Luminary, Profile

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke

It was the Christmas of 1910. A screening of The Life of Christ was held at the American – Indian Cinema in Bombay. Among the crowd was a gentleman who had seen films before but this particular viewing made him decide he had found his vocation in life. He too would make films. For nearly two months he saw every film in town and studied all available literature on film technique. His conviction that an indigenous film industry could be established by tackling Indian themes was strong. He declared, “Like the life of Christ we shall make pictures on Rama and Krishna.”

The gentleman was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke who went on to become the founder of the Indian Film Industry. Phalke was born on April 30, 1870 in Trimbakeshwar in Nasik. The son of a Sanskrit scholar, he studied at the JJ College of Arts in Bombay and at Kala Bhavan, Baroda. Phalke worked in a photographic studio and at Ratlam learned three-colour block making and ceramics. He then worked as a portrait photographer, stage make-up man, assistant to a German illusionist and as a magician! He was offered backing to start an Art Printing Press and his backers arranged for him to go to Germany to acquaint him with the latest printing process especially in color work, provided that he remain with the company for at least a stipulated time after the journey, which he did. But by the time Phalke returned, he knew that a printing career would not satisfy him. Around 1910 he fell ill and lost his eyesight. Luckily for him, his vision returned. And then The Life of Christ happened.

Raising a loan from an old friend and pledging his life insurance, Phalke sailed for England on February 1, 1912 to purchase the necessary equipment and acquaint himself himself with the technical aspects of filmmaking. After two weeks in London, Phalke returned to India with a Williamson camera, a perforating machine, developing and printing equipment and some raw stock. He launched Raja Harishchandra (1913) about an honest king who for the sake of his principles sacrifices his kingdom and family before the gods impressed with his honesty restore him to his former glory.

However Phalke had to overcome several obstacles to realise his dream. He raised finance from Yeshwant Nadkarni, a photographic equipment dealer in Bombay, with a short trick film Birth of a Pea Plant shooting the plant intermittently to show it growing. Nadkarni was astounded by the trick film and agreed to be Phalke’s backer. Also as in Shakespearean England, female roles on the Indian Stage were still performed by men. Phalke, however, wanted to have a woman play the queen’s role. He even visited prostitutes from the red light areas but they backed out. Finally, Phalke found an effeminate looking cook, Salunke, in a cafe, who played the queen Taramati.

Raja Harishchandra was roughly 3700 feet long and distributed by Phalke himself. The film opened for regular commercial showing on May 3, 1913 at the Coronation Cinema, Bombay. The film fetched him rich returns. As exciting as foreign films had seemed, audiences were far more thrilled to see a familiar story performed by Indians. When the prints wore out after repeated screenings, he remade the film in 1917!

Phalke moved operations to Nasik and within three months produced his second feature, Mohini Bhasmasur (1914), which was 3245 feet long and gave Phalke ample scope for trick photography. Not just that, he was able to convince a woman, Kamalabai, to act in the film! Satyavan Savitri (1914) followed this. By now Phalke’s films were much in demand and at least 20 prints of each film were required for wider exhibitions.

Phalke visited England again in 1914 to organize trade shows. He received many offers to stay back in Europe, but he preferred to return to India with new equipment.

After a period of hibernation, Phalke made some of his greatest and most successful films – Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919). The impact was overwhelming. When Lord Rama appeared on the screen in Lanka Dahen and when Lord Krishna appeared in Shri Krishna Janma, men and women in the audience prostrated themselves before the screen! For them, they were seeing their Gods live in front of them!

Phalke also became an exhibitor and traveled far and wide by bullock cart with projector, screen and films. The revenue was in coins and the weight of the coins on the homeward trip was enormous!

Phalke’s establishment in Nasik grew into a model studio with a large retinue of technicians and artists on its payroll, most of whom lived on the premises. The company thus became an extension of the joint family system. The plot of land contained woods, hills, fields and caves to provide a diversity of scenic backgrounds. Interior sets open to the sunlight were built in the garden behind his house. All interior scenes were shot by sunlight with some use of reflectors.

Phalke’s films show a fine pictorial sense and remarkable technical resourcefulness. Like George Melies, Phalke was a special effects genius. He explored a vast range of techniques including animation, tinting and toning. He used scenic models for a number of sequences, including the burning of Lanka for which he also burned down two full size sets! But what was unique to Phalke, was his generosity to share his experiences. He even made a film on the filmmaking process, How Films Are Made, as early as 1917!

Initially the mythological film was to dominate Indian production for some years but rival genres in the 1920s began to compete for audience attention, like the ‘stunt film’ for example. Phalke gradually began to feel like a stranger in the film world. Film tastes were changing and as the atmosphere was becoming increasingly commercial, in 1928-1929 Phalke declared his retirement from the world of cinema.

However, in 1931 he tried again with Setu Bandhan. Coming at the last moment of the silent era, it was ill-timed and Phalke tried to salvage it by post-synchronizing dialogue.The film still failed. He also made a full fledged talkie, Gangavataram (1937), but the tide was no longer with him and he died in Nasik on 16th February, 1944, a forgotten man.

However, he will always remain the founder of the world’s largest Film Industry. Today the most prestigious award of the Indian Film Industry, the ‘Dadasaheb Phalke Award’ is named after him.

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