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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“Elphinstone Elphinstone Everywhere”: The story of Elphinstone Theatre in Madras, the first with a balcony!

The Indian Express carried a PTI (Press Trust of India) story yesterday about tent cinemas returning to Delhi as a part of the ongoing “100 years of cinema” celebrations. We found a couple of paragraphs at the end of the story rather interesting (click here to read the entire piece):

In India, among the pioneers of tent cinema, the most important name is that of J F Madan, a Parsi businessman who started ‘Elphinstone Bioscope Company’ in early 20th century in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and would do tent shows in the Maidan there. He later started the cinema halls by the name of ‘Elphinstone Picture Palaces’.

His ‘Elphinstone’ was also one of the few Indian companies, among other European production houses, which filmed the historic 1911 Delhi Durbar attended by King George V and Queen Mary.

His legend has survived today in the form of various ‘Elphinstone’ theatres spread across India.”

Now, we were aware that a New Elphinstone Theatre was operational up till sometime in the 1970s, off Mount Road. So, we did some searching and it turns out that there was indeed an Elphinstone in Madras as well. Manish Raj, writing for the Times of India, mentions the cinema hall in his piece of theatres in Madras of the yore (click here to read his entire story):

New Elphinstone Theatre in 1916 was inaugurated by the governor general of Madras and it was one of the first theatres in India to raise funds for the World War I through its shows. It housed the most unusual indoor sport — a boxing ring where amateurs sparred. When the film bubble burst, it later became Elphinstone Soda fountain, which sold beverages.

Given that there was a New Elphinstone, we realised that an Old Elphinstone had to be a part of this history. Historian S Muthiah, in his lovely piece titled “Cinema at Round Tana”, fills the gaps:

A New Elphinstone meant there had to be an old Elphinstone – and there was one, rooted in almost the beginnings of cinema-screening in Madras. The Elphinstone was located across Round Tana from the New Elphinstone on the site of Misquith Building, just west of the old Hindu building at the junction of Ellis Road and Wallajah Road. (Wallace) Misquith & Co., established in 1842 built itself a magnificent brick-exposed Indo-Saracenic building to house on the ground floor its showroom for musical instruments and, on the first floor, music salons which could be rented by the hour for anyone wanting to play any instrument.In time, Misquith’s’ became Musee Musicals and moved further down Mount Road, but in its heyday it housed the Lyric, a hall of entertainment that a man named Cohen established on the first floor when he took over Misquith’s in 1907.

In 1913, the Lyric began screening films, calling itself the Empire Cinema, but a fire in March 1914 closed it down. Later that year, J F Madan of Calcutta, owner of India’s biggest cinema chain at the time, took over the Empire and renamed it with that of his flagship, the Elphinstone. In 1915, Madan bought the Misquith Building and made the Elphinstone a permanent cinema theatre, the biggest and the first with a balcony in Madras.

Given that Dadasaheb Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra,” the first feature length Indian film was released at around the same time that Empire Cinema was started (1913), we at TCRC were thrilled to find the various strands of our cinematic history crisscrossing. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a single image or photographs of the Elphinstone Theatre and this only served to remind us of the importance of archiving  images of our cinemas’ golden past. Interested in helping this sort of archival effort? Volunteer at TCRC!

The incredible story of PK Nair, India’s most respected film archivist, has now been documented!

On the 3rd of May later this year, an anniversary of epic proportions will occur. For it was on that day in 1913, one hundred years ago, that “Raja Harishchandra”, the silent film produced and directed by Dadasaheb Phalke which is widely accepted as the first Indian full-length feature film, was released. In effect, the day marks the existence of one hundred years of Indian cinema. And what a glorious century it has been!

Of the many ways in which this anniversary is likely to be commemorated, we at TCRC are particularly excited about the release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s National Award-winning documentary “Celluloid Man” on 3rd May 2013. The film showcases the life and work of legendary Indian archivist and founder of National Film Archive of India (NFAI), PK Nair.  Given below is an excerpt from the film:

The film is said to feature interviews with many leading film personalities including including Krzysztof Zanussi, Lester James Peries, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Kamal Haasan, Girish Kasaravalli, Jahnu Barua, Jaya Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Sitara Devi, Santosh Sivan, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy and Mrinal Sen, all of whom share their reflections on the influence of PK Nair on the films that they watched and loved. In the 2012 National Film Awards, “Celluloid Man” won accolades for Best Editing and Best Biographical/Historical Reconstruction.

PK Nair, now 80 years old, has meanwhile spoken about how the prints of films such as “Raja Harishchandra,” “Alam Ara,” etc are not available at all and has lamented the loss of many important films made before the 1950s (click here to read that whole story).

We at TCRC salute PK Nair, or Nair Saab as he is known, for his commitment to archiving the early days of Indian cinema. May his tribe only grow.