The Extraordinary Adventures of Dadasaheb Phalke: The “Harishchandra” Story!

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

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:

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The story of Lena Chettiar, the used-car dealer who turned into a film producer!

We at TCRC are always looking out for interesting trivia about yesteryear film personalities. Also, given that our search analytics told us that people were looking into the TCRC blog for information on one of Tamil cinema’s earliest superstars, actor-singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, we thought of putting together a separate post about him. We started looking for information about his 1934-released debut film “Pavalakodi.” But it was one of the producers of “Pavalakodi”, one Mr. Lena Chettiar, who ended up piquing our curiosity.

“Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) was produced under the Krishna Pictures banner promoted by Lena Chettiar. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu.

Writing about the film “Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) in The Hindu’s Blast From The Past column, Randor Guy profiles Lena Chettiar (click here to read the post about “Prabhavathi”):

S. M. Letchumanan Chettiar, popularly known as Lena Chettiar, was a powerful figure in the world of Tamil Cinema. A native of Chettinad, he was a ‘drama contractor’ in his early days, staging plays in various southern parts of the state by hiring freelancing actors and selling tickets for their plays. He also dealt in used cars and was the first man in this part of the world to print and circulate handbills about used cars in Tamil. Most of the Naattukottai Chettiars were wealthy, but did not know English. They found these handbills a novelty and encouraged Lena Chettiar.”

Randor Guy also reports that it was Lena Chettiar who convinced M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to not venture into production himself and stepped in to produce it for him:

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s (a top-ranking freelancing stage actor then) play with another stage actress S. D. Subbulakshmi, ‘Pavalakodi’, was a raving hit not only in the Tamil-speaking areas of South India but also in Ceylon. Bhagavathar was seriously planning to enter movies with Pavalakodi and Lena advised him against venturing into production on his own and convinced Bhagavathar to team up with him. With his rich pals, Lena produced Pavalakodi in 1934, which marked Bhagavathar’s film debut and proved to be a major hit.”

Lena Chettiar produced numerous films under various labels and eventually, started promoting the ‘Krishna Pictures’ banner in the early part of the 1940s under which he produced films in Tamil and Telugu for nearly 15 years. The last film that he produced, before the founding of Krishna Pictures, was “Krishnan Thoothu,” which was the Tamil debut of Telugu film star Kannamba. In his post about “Krishnan Thoothu,” Randor Guy mentions Lena again:

 He wielded enormous influence beyond the confines of the movie business in official and political circles. Soon after this film, he promoted his own unit, Krishna Pictures, in T. Nagar. His office on Thanikachalam Chetti Road (named after the noted Justice Party leader O.T. Chetti) was indeed a landmark of that area with its Krishna temple besides the building put up by Lena.”

Producers seldom get mentioned in serious writing about cinema. But in the early days of cinema in India, we at TCRC have noticed that often it was the producers who  moved mountains to fuel innovation and creativity. Lena Chettiar seems to be one such gentleman and we at TCRC are glad to bring back to public memory, stories of such film entrepreneurs.