A hundred and three years back, one man’s passion and vision gave birth to what has become a billion dollar industry today which has managed to carve a unique identity for itself commanding respect from a worldwide audience and holds the distinction of producing the maximum number of films in the world in a year.
The man was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke or Dadasaheb Phalke as he is popularly referred to and with the release of his first silent film ‘Raja Harishchandra’, he not only became the Father of our Indian Cinema, but also inadvertently sowed the seeds of a passionate and deep-rooted relationship between movies and moviegoers in our country which has only grow deeper with the passage of time.
My article is but a small tribute to this visionary genius…
May 3rd, 1913: This historic day marked the beginning of the journey of Indian cinema. ‘Raja Harishchandra’, the first indigenously made Indian cinema was released at Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema, Girgaum, where crowds thronged the roads outside the hall. They were too excited to see their very own mythological story in the form of a movie.
The story was based on the legend of the noble and righteous king, Raja Harishchandra, who sacrifices everything-his kingdom, his wife and eventually his child to honour his promise to Sage Vishwamitra. In the end, pleased with his high morals, the gods restore his former glory and bestow him with divine blessings.
Here is a link to some priceless moving images from this precious film. Unfortunately, today only parts of the first and last reel are preserved. One can see the genius of the filmmaker and the tremendous efforts taken by him. It is also not difficult to imagine the magical effect the film must have had on the public when it was released.
The film had an all-Marathi star-cast. Dattatreya Damodar Dabke, a Marathi stage actor, in the title role of the king, became the first hero of Indian cinema and as women were unwilling to act in front of a camera, a delicate looking male cook working in a restaurant-Anna Salunke, donned the garb of a woman to play the role of the queen and technically he became our cinema’s first ‘heroine’.
While Dadasaheb Phalke’s little son, Balachandra D Phalke who played the role of the young prince in ‘Raja Harishchandra’, 1913, became Indian cinema’s first male child artiste, a few years later in 1919, his talented daughter Mandakini became the first female child artiste of Indian cinema when she played the role of Lord Krishna in his silent film ‘Kaliya Mardan’.
In 1913 he made his second film ‘Mohini Bhasmasur’, for which he requested the director of a travelling drama company to lend him two of their actresses – Durgabai Kamat and her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale and they became the first actresses of our industry.
In 1917, he made ‘Lanka Dahan’ showing the kidnapping of Sita and subsequent burning of Lanka by Hanuman. The film had Anna Salunke playing the role of Lord Ram as well as Sita thus officially making it Indian Cinema’s first ‘double role’ by any actor.
Here is a link of his silent film ‘Kaliya Mardan’ featuring his daughter in a full-fletched role. The film has many hilarious situations showing Little Krishna up to his childhood pranks. The last scene where Krishna comes out dancing on the snake is really well taken considering the rudimentary techniques at his disposal
One day, he happened to watch a silent French film ‘Life of Christ’ which changed the course of his life. He became so obsessed with the film that he saw it several times and started dreaming of making a film of his own replacing Christ with our own gods- Krishna, Ram, etc., and telling stories from our own epics. He had been a printer and a photographer apart from having fascination for magic tricks before this passion engulfed him.
Initially with the equipment at his disposal, he made a small clip showing the growth of a pea-plant and whoever saw it was fascinated with the idea of moving images. With co-operation and understanding from his family, he decided to put everything at stake to turn his obsession into reality. He sold the printing press, pawned his wife’s jewellery and sold almost everything in the house to get money to go to London. He wanted to study the technique of making films and also buy movie camera to shoot the film.
He faced many a hurdle during the course of making the film even coming close to losing his eyesight due to strain but his spirit never dampened. He rented a flat in Dadar to shoot the scenes. He wrote the script, designed the sets, wrote the scenes, chose the locations and artistes, directed the shots, handled the camera, edited and produced the film and after seven months, 21 days, aided by a hard working team, managed to complete the film.
It was first premiered on April 21st, 1913, at the Olympia Theatre, Grant Road, Mumbai only for a selective audience which included famous personalities of Mumbai and editors of newspapers and finally shown to the public on May 3rd, 1913 and history was created.
Phalke’s whole journey from his obsession to the release of the film has been beautifully captured in the 2009 biopic titled ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’ and directed by Prakash Mokasi. It is a Marathi film with subtitles in English and anyone who loves cinema must watch this film to understand his journey and be part of his unbelievable adventure.
Here is the YouTube link to this beautiful film. A small amount is to be paid to buy the film or rent and watch it.
Here is the trailer of this film which will give an idea of what to expect in the film. It was India’s official entry to Oscar that year but unfortunately failed to win the award. That in no way takes away the merit of this not-to-be-missed film.
Other Interesting Facts:
Born in Triambakeshwar, Nasik, Maharashtra, to a Sankrit professor Daji Shastri Phalke, Dhundiraj always had an artistic bent of mind. When his father got a job at Wilson College, Mumbai, young Dhundiraj was admitted to the J J School of Arts. Later he also attended Kala Bhavan, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, where he studied sculpture, engineering, drawing, painting and photography. He also worked in Archaeological Survey of India.
Dadasaheb Phalke made a total of 100-125 films in his 25-year long career.
As a young lad, he had worked with the painting genius Raja Ravi Verma as an apprentice for some time when the latter was staying in Mumbai. In 1893, Ravi Verma opened a printing press ‘Ravi Verma Pictures Depot’ with a view to mass produce his paintings so that his art would reach out to every person in the country irrespective of caste and status. At that time many young students from J J School of Art were working with him the brightest among them being Dhundiraj Phalke.
For photo-litho transfers, the Pictures Depot relied on Phalke’s Engraving and Printing technique. Raja Ravi Verma is said to have given money to Phalke to buy equipment like projector, camera, etc. (point to ponder- maybe if it were not for his encouragement, Phalke would not have founded the film industry… and things would have taken a different turn…).This aspect has been brought out very well in Ketan Mehta’s biopic on Raja Ravi Verma titled ‘Rang Rasiya’.
So influenced was Phalke by Ravi Verma’s paintings, that much like the painter brought to life the images of gods on his canvas, Phalke was determined to bring them alive on screen.
Even though Phalke’s initial films met with tremendous success, he became disillusioned after his partnership in The Hindustan Film Company with some businessmen went sour. He gave up film making, went and settled in Benares for a while, suffered personal losses and experienced desperate times. He then wrote a play ‘Rangbhoomi’ and in connection with that when he came to Bombay, he was once again called by the Hindustan Film Company and this time there was no interference in his creative freedom. Phalke then went on to make several films in the second phase of his career till sound came to films and Talkies were born. He then retired and settled in Nasik.
Award constituted in his name:
Dadasaheb Phalke Award- It is the highest award of Indian Cinema. This award was introduced by the Government of India in 1969 to commemorate Dadasaheb Phalke’s contribution to Indian cinema. It is presented annually at the National Film Awards ceremony by the Directorate of Film Festivals, an organisation set up by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The recipient is honoured for his/her “outstanding contribution to the growth and development of Indian cinema” and is selected by a committee consisting of eminent personalities from the Indian film industry. The award comprises a Swarna Kamal (Golden Lotus) medallion, a shawl, and a cash prize of ₹1,000,000.
The first recipient of the prestigious award, actress Devika Rani, often referred to as the First Lady of Indian Cinema was honoured at the 17th National Film Awards. The latest recipient of this honour has been writer-actor-director Manoj Kumar (2015).
The founding father of our cinema did not get the distinction he deserved during his lifetime and passed away in 1944 much before our country became independent. Today there are awards constituted in his name and the recipients of the award take home large cash prizes. An yet it is with a heavy heart we realize that the very man who pioneered this gigantic film industry of ours spent his last few years in misery and died almost unnoticed far away from the industry in Nasik with hardly a handful of people attending his funeral…
Such is the irony of life and the game of showbiz…
I am reminded of Raj Kapoor’s song form Mera Naam Joker:
…Kal khel mein hum ho na ho, gardish mein taare rahenge sadaa
Bhuloge tum, Bhulenge woh, par hum tumhare rahenge sadaa
Rahenge yaheen apne nishaan, iske sivaa jaana kahan…
(English meaning: …Tomorrow when I am gone, stars will continue to shine in the firmament. You may forget me and they may forget me, but I shall always remain yours, for I have left my footprints in this very place for eternity…)