Dadasaheb Phalke is celebrated as the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’. He is credited with the introduction of motion pictures to India with the movie Raja Harishchandra (1913). The Dadasaheb Phalke Award by his name is now awarded by the government of India is considered one of the highest honours in the film industry. Let’s look at the journey of this magician who brought weaved his magic on the screen.
A career from archaeology to cinema
Mr Phalke was the son of a Sanskrit scholar and was brought up in a highly religious setting. He grew up with six siblings and was thought all about Hinduism including the process to perform Yagnyas. He was born on the 30th of April 1870 in Trimbak, Nashik in Maharashtra. His journey with art began when he started studying at Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. This sparked the creative curiosity in him and he went on to pursue the same even in his higher studies at Kala Bhavan at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, Gujarat. Throughout his art school, he developed various skills like drawing, sculpting, painting and photography. This led him to a job as an artist in Baroda and subsequently as a photographer in Godhra. He also staged multiple shows of magic and illusions that he learnt from a German magician. This is where he suffered a great personal tragedy of his wife and son to the plague and decided to come back to his home in Mumbai.
In Mumbai, Phalke found a job with the printing press wing of the Archaeological Survey of India. This is where he worked with great artists like Raja Ravi Varma and this inspired him to set up his own printing press. His experience in printing and photography led him to learn numerous new techniques like preparing photo-litho, half-tone blocks, and three-colour ceramic photography. He went all the way to Germany to learn new printing techniques and this led to a rift with his partner in the printing press.
His introduction to movies was in 1903 when he went to see Amazing Animals but the idea to make movies came after he watched The Life of Christ. His religious upbringing gave him the idea of putting Indian gods on the screen. The movie appealed to his inquisitive and creative nature, holding him in rapt attention and giving him the inspiration to do it himself. Though he was in deep financial trouble he immediately went to England to buy a Williamson camera, a perforator, and some Kodak film. During his visit there he approached Bioscope Cine-Weekly’s editor, Mr Kepburn and requested an introduction to someone who could teach him the art of film making. On seeing his dedication and persistence Mr Kepburn introduced him to Cecil Hepworth who was a film-maker and producer.
He returned to India on the 1st of April 1912 and founded the “Phalke Films Company” without delay.
The beginning of the Indian film industry
His first ever creation in the movie-making field was Ankurachi Wadh, a short film which followed the growth of a pea plant. Phalke’s entire family was involved in the process and went through manually perforating the film. He showed this to select individuals and collected money for his first feature film.
The film followed the life of Harishchandra and the script was written by Phalke himself. After multiple calls for cast and crew and this amateur crew began their film making journey. The film starred D.D. Dabke and P.G. Sane in the lead roles. An interesting fact about the film is that it had an all-male cast as women weren’t allowed to act at that time. Phalke was the movie’s scriptwriter, director, set designer, make-up artist, editor, and film processor. Mr Trymbak B. Telang handled the camera. This herculean project that was taken on by Phalke finally came to an end after 6 months and 27 days. The final product was premiered at the Olympia Theatre, Bombay on the 21st of April 1913. The film’s theatrical release was on 3 May 1913 at the Coronation Cinema, Girgaon, Bombay and it was an instant success. The hard work and culmination of artistic skill and dedication are what led to the creation of the biggest film industries in the entire world.
Through the next few decades, he made close to 95 films which mostly had religious themes and over 20 short films. These included Satavan Savitri, Mohini Bhasmasur, Lanka Dahan, Shri Krishna Janma and Kaliya Mardan.
A 1917 film Lanka Dahan was the first instance of a single actor playing dual roles. Various landmarks of firsts were set by this artist. His movie-making mania soon spread across the country and there were films that were being made across the nation.
The rest of the journey
Phalke started ‘Phalke Films Company’ in partnership with five Mumbai-based textile giants. The name was then changed to ‘Hindustan Cinema Films Company’. The company saw the production of two commercially successful movies namely Shri Krishna Janma and Kaliya Mardan. Despite the success, there were growing differences amongst the partners because of the expenses incurred by Phalke. The profit-making attitude of his partners worried Phalke and led him to announce his retirement and move to Kasi for a life away from all the clamour.
In his time there he watched a lot of plays and went on to write a play called ‘Rangbhoomi’. After the screening and lukewarm response for the play, Phalke got multiple requests to come back to filmmaking. He reluctantly joined his old company but the success was in no way comparable to what he previously made.
He decided to personally approach investors and began the ‘Phalke Diamond Company’. His first film under the banner was experimentative and wasn’t a hit especially because it was silent and was competing with films that had sound. Gangavataran was his last film and it was the first and only full-fledged sound film that he made. Due to his ailing health, he retired soon after this.
Phalke’s life had a lot of ups and downs and was like a movie in itself. He might not have had a steady upward graph but his contribution to the film industry and art scene is a legacy that can never be forgotten.