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Should Phalke, 150, Be Forgotten?

May 3, 2020 | By

On May 3, 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was released commercially. May 3 was finalised as the day the National Film Awards would be given out every year. Ratnottama Sengupta wonders how the Government of the world’s largest filmmaking country had made no plans to mark Phalke’s 150th anniversary this year.

Raja Harishchandra (1913)

A scene from Raja Harishchandra (1913)

The date: May 3, 1913.

The dateline: Coronation Cinema, Girgaon, Bombay.

The event: Commercial release of a silent film, Raja Harishchandra.

Was that the first Indian movie, or should Pundalik seen a year before be bestowed that honour, or does the crown rightly belong to Marjina Abdalla filmed by Hiralal Sen in 1907 but lost to fire? The debate is still raging but half a century ago the Government of India had recognised the maker of Raja Harishchandra as the Father of Indian Cinema. That is why the onset of Phalke’s Birth Centenary in 1969 occasioned not only the issue of a 20-paisa postal stamp but also the initiation of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for Lifetime Achievement. More importantly, on the 100th year of film’s screening, May 3 was finalised as the day the National Film Awards would be given out every year.

Exclusive sketch of Dada Saheb Phalke by Subrata Gangopadhyay for this essay

Yet this year, no one is even asking whether the practice would be honoured or abandoned. Like every other year, the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) had invited submissions in January, the entries were in by February, the five primary panels were constituted, each boasting three members to watch films from East, West, North, South and Central zones. Even the members who were to be in the second half of the two-tier jury were gearing up to start the three-week marathon involving 350 films from March 20. But by then Coronavirus Demon had bared its fangs. The limelight had shifted away from Siri Fort auditoriums and the entire exercise was shelved. Indefinitely, as it turns out.

Unfortunately this year the NFA – read, No Film Award – is a double failure. For April 30 happened to be the 150th Birth Anniversary of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (born in 1870) – the man who staked his all to make not only Raja Harishchandra but also Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918), Kaliya Mardana (1919). All these features were in the silent era, as also the umpteen shorts that decorate the career that wound up with the only Talkie in his filmography: Gangavataran (1937), the Rs 250,000 film that released in Bombay’s Royal Opera House.

In these intervening decades, Indian Cinema has crossed the four-digit numbers and come to be toasted the world over on screens big and small, on countless channels beamed from the sky, and is fast proving the mainstay of digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, YouTube...So how come the Government of the world’s largest filmmaking country made no plans whatsoever to mark this calendar event? Surely COVID 19 cannot be the excuse – nor can the deeply mourned passing of Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor explain this startling lack of even a cursory mention by the guardians of this film-crazy democracy.

Dada Saheb Phalke filmography

Dadasaheb Phalke’s versatility (Pic: Internet)

I would not be complaining if Phalke, who was honoured by Google with a ‘Google Doodle’ two years ago, was remembered by any of the Art Schools he went to, be it the J J School of Art and Architecture in Mumbai or the M S University that incorporated Kala Bhavan – the art college that existed in Baroda until 1950s. For, these institutions trained him to master the watercolour medium, oil painting, half-tone, block and photo-lithopainting, three-colour ceramic photography – all of which equipped him to start the ‘Phalke Engraving and Photo Printing’ business in Godhra of 1893, and indirectly paved his career in backdrop painting for drama groups. All these gave direction to the art that is a culmination of drama, photography, costumes, music, dance and storytelling. And in Phalke’s case, the skill in Magic also added to the art of tricking visuals as his viewers would watch Lanka Dahan wide-eyed.

Dadasaheb Phalke shooting for Raja Harishchandra

Two things are worth noting in Phalke’s filmography:

  1. His entire content came from Indian mythology;
  2. His visualisation of the characters strongly resembled the Raja Ravi Varma paintings.

None of this was co-incidental. In fact, both of these were the direct fallout of his association with the Raja of Travancore.

Phalke was trained in photography, the sunrise art of late 19th century. But his business in photography proved a commercial failure. Although the Maharaja Shinde took interest in this art, the common people of Baroda believed it sucked out the life of the subject and so, they avoided photographs like the plague. Soon his Photo Printing shop closed down and he took to public performance of tricks he had mastered from a German magician, under the name of ‘Professor Kelpha’ – a reverse pronunciation of ‘Phalke’.

He returned to photography when he got a job with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a draughtsman and photographer – but the job wasn’t attractive enough to hold him for more than five years. And when Raja Ravi Varma died in 1906, he once more set up the ‘Phalke Engraving and Printing Works’ – this time in Lonavala, in partnership with R G Bhandarkar. This was a turning point that would lead him to Raja Harishchandra, as the Press primarily did photo-litho transfers for Ravi Varma Press, which had given a new, contemporary, readily identifiable human face to the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.

Raja Ravi Varma Descent of Ganga

Raja Ravi Varma’s Oleograph – Ganga Avataran or Descent of Ganga (Pic: Wikimedia)

The significance of Ravi Varma’s oleographs is tough to imagine for us, spoilt as even the commonest of the commoner is with handsets armed with digital cameras that bring us selfies, deities, movies at the mere touch of a button. For, those were times when a large section of society was not allowed into temples; when Gods were sacrosanct and therefore not to be photographed; when the only way to possess an image was to procure one on a pilgrimage to, say, Kalighat Nathdwara or Tanjore.

Ravi Varma Press revolutionised the scene with the brightly coloured images of Laxmi and Saraswati, Ram Sita and Radha Krishna… Indeed, the entire pantheon could be smiling at the devotees from calendars on their walls. Remember, these were the years when Swadeshi movement was on, and Phalke as much as Varma was captivated by our mythological stories. Jesus and Mary – the mainstay of European art of the earlier centuries – were easily replaced by Krishna Yashodhara, Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyant, Ravan Jatayu, Draupadi, Keechak and so on.

When the business grew in volume, the Press shifted to Dadar – the same locality where Phalke would set up ‘Harishchandrachi Factory‘. It was renamed as Laxmi Art Printing Works. Thus far it was also doing half-tone blocks and tricolour printing.

Mandakini in Dadasaheb Phalke's Krishna Janma 1917

Phalke introduced his own daughter Mandakini in the film Shri Krishna Janma (Birth of Sri Krishna). She also acted in Kaliya Mardan (1919)

Now, to buy material for colour printing, Phalke visited Germany in 1909. But on his return, differences with his partner led him to abandoning his share in the Press.

It was 1911 when Phalke, on an outing with his son Bhalchandra – who would eventually play Harishchandra’s son  Rohitaswa – saw Amazing Animals. The unbelievable feat of wild animals romping on the screen in a theatre in Girgaon fascinated the child so much that he kept on talking about it to his incredulous mother and siblings.

To wean his wife off her scepticism Phalke took his entire family back to the theatre the very next day. However, it being the Easter Friday, the theatre was showing episodes from the life of Jesus. This captured Phalke’s imagination that was already primed by Ravi Varma’s interpretation of gods and goddesses. His complete schooling so far, in everything from photography to drama and magic – combined to fire his journey into Cinema.

Dadasaheb Phalke

Dadasaheb Phalke

Phalke, being Phalke, started to collect every book, every catalogue, every magazine, even movie-making equipment he could lay his hands on. Not just that: he even started watching movies by projecting films on the wall of his home, through the lens of his camera and using candle light. If this obsession jeopardised his eyesight, he was game for that too. Fortunately the cataract that set in was treated by an ophthalmologist, and he set out for London… armed with the office address of Bioscope CineWeekly, the journal he subscribed to.

Impressed by his earnestness, the Editor directed him to Cecil Hepworth of Walton Studios, who facilitated his visit to every department of the studio and demonstration of their functioning. At his advice, Phalke bought a Williamson Camera for £ 50 and placed an order for Kodak raw film. Two weeks later, the very day he reached Bombay, he started ‘Phalke Film Company’.

The rest is set to be forgotten even in Bollywood.



In 2009, theatre veteran Paresh Mokashe directed the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory. The two-hour feature depicts Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s struggle to make Raja Harishchandra in 1913. The innovative handling of the subject was meant to be an inspiration for other aspiring filmmakers. A committee chaired by Asha Parekh selected it as India’s official entry to the Oscars in the Foreign Language Film category.




Dadasaheb_Phalke 1971 stamp of India

Dadasaheb Phalke 1971 stamp of India

To honour the Father of Indian Cinema, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, the National Film Awards named the most prestigious and coveted award of Indian Cinema after him. He is the man who made the first Indian Feature film Raja Harishchandra in 1913. Popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke, he then went on to make 95 films and 26 short films in a span of 19 years.

The Dadasaheb Phalke Award was introduced in 1969 by the government to recognise the contribution of film personalities towards the development of Indian Cinema. The first recipient of this award was Devika Rani and since then the Award has been given to a film personality for his/her outstanding contribution to the growth and development of Indian Cinema every year.

The award comprises of the Swarna Kamal, cash Prize of Rs 10,00,000 (Ten Lakh), a citation, silk scroll and shawl.

On April 30, 1971 the Post and Telegraph department of India issued a special stamp to honour the ‘Chitrapat Maharishi’. The 20-paisa commemorative horizontal stamp depicts the ‘great sage of Cinema ‘ against a film strip.



Rangbhoomi (2013)

Rangbhoomi (2013)

The Films Division documentary Rangabhoomi (2013) traces the contours of Dadasaheb Phalke’s life in Varanasi, where he withdrew in – disillusioned, from the world of cinema and decided to take up theatre. While there Phalke wrote a semi-autobiographical play titled ‘Rangbhoomi’ which forms the core of this 80 minute cinematic exploration. Set in the visually thrilling landscapes of the old town of Kashi, it intertwines the director Kamal Swaroop’s personal engagement with Phalke’s journey and his play, deploying a vibrant palette of sounds, sights and characters in a surrealist juxtaposition.


(The views expressed by the author are personal)

More to read by Ratnottama

IPR and Indian Cinema: A Scenario of Violation

Shailendra’s Teesri Kasam: Sapne Jagaa Ke Tune Kaahe Ko De Di Judaai

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

Space and Time in Films



Creative Writing

Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to

A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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3 thoughts on “Should Phalke, 150, Be Forgotten?

  • Silhouette Magazine

    Some comments/feedback received on this article on WhatsApp, Facebook:

    Outstanding and extremely informative essay Congratulations
    ~ Shyam Benegal
    Dadasaheb Phalke Award Winner

    This article draws attention to something that we should have done but failed to do. And that is very important. For, nothing moves in the Govt until the minister nudges his subordinates.

    It took almost a year to convince the MHRD to shell out an amount to celebrate the centenary of Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan – now even that is shelved.

    Satyajit Ray Centenary is being celebrated mostly by an active constituency. The outpouring of mourning regarding Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan is because they were current Bollywood actors.

    Generally speaking, culture is of low priority.

    ~ Indrapramit Roy
    Associate Prof (Painting)
    Faculty of Fine Arts
    M S University, Baroda

    Very well written. Saving it.

    ~ Jawhar Sarkar

    Marvellous article! But it’s really very unfortunate to forget the 150th Birth Anniversary of Dadasaheb Phalke,the Father of Indian Cinema. It’s a shame on Indian Govt. and the Film Fraternity.🙏

    ~ Romita Bose Sircar
    Director, New Theatres

    Amazing. You never cease to amaze me with your knowledge and insight.This is so very timely. Even the references to Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor’s passing. I can’t wait for an indepth article on Niranjan Pal, the father figure of screenplay writing in Bombay Talkies (Light of Asia, Achhut Kanya and more).

    ~ Nandini Pal

    A very interesting read. Very insightful.
    Thank you so much.

    ~ Nandita Roy

    This is awesome. I am sharing the article.

    ~ Dolly Basu
    Actor, Theatreperson
    Very nicely written.
    Right point is raised.

    ~ Dr Manjula Chaturvedi

    Professor of Painting
    (Retd) MGKV University

    Thank you for sharing your essay. Enjoyed reading the text very much.

    ~ Nancy Adajania
    Art Critic and Curator


    ~ Uma Nair
    Art Critic

    Thank you. Very interesting.

    ~ Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
    National award winning filmmaker and Founder, Film Heritage Foundation


    ~ Monojit Lahiri
    Film Critic

    Read and enjoyed.

    ~ Sharmistha Gooptu
    Film scholar

    Ratnottama’di….Article ti darun.Bahu kichu janlam.I am sharing it with my students as it is very relevant to their syllabus which includes Ravi Verma.Thank you very much.🙏🏻💐🙏🏻 Truly! An amazing personality!

    ~ Sohini Dhar
    Dean, RBU


    ~ Aanandamoy Banerji


    ~ Ravi Kashi


    ~ Seema Kohli

    👏👏👌👌beautiful read 😊

    ~ Sanjeev Varma

    Please Ratnotamma, with due respect… I’m all in favour of what you write and have written.. but should we not focus on other matters of concern too ?

    ~ Anwar Siddique
    Film Journalist

    The corona has been on everyone’s minds. But, yes, people also need a break from that.

    ~ Smita Bajoria
    Director, Ganges Art

    Maybe the celebration will take place at a more appropriate time to celebrate and enjoy his works.. Maybe next year.

    ~ Kuntal Sarkar
    Content Creator
    For TV and Screen

    What a article. My salute to you.🙏🙏🙏
    Tumi really a Ratna.

    ~ Arup Manna

    Superb! ….very interesting 👍

    ~ Leslie Carvalho

    প্ৰথম ভাৰতীয় ছবিখনৰ অাজি জন্মদিন, অাহক ছবিখন চাও চলচ্চিত্ৰম্ গ্ৰুপৰ ফেচবুক পৃষ্ঠাৰ যোগে

    ~ Utpal Datta
    Film Critic

    Amazingly beautiful, got to know lots of facts through this magnificent piece. Going to share ! ❤

    ~ Dadhichi Patel

    Ratnottamadi, excellent writing…learned a lot more about Dada Saheb Phalke and his contribution for Indian cinema ❤

    ~ Mousumi Sengupta
    I&CA Dept
    Govt of WB

    Wonderful read 🌹🙏
    Will share with friends

    ~ Reshmi Banerjee
    Art Connoisseur
    and Writer

    Thank you for sharing. As usual so informative yet wonderfully expressed. Surely this can’t go unnoticed and we all should preserve and celebrate legacy of India’s contribution in the field of Cinema!

    ~ Ananjan Majumdar
    IT professional and
    Director (short films)

    Loved the article. Very insightful. Got to know so much in details.

    ~ Zoya Khan
    Film Studies
    Student, St Xavier’s College

    What a lovely piece RatnaDi! Well written and packed with information. You are right; how could the govt miss out on such a significant landmark in Indian cinema! Subrata Ganguly’s portrait of the great man is, as always, superb.

    ~ Arup Chatterjee
    (son of Anil Chatterjee)


    बहुत सारी भूली बिसरी जानकारीयां, धन्यवाद 🙏
    मैं दूसरे मित्रों को भी भेजता हूं।

    ~ Santosh Verma
    Film Critic


    ~ Apurba Sengupta
    (Great Granddaughter of
    Cinematographer Dilip Gupta)

    Thankful to you for writing this!

    ~ Narayan Rao
    Film Critic

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