Our concern here is to rationalize experimental observations of failure modes brought about by indentation of hard thin ceramic films deposited on metallic substrates. By undertaking this exercise, we would like to evolve an analytical framework that can be used for designs of coatings. In Part I of the paper we develop an algorithm and test it for a model system. Using this analytical framework we address the issue of failure of columnar TiN films in Part II [J. Mater. Res.21, 783 (2006)] of the paper. In this part, we used a previously derived Hankel transform procedure to derive stress and strain in a birefringent polymer film glued to a strong substrate and subjected to spherical indentation. We measure surface radial strains using strain gauges and bulk film stresses using photo elastic technique (stress freezing). For a boundary condition based on Hertzian traction with no film interface constraint and assuming the substrate constraint to be a function of the imposed strain, the theory describes the stress distributions well. The variation in peak stresses also demonstrates the usefulness of depositing even a soft film to protect an underlying substrate.