The ‘100 years of Indian cinema’ celebrations that are currently underway in various parts of India and also, the world, seem to be generating a lot of great content about the forerunners of Indian cinema. One such remarkable story is the Open magazine’s piece on Dadasaheb Phalke, in which Paresh Mokashi, the director of the award-winning Marathi film “Harishchandrachi Factory” based on the making of the first Indian film “Raja Harishchandra,” talks about the adventures of Phalke, the filmmaker, to Madhavankutty Pillai.
A still from “Raja Harishchandra” (1913). Photo Courtesy: Cineplot.com
Phalke’s struggles, in many ways, seem to epitomize the hardships that are faced by anyone who is involved in a pioneering attempt. Check out this nugget narrated by Mokashi:
Phalke needed money to start the film and, as usual, he had nothing. To impress financiers he thought of novel tricks. He put a seed in a pot and filmed it for a couple of seconds every day over a period of 30-40 days. He made a film of that seed growing into a plant and showed it to people to impress on them the power of the new medium. There was no other way he could make people understand. Films, cinema—these are modern words. They were not at his disposal. Indians were only theatre-goers then.”
And apparently, Phalke was also a master at film promotion, much before the term was even coined:
After the movie released, the response to it was lukewarm for the first two or three days. Phalke then started introducing novel marketing techniques. He came out with funny descriptions of the film, announcing in crowded market places that it is a mile long strip of 58,000 little pictures put together. He offered prizes to ticket buyers. The audience started coming in and the movie went on to make money. He not only recovered the film’s costs, but made profits after paying his creditors. With the money, he made two more films, back to back. In one-and-a-half years, he completed three films—Raja Harishchandra (1913), Mohini Bhasmasur (1913) and Satyavan Savitri (1914).”
Mokashi also mentions the contribution of Saraswati Phalke, Dadasaheb’s wife, who shared his enthusiasm for cinema:
Even today, every first time filmmaker is a Phalke. He goes through the same difficulties—a shortage of funds, and making others believe in you to bring them on board. There is also the struggle within you, a creative struggle—will I be able to pull it off? What fascinates me most about the entire story is his wife’s contribution. We don’t know much about Saraswati Phalke, but she was a key element throughout the venture. In fact, Phalke even made a film on the making of Raja Harishchandra. I suspect that it was his wife who shot it, because in one frame of the making we can see the cameraman shooting the film. Saraswati was the only other person in the unit who knew how to wield a camera.”
He also talks about the difficulties faced by Phalke in finding woman actors and also, the bizarre issues that came along with experimenting with a new medium like cinema:
When he couldn’t convince his wife and no other woman was available, Phalke went scouting in red light areas to get a prostitute for the role. Most refused because they considered acting less reputable than their profession. One sex worker agreed and accompanied him home but a regular client of hers came and took her away. Finally, he had to go with a waiter after spotting him in a tea shop.
He asked the men who were playing women in the movie to clean, wash, cook and do all the things that a woman did. It was method acting much before the term was coined. The movie was shot between six to eight months. He built sets first and completed those portions. He then went outdoors to Wangni, on the outskirts of Mumbai, where there is a dense jungle and a river flowing—scenery important for the story. The cast, who had gone before Phalke, was arrested after the police mistook the actors for dacoits due to their costumes.”
We at TCRC salute the pioneering spirit of Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who is often referred to as the father of Indian cinema.
Also, if you haven’t watched Paresh Mokashi’s “Harishchandrachi Factory” (2009) yet, here’s a link to the trailer: