Phalke’s Dream Factory

Once upon a time in India! There was a man enchanted by the finest illusion ever produced by mankind i.e. Cinema. A screening of silent film, Life of Christ (1910), mesmerized him so much that it lead to a historic event. At the age of 40 years he gave up everything and did whatever it took to produce first indigenous feature film of India. Exactly 100 years ago on 3rd May 1913, Raja Harishchandra, was released for public at the Coronation Theater in Mumbai (then Bombay). He went on to produce more than 100 movies and short films over a span of 19 years and eventually he is known as father of Indian Cinema – Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (also known as Dadasaheb Phalke).

D.G. Phalke was inclined towards various forms of arts from his childhood. He first enrolled into J.J. School of Arts and continued studies in Kala Bhawan in Baroda. He was a painter, sculptor and photographer. He chose photography as his profession and started a studio in small town in Gujarat – Godhra. In between few years he worked as a draftsman in Archeological Society of India and gave up this job. He came to Mumbai to start a printing press with the help of a Gujarati businessman. During the days of printing business specialized with lithography and oleograph, he was acquainted with famous painter Raja Ravi Varma. Due some ideological differences with his business partner he stopped printing business. In 1910, he went to see a silent film, Life of Christ, which blown away his mind. He was captivated by idea of translating mythological stories about Indian gods onto the screen in the form of motion picture.

Like this an art student, photographer, artist and amateur magician – Phalke – obsessed with a dream went to England. He met Cecil Hepworth –one of the pioneers of British Film Industry – at Walton Studios. He took training to handle a Williamson camera and bought himself one. Phalke sold everything he had and brought these instruments to India. Now herculean task was to convince investors to collect money needed for production of the film, which was a new and unorthodox business. Creative Phalke came up with an innovative idea for this purpose. He took shots of a growing pea plant and produced a short film which showed Birth of a Pea Plant. Amazed producers agreed to help Phalke in production of film with few conditions.

Phalke decided to make a film on honest & noble king Harishchandra and his life. He put an advertisement in local newspaper for cast and support staff. In those days it was a taboo for women to work in theater and other public performances. Hence Phalke went on scouting for women to act in film, but failed to get one. So the role of Taramati was played by a young boy named Salunke, who was a cook in a hotel. D.D. Dabke played the role of the King and Phalke’s son Babaray played the role of Rohidas.

Story of Harishchandra and his exile along with wife Taramati & son Rohidas for keeping a promise given to Sage Vishwamitra was very well known to commoners of India. In the exile, some dramatic events lead to death of Rohidas. Lord Shiva pleased with Harishchandra’s devotion brings back his son to life and offers his family a place in heaven. A magician and master of illusion, phalke introduced special effects in his film. Phalke completed first indigenous silent film of India in 4 reels (approx. 3700 ft.). Film was  released for public on 3rd May 2013. Audience was awestruck by special effects and literally bowed down in front of the screen at the sight of mythological characters.

Interestingly while producing film on an orthodox mythological story, it broke a social taboo. It had a first bathtub scene, which was publicly exhibited although female characters were played by males. Phalke continued his journey of cinematic vision of gods in different films for next two decades. In Kaliya Mardan Phalke’s daughter Mandakini played the role of Krishna. Few sequences in the film are brilliant as compared to available resources in that era. Particularly the closing scene in which Krishna defeats giant serpent was a visual treat.

Other popular films directed by Phalke include Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan(1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918). But very few of them are archived in National Film Archive of India, Pune. NFAI has only 2 reels out of 4 reels of Raja Harishchandra. But many consider that these reels are from a film of same name directed by Phalke in 1917. The Emperor of Silent films in India could not prevail in changing times & the emerging technology of talkie films. His last film was a takie film, Gangavatran in 1937. After that he went to his native place Nasik and lived till 1944. In 1969 Government of India constituted a National Award commemorating birth centenary year of Father of Indian Cinema. It is given for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema and considered as the highest honour in National film awards.

Dadasaheb Phalke’s Filmography, Here.

Cinema before Harishchandra

Today whole nation is celebrating 100 glorious years of Indian Cinema. While celebrating 100 years of Indian Cinema, we should not ignore contribution of two people – Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar & Ramchandra Gopal Torne. H.S. Bhatwadekar, also known as Save Dada, produced two short films ‘The Wrestlers’ and ‘Man and Monkey’ in 1899. Ramchandra Gopal Torne, also known as Dadasaheb Torne, filmed a play Shri Pundalik. It was released as a film under the name Pundalik on 18th May 1912 in Cornation Theater in Mumbai. So First Indian Film was released in same theater roughly a year before release of Raja Harishchandra. Still Raja Harishchandra got the honour and official recognition as first film because of a technical reason. Pundalik was not an indigenous Indian film, because it was sent overseas for processing. Some historians claim that Pundalik had British cinematographers. Keeping aside these technical details, we should be greatful to this trio for introducing a captivating visual medium in the form of commercial Cinema to India.

You can watch few minutes of footage from Raja Harishchandra. Thanks to India Public Domain Movie Project of Cutting the Chai