The Birth of the Indian Film Industry by Salim Arif (Part 3)


Dada Saheb Phalke managed to survive the onslaught of the First World War and kept his factory alive. Seeing his resolve and efforts, some people took pity on Phalke and loaned him a good sum of money to do two long films and provide consistent livelihood to his workers.

‘Raja Harishchandra’ in a new version and ‘Lanka Dahan’ were the two films Phalke made with this new flourish of funds. It dispelled whatever doubts people had on the viability of this new medium. ‘Lanka Dahan’ was the biggest success of that era. Crowds thronged to the then West End Theatre (Naaz of today at Lamington Road, Mumbai) forcing the management to start the shows at 7 am in the morning till after midnight, collecting Rs. 32, 000 in the first ten days of its release. The Aryan Cinema in Pune had a similar response, while in Madras (now Chennai) the box office collections were carried in bullock carts under police protection. Salunke, the find of Phalke for female roles played both male and female role of Rama and Sita in the film, a rare feat at that time.

Toward the end of 1917, Phalke Films or Factory was turned into a partnership company named Hindustan Film Manufacturing Company where Dada Saheb Phalke had five financial partners and was himself the sixth partner besides being the technical and creative director. Mr. V. S Apte was the Managing Partner with Phalke being the Working Partner. The other three stake holders with financial investments were Mr. Maya Shankar Bhatt, Mr. Gokuldas Damodar, Mr. Madhavji Jesing who like Mr. Apte came from the textile industry. Mr. L. B Phatak was the fourth partner. Their first venture was ‘Shree Krishna Janm’ followed by ‘Kalia Mardan’ where his daughter Mandakini played the role of young Krishna with popular acclaim. Both films were financial money-spinners and by now Phalke’s Studio in Nasik became a model for the later film studio or companies which got formed.

Starting at seven in the morning with exercises and at times sports like football, the company workers would go through the day with various chores as if in a big family. Stunt masters would coach the actors in fencing and sword fighting. The studio had a big farm and garden very often used for outdoor shoots. The studio cultivated its own vegetables used by the kitchen everyday. There was a library of books, a small zoo with animals frequently used in the films which the studio made.

By 1919, Phalke started having differences with his partners and left by the year end, retiring from film making and opting for Benares as his new home. He got involved with theatre and wrote his famous play ‘Rangbhoomi’ as a satire on dramas and stage conditions of that time.

This was a real testing time for Hindustan Film Company once Phalke departed. Mr. V.S Apte the Managing Partner decided to continue film production. He relied on the assistants of Phalke and got Mr. Karandikar and Divekar from another company called Patankar Friends and Company to open a studio in Pune. Titled Bharat Film Company, the new studio in Pune produced ten new mythological films between 1921 and 1922.

Patankar Friends and Company formed in 1917 made films with Indian themes and stories. Another company that started producing films was Kohinoor formed by Dwarkadas Narayan Sampat (an earlier partner of Patankar) in 1918 with Mr. Manek Lal Patel. The first company in South India, Indian Film Company was formed by Nataraja Mudaliar with his business associate S.M Dharmalingam Mudaliar in Millers Road, Kilpauk and the Laboratory was set up in more weather friendly Bangalore in early 1916. The negative would be sent to Bangalore daily for processing and printing. ‘Keechak Vadham’ became the first film to be made with this arrangement in 1916. Distribution rights of this venture from South were given to Madan for Bengal and Ardeshir Irani for Bombay. Several other films followed by Indian companies with local resources.

Phalke was called back by the partners of Hindustan Film Manufacturing Company to counter competition in film production by these new emerging production houses. Film production became more organized as a business enterprise and budgets were in place which became a constraint for the free-spirited Phalke. His ‘Mahanada’ was made in 1923 but Phalke was more of a resigned technical supervisor than an auteur of films. The last silent film to be made by Phalke was ‘Setu Bandhan’ which had to be post- sychronised as the sound had come in by then. He continued to work till 1932 when the company was closed one year after the advent of sound in films. Phalke by now was without any major savings.

With 97 pictures and 20 years of pioneering work in establishing a major film industry, at the age of 62 D.G Phalke had to restart his professional career once again. This time he chose to make enamel boards for different shops and establishments, an expertise he had acquired in his training at the Kalabhavan. But this venture met with little success. He accepted an invitation to direct a film for Kolhapur Cinetone in November 1934. It took two years for the film to be made and took a heavy toll on Phalke. ‘Gangavataran’ remained his last film made at Kolhapur. He fell sick and was taken to Pune by his friend. Phalke was offered some more films from producers in Lucknow and Raja Mundhary. He also had some offers from Prabhat in Pune to make short films. But nothing concrete materialized. Phalke resurfaced in 1939 in the Silver Jubilee year of Indian Cinema to be honoured with a purse of Rs. 5000 in Bombay. Phalke after that went into oblivion, living in Nasik till the curtain fell on the era he ushered in. He died on February 16, 1944 in financial penury and forgotten by the public at large.

As early as 1928, Phalke understood the need to establish a school in India to teach cinema industry photography, acting, screenplay and scenario writing. He spoke about it to an Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1928. It is only in 1960 that Film and Television Institute of India was started at erstwhile Prabhat Studio in Pune.

While Phalke is rightfully accorded the status of the father of Indian Cinema, there were others who understood the commercial potential of this new medium. Although it depended entirely on foreign technical resources like film and print material, camera, equipment, cinema in India made rapid strides and very quickly acquired a commercial viability much to the liking of investors. This financial head with loads of money to invest became the producer and Indian cinema very quickly evolved a hierarchy of its own. Unlike Phalke who was a multi-talented and was a writer, cameraman, director and producer all rolled into one, the new producers and film companies started hiring assistants as main technicians and there was migration of talent from one company to the other frequently. Film production increased manifold and several regional cities like Calcutta, Madras, Kolhapur, Nasik, Bangalore and Bombay became centres for film production and playhouses in cities were rapidly converting into cinema halls for an ever growing audience.

Disclaimer: The copyright of this article is with Salim Arif. No part of this article should be reproduced without prior permission.


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