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.
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.
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.
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.
Two things are worth noting in Phalke’s filmography:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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