What if Dadasaheb Phalke, the Indian filmmaker who gave India its first full length feature film in 1914, were to be reborn today? Can you imagine his reaction at discovering that the industry he helped launch churns out 800-plus movies a year that are watched in different parts of the globe?
So who was Phalke? Born Dhundiraj Govind Phalke – or better known as Dadasaheb Phalke in the industry – this native of the state of Maharashtra was a student of architecture, landscape painter, and a photographer. He studied the latest techniques of the printing press technology in Germany before he started his career as India’s first filmmaker. He also did a stint as assistant to a German magician. So it’s not quite difficult to imagine that he would want to create magic on celluloid. His first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was based on the mythological tale of an Indian king who sacrifices his kingdom and his family for his ideals but is richly rewarded by the gods for his ordeal.The resounding success of the film encouraged him to make many more: Mohini Bhasmasur, Satyavan Savitri, Lanka Dehan, Sri Krishna Janam and Kaliya Madan. He set up a studio in his hometown Nasik and hired technicians and actors who all lived on the premises. The studio-cum-residence was located near the woods and this provided him with the necessary ambience for his mythological movies. He experimented with tinting and toning and even had some measure of success with animation. When the movies were ready to be shown, he would pile up the reels, projector and screen in a bullock cart and travel from place to place to show his films. The story goes that every time the character of Lord Krishna appeared on screen, every member of the audience would fall on the floor to pay obeisance!
Phalke’s success inspired many other filmmakers to jump in the fray but by the late 1920s, audiences were looking for a different cinematic experience. Mythological films were on their way out. Stunt films had begun wooing movie-goers away with their swashbuckling heroes, damsels in distress and action-driven plots. The first Indian talkie Alam Ara premiered in 1931. Phalke made his own talkie film, Gangavataram, in 1937 but audience tastes had changed enormously by then. The grand old man of Indian cinema died in 1944 and his passing marked the end of the earliest chapter of Indian moviedom.
Epilogue: In 2010, director Paresh Mokashi’s Marathi bio-pic “Harishchandrachi Factory” was sent as India’s nomination to the Oscar Awards.