Dada Saheb Phalke (1870 – 1944)


Dada Saheb Phalke

May 13th, 1913. The first Indian made silent film,`Raja Harishchandra’ is about to be released at the Coronation Theatre in Girgaum,Bombay.

The stage show has finished its act. The live band has struck up a tune and now the screen flickers alive. For the next half hour; cinemagic envelops the audience. The tale of the truth-obsessed king is declared a hit and runs for a record 23 days!

One man’s vision lay fulfilled. With only his dreams as his compass, Dadasaheb Phalke had thought the unthinkable and virtually fashioned the Indian film industry. With Raja Harishchandra’, he built the Indian idiom for the new language of cinema.

Before Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released Raja Harishchandra, several pioneers like Sane Dada, Hiralal Sen, R G Torney and N G Chitre, had made shorts and even dramas like Pundalik (’12), but Phalke’s was the first totally indigenous effort and as such was advertised in its time as ‘the first film of Indian manufacture’.

For Phalke, making films was not a profession, it was a calling. Three years after this printing technician saw the foreign film, Life Qf Christ, he was filled with a burning desire to replace Christ with Krishna, Rama and other gods from the Hindu pantheon. Obsessed with the idea of making his own film, the son of a Wilson College professor and a one-time student of photography, watched every foreign film available. Risking physical (he narrowly avoided turning blind from the concentrated strain) and financial ruin, he staked all his capital and went to England to educate himself in film technology and to buy the necessary equipment. When he returned, he started Raja Harishchandra, as its director-cum-cameraman, overcoming every hurdle. For finance, he pawned his wife’s jewellery; and when no woman was ready to face the camera and the consequent social stigma, he cast a delicate cook’s assistant, Salunke, as his heroine! Deservedly, this Puranic story was a hit and the Indian film industry was born, fuelling a passionate love affair between movies and moviegoers.

In retrospect, certain foreign critics have dismissed Dadasaheb Phalke’s films as close to home movies. Nevertheless, we owe a great debt to this one man’s grit and determination.

On his second trip to England, Phalke was offered the direction of foreign films but he patriotically refused. However, by the time he returned to India, World War I had been declared in 1914, and the nascent film industry was floundering. Where other pioneers opted out during the difficult war years, Phalke stubbornly refused to give in to despair and shut down his studio. In 1917, he released Lanka Dahan, an episode from the `Ramayana’ concerning the setting alight of Lanka by Hanuman. Equipped with rudimentary special effects, the film literally coined a fortune. Coins poured in at the box office and bullock carts had to be hired to cart away the bags.

The story of Indian silent films began in effect with Lanka Dahan, as it triggered off a remarkable spurt in production in centres now spread all over the country. Thereafter, Phalke formed the Hindustan Film Company and made successful messianic fables like Shri Krishna Janma and Kaliya Mardan . He continued with the studio, but with decreasing efficacy, till it wound up in 1932. An inability to make wise financial decisions plagued Dadasaheb Phalke in his last years.

Fittingly, in 1960, as an acknowledgement of Phalke’s contribution, the Indian Government instituted the Dadasaheb Phalke Award — the highest honour to any film personality. Unfortunately, it came too late to help Dadasaheb Phalke himself, who died in 1944 in Nasik— poverty stricken and all but forgotten by the Bombay film industry that he had engendered.

His death was an epitaph for an age.

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