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Dada Saheb Phalke: The Father of Indian Cinema

Dada Saheb Phalke spearheaded the motion picture as an indispensible aspect of modern life. Over a century since his first screening, Phalke’s legacy looms large in Indian cinema, writes Sharad Dutt.

Bombayites were in a festive mood celebrating Christmas. Among the numerous attractions in the Christmas carnival was the Christmas cinema. A man who had just turned forty walked into a cinema hall and watched the movie, The Life of Jesus Christ. Mesmerised with the moving images on the screen, he walked out after the show with an inherent belief that he had found his destination. After three years, he screened India's first silent feature film, Raja Harishchandra, on May 3, 1913. This enterprising genius was none other than Dhundi Raj Govind Phalke, fondly known as Dada Saheb Phalke.
He was born in Trimbkeshwar in the Nasik district of Maharashtra on April 30, 1870, to a Sanskrit scholar, who wanted his son to carry forward the family tradition. But this young lad had no such academic pursuit. His creative talent lay in painting, acting in plays and performing magic. When his father moved to Bombay to teach Sanskrit at Elphinstone College, Phalke joined the JJ School of Arts to hone his skills as a painter. In the process, he was also immersed in photography, while keeping his interest in magic alive. Later, all these preoccupations became valuable assets as he turned into a film producer. After completing his studies in Bombay, he enrolled at Kala Bhawan in Baroda and also took up a job in the photo department of the Archaeological Survey of India. Soon, he got an offer to start an Art Printing Press by some entrepreneurs. Here, he brought out oleographs based on Raja Ravi Verma's paintings that helped him tremendously in designing the sets for his feature films. When in Germany to imbibe the latest printing techniques he realised that he did not wish to continue with his printing press job.
After his return from Germany, this sense of discontentment continued to prevail. Around 1910, he fell sick and almost lost his vision but regained his eyesight after a few months with intensive medical care. This is when he saw that film, The Life of Jesus Christ, which awarded the turning point in his life. Mightily impressed with this cinematic presentation, he went on visualising the pictures of Indian deities on the screen. He wished to manifest this desire by making a film on Lord Krishna that would capture his childhood adventures, romance with Radha and the ultimate battle of Mahabharata. But, soon enough, it dawned that producing a film of this dimension would warrant a huge sum. He started searching for an alternate subject and zeroed down to the story of Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra from Mahabharata. He had seen a play based on the life of this king in his youth and felt assured that given the popularity of the play, people would like the film too.
Before commencing the shooting of the film he made a trip to London to buy some necessary equipment, where he also learnt to decipher the finer nuances of filmmaking. After his return to India, he brought with him a Williamson camera and set up his office for Phalke Films on Dadar main road. Meanwhile, he made some shorts films and showed those to his friends. They all murmured words of praise but none came forth to extend any monetary help. But, a ray of hope came through his friend Nadkarni, who handled film equipment and promised financial assistance to Phalke. Encouraged by this gesture, Phalke gave finishing touch to the script and prepared screenplay for the film Raja Harishchandra. He could deftly handle photography and the camera himself, but the real problem cropped up in his search for a female character to play the role of Raja Harishchandra's queen Taramati. No woman was willing to work in the film. He even approached some nautch girls but even they declined his offer.
Phalke had lost all hope. But one day the impossible seemed possible. While he was having his meal in a restaurant, he observed the cook who was serving him had features that were quite feminine. Phalke was hesitant and asked him reluctantly, "How much do you get paid for cooking?" The cook replied, "Just ten rupees."
Phalke lured him with an offer of fifteen rupees, and thus, Phalke got queen Taramati in this cook Anna Salunke. The cast was complete now. Raja Harischandra's role was played by Dattatreya Davke. Phalke was all rolled in one – as producer-director, screenplay writer, and editor of the film. The cost of this 3,700-ft film was Rs 15,000. Screened on May 3, 1913, at Coronation Cinematograph, after three years of rigorous work, the roaring success of Raja Harishchandra was well-earned. Though the British press chose to ignore it, it struck a chord with the Indian audience instantly, as they welcomed age-old Indian tradition and culture. They, too, were fascinated by the images which had beckoned Phalke three years ago.
This phenomenal success inspired and spurred on many others to make films on ancient, dramatic mythological stories. As a result, there was a spurt of movie makers across Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Poona and Kolhapur.
After Raja Harishchandra, Phalke shifted his base to Nasik, his hometown, and went on making films for the rest of his life. Exhorted by the earlier success he made Mohini Bhasmasur. This time, Phalke was fortunate enough to have a female lead to do the role. Thus, Kamlabai Gokhale became the first Indian actress of the silent era. In his next film, Savitri, the female cast doubled in number. Anna Salunke who played the role of Taramati in Raja Harishchandra played the roles of both Sita and Rama in Lanka Dahan. Phalke's films were so real that people would rise from their seats and prostrate on the floor to pay respect to their deities, Rama and Krishna, while seeing them on the screen. A film distributor of those days stated that Phalke's films were immensely popular and he had to hold shows from 7 am to midnight.
In 1914, Phalke took three of his films to London, where a trade show was arranged for him. After the screening, the British papers praised them for both the content and technique. He received the absolute support of his family in filmmaking. In Kalya Mardan, his daughter played the role of an adolescent Krishna. His wife Saraswati affectionately addressed as Kaki by the entire unit members would reload the camera and do the film processing besides cooking meals for the actors. Wedded to realism in his movies, while making Lanka Dahan, Phalke burnt two huge sets to get the terrific effect of Lanka burning. Totally dedicated, he continued to choose ancient characters and never ever compromised, as his statement to the Film Committee in 1928 said it all: "I believe in the quality and technique of the film. I will only make best films, and if I can't, I will stop making films."
In 1931, Phalke made Setu Bandhan with the assistance of Maya Shankar Bhatt. This was the time when the silent era was about to end. With the advent of talkies, the silent movie took a back seat. The content of talkies began to change with music, song and dance dominating cinema, and at 60, Phalke refused to swim with the tide. With 125 films in his repertoire in the eighteen years of his celluloid career, he had even made a short film, Chitrpat Kase Tayar Kartat (How Films Are Made), in as early as 1917 for posterity, and also the revised version of Raja Harishchandra the same year.
An unassuming man, Phalke was a one-man film industry, encompassing the roles of producer-director, screenplay writer, cameraman, set designer, makeup man and editor. Just as Georges Melies was a magician of great repute and became a pioneer in the cine world, Phalke was a master of special effects. He put it to best use in a short film, Professor Kelpha's Magic, wherein he himself performed as the magician.
After bidding adieu to films, Phalke spent the remaining years of his life in Nasik. But, those years were sadly marked with depravity as the tinsel world had conveniently forgotten this inimitable pacesetter. On February 16, 1944, he breathed his last at the age of 74.
An institution in himself, Dada Saheb Phalke established the Motion Picture as an indispensable form of entertainment. During the centenary year 1969-1970, a postal stamp was released in his memory. Even the Dadar main road where he lived was renamed as Dada Saheb Phalke Marg. The Government of India introduced an annual Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1969, which became the most prestigious award for an Indian filmmaker. Indeed, a befitting tribute to this mastermind of Indian Cinema.
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