Decoding Dadasaheb Phalke

A still from Paresh Mokashi's 'Harishchandrachi Factory'

Phalke’s own history serves as an exciting backdrop in terms of understanding the man who is the founder of Indian Cinema

The man who laid the foundation of Indian cinema had died a dejected man and was probably the first Indian to taste success and failure in the show business. Phalke’s films, as was the norm during that time, were based on mythological characters and were instant successes. The audience, who till now, were only privy to the foreign films that would be screened in the theatres. “No much is known about Phalke’s early life and I , like most people, was oblivious to his eccentricities, “ says Paresh Mokashi, the director of the acclaimed Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory. “While researching about his first film, I came across interesting trivia about him and go to know the man who was a sucker for adventure.”

At the age of 15, Phalke left his home at Tryambkeshwar near Nashik and travelled all the way to Bombay to enroll himself in J J School of Arts. After that, he continued his studies in Kala Bhavan in Baroda and started his photography studio in Godhra, Gujarat and later joined the Archeological Society of India. “However he soon resigned from his government job to join the freedom movement. At that time, Lokmanya Tilak was protesting against the division of Bengal,” informs Mokashi.

However, his passion for arts brought him back to the mainstream once again and soon turned to the business of printing, where he specialized with lithography and oleograph working for painter Raja Ravi Varma. Later, Phalke started a printing press of his own in collaboration with a Gujurat Sethji. The printing press was a success and it became the second best press in Bombay after the Times of India. “But he soon fell out with his partner over creative differences and resigned from his position. And then he saw ‘The Life of Christ’.

Phalke was a master of special effects and he showed the audience what they could have never imagined. “His mind was of a scientific bend and no one could understand the strength of the medium like him. His speciality lied in making his actors disappear. So when Lord Rama appeared on the screen in front of Hanuman in Lanka the audience prostrated themselves before the screen and prayed,” says Mokashi. Such was Phalke’s special effects in the film that audience forgot that what they were watching was not real.