmer Dadasaheb Phalke (1870-1944) in 1923. Two years later, another important Buddha film was released, The Light of Asia (Hindi title: Prem Sanyas). This movie was made by the German filmmaker Franz Osten (1875-1956). Himansu Rai (1892-1940) played the Buddha. Its title suggests that the script was based on the book The Light of Asia composed by the British poet Sir Edwin Arnold, which was issued by the Theosophical Society in 1891, but, in fact, its contents deviate deliberately from Arnold's book. The film was a greater success in Europe than in India. It gives a somewhat romantic picture of the life of Buddha. Buddhadev as well as The Light of Asia were silent films.
On March 20, 1952, the third feature film representing the life of Buddha had its premiere, Dedication of the Great Buddha. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982) directed the picture for the Japanese film company Daiei Eiga. It was nominated for the 1953 Cannes Film Festival.
The fourth film about Buddha was a documentary film entitled Gotama the Buddha. It was released by the government of India in 1957 as part of the Buddha's 2500th birthday celebration. Rajbans Khanna acted as director and Bimal Roy as producer. It got an honourable mention on the filmfestival of Cannes in 1957 because of its beauty and high morality. It is a black-and-white film consisting of beautiful images of natural environments, archeological sites, reliefs and paintings, ancient ones from Ajanta as well as modern ones accompanied by a voice over relating the history of Buddha.
There was a film Angulimal in 1960 that was not directly on the life of Buddha, but was on the life of a dacoit and killer who used to loot and kill innocent people and cut their finger and made a garland of such fingers to wear in his neck, thus he got the name Angulimal (Angluli: finger, mala: garland). The film depicts the incident that such dreaded dacoit once meets Buddha when Buddha was passing to a forest and goes ahead to kill him, but was impressed by Buddha's persona and his teachings and then converted to a Buddhist monk.
The fifth film about Buddha was a Japanese one, Shaka, produced by Kenji Misumi in 1961. It was shown in the USA in 1963 under the title Buddha. On February 13, 1964 a Korean film about the life of the Buddha had its premiere, Seokgamoni, the Korean translation of the Sanskrit Shakyamuni, which in Mahayana Buddhism is the term for the historical Buddha. The context in which the life of Buddha is narrated is in both films more Japanese or Korean respectively than Indian.
In 1997 the Indian producer G.A. Sheshagiri Rao made a Buddha film as well. It was simply entitled Buddha. This one did not roll in cinemas, but it was only sold on DVD. This one is also the longest movie about Buddha, as it consists of five DVDs with approximately 180 minutes film each.
In 2001 the French filmmaker Martin Meissonnier made a documentary film entitled La Vie de Bouddha (Life of Buddha). In the film images are shown of the places where Buddha was during his lifetime, while Nepalese story tellers relate his life story. In the last part of the picture the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the essential doctrines of Buddha.
In 2008 the Indian K. Raja Sekhar produced another Buddha film entitled Tathagata Buddha. The original film was in Telugu, but later it was dubbed in Hindi. This film relates Buddha's life story until its end, his death - or perhaps better: his parinirvana. The film is only available on DVD.
Buddhists and Buddha Films
Who looks at the series of Buddha films produced since 1923 will discover that almost all of them are made by Hindus and Westerners. Only two films are produced in countries with a great number of Buddhists within their borders, Japan and South Korea, but it is unclear whether the producers of these films were Buddhists.
In the 1990s B.K. Modi, the president of the Maha Bodhi Society, initiated a project of making a film about the life of the Buddha. He claimed to be supported by Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. The well-known Indian filmdirector Mira Nair (b. 1957) was interested at the time. Later it was said that the success of Bertolucci's The Little Buddha persuaded the participants that this was not the right moment to release another film about Buddha's life. However, it is a fact that when Mira Nair visited the headquarters of the Maha Bodhi Society to prepare the project, she was confronted with such strong protests that she abandoned the project. It is known that Buddhists in countries like Sri Lanka and Burma abhor the very idea of any human being impersonating the Buddha in a film. After its release in 1925 The Light of Asia was banned in Sri Lanka and the Malay States (contemporary West Malaysia).
In 2004 the Indian filmmaker Shekar Kapur announced that he planned to make a film about Buddha's life based on Thich Nhat Hanh's book Old Path, White Clouds. At first he said that the premiere would take place in 2006. Later, however, he announced its premiere to take place in 2008. And today it is planned for 2010.
B.K. Modi promised that the Maha Bodhi Society would finance the project, whereas Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso has given permission to produce the film. The script is judged by Deepak Chopra and the American screenwriter Melissa Mathison. Western film stars, such as Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, have already announced that they are willing to play a minor role in the film.
However, the circumstance that time and again the project is postponed with two years reveals that there is also strong opposition against the film among Buddhists .
List of films on the life of Buddha
|Date||English title||Original title||Country||Notes||IMDB|
|1923||Lord Buddha||Buddhadev||India||Silent film by Dadasaheb Phalke|||
|1925||The Light of Asia||Prem Sanyas||India / Germany||Silent film by Franz Osten|||
|1952||Dedication of the Great Buddha||Daibutsu kaigen (大仏改元)||Japan||Film by Teinosuke Kinugasa|||
|1957||Gotoma the Buddha||India||Documentary produced by Bimal Roy. Director was Rajbans Khanna|||
|1961||Buddha||Shaka||Japan||Film by Kenji Misumi|||
|1964||Shakyamuni Buddha||Seokgamoni||South Korea||Film by Il-ho Jang|||
|1967||Gautama the Buddha||India||Rerelease of Bimal Roy's documentary|||
|1993||Little Buddha||Italy / France / Liechtenstein / UK||Film by Bernardo Bertolucci, where the life of Buddha is enacted as a story within the story|||
|1997||Buddha||India||Serial produced by G. Adi Sheshagiri Rao. Director was P.C. Reddy|
|2001||Life of Buddha||La Vie de Bouddha||India and France||Documentary produced by Martin Meissonnier|
|2004||The Legend of Buddha||India||2D animation film|||
|2007||Life of Buddha||Phra Phuttajao||Thailand||2D animation film produced by Wallapa Phimtong|||
|2008||Tathagata Buddha||India||Telugu film on DVD produced by K. Raja Sekhar|
|2008||Buddha||To be based on the book Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh|||
- Aloysius Pieris, Love Meets Wisdom: A Christian Experience of Buddhism, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 1990, p. 54, 125.
- Rachel Dwyer, Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, London et al.: Routledge, p. 28.