The Birth of the Indian Film Industry (Part 2)


Dada Saheb Phalke landed in London and started visiting the shops and addresses mentioned in catalogues he had collected earlier in India. The claims and counter claims of these dealers left him quite confused. He also met the Editor of ‘Bioscope’ weekly magazine Mr. Cabourne who discouraged him initially, citing examples of several failed producers at film production in England. Phalke had long discussions about filmmaking with Mr. Cabourne during his fortnight long stay. He understood Phalke’s passion about cinema and became a close friend. He chose a Williamson camera, a printing machine, perforator and raw negative film to buy. Cabourne also introduced Phalke to Cecil Hepworth, a prominent producer at Walton, who allowed Phalke to see all departments of filmmaking and gave him valuable advice. Phalke returned on April 1, 1912, ready to start his long awaited dream enterprise.

Phalke shot a short piece of film with his wife and children as artistes. The result satisfied financiers who agreed to give money against securities. Mrs. Phalke mortgaged her jewellery and the cash flow allowed Phalke to start his venture. Finding suitable, worthwhile actors to work in this new medium, which was looked down upon by society, was the next major hurdle. Phalke advertised in a local newspaper but had to contend with third rate stage actors who came forward. Availability of female actors was even a bigger hurdle. Unlike the stage plays where male actors like legendary Balgandharv specialised in enacting female roles, Phalke was convinced that film camera and the medium needed female actors for female roles. His advertisement in the paper also resulted in Phalke getting several replies from Red Light areas of Mumbai. He met most of these sex workers, but even they would wriggle out on some pretext or the other. The search was getting frustrating when he met his heroine in a restaurant, a young boy, Phalke offered him 5 rupees more than what he was getting as a cook. That boy A. Salunke got the role of Taramati and became a specialist female actor. For other female roles he had to do the same. Suitable men were trained to play female roles and this tradition of company stage plays continued in our initial films too.

The actual task of making a film was still to begin. With no other trained or capable person in several departments of film making, Phalke had to do almost everything himself. From training actors to writing scenarios, to shoot the film, print and edit it himself; Phalke worked like a man possessed. India had no trained or equipped personnel then to know anything about cinema and the onus fell on this pioneer to work and train his team.

Phalke fixed a studio in Dadar, a suburb of then Bombay. He made the set in that studio and started to shoot in the later part of 1912. Shooting during the day and perforating negative, developing and printing film in the night, Phalke with his untiring commitment to his dream went through a rigorous ordeal of about six months to lay the foundation of a systematic rooting of Indian cinema in its embryonic stage.

Producing the film was just a small job compared to organizing the release of his dream project. Phalke arranged a preview of the film at Bombay’s Olympia Cinema on April 21, 1913 and invited important personalities from various field including journalists from newspapers to create a pre-release buzz.

Widely praised in the press, ‘Raja Harishchandra’ ran for a record 23 days then, starting the commercial screenings from 13 May, 1913 at Bombay’s Coronation Theatre. Phalke’s Film, the banner of D. G. Phalke at the creative helm took roots. Inspired by this success, Phalke moved to Nasik and within three months produced his second mythological ‘Mohini Bhasmasur’ that got released in January 1914. He also made a short comedy ‘Pithache Panje’ that was shown with the main film.

With these successful films one after the other, Phalke managed to create a market for his future films and managed to establish himself as a local talent of formidable potential at the beginning of cinematic activity in India. He launched his third film ‘Savitri Satyavan’ and made it in quick time to release it in June 1914. This also proved to be a commercial success and Phalke used this money to upgrade and equip his studio. His friends also helped seeing the financial returns. The money that Phalke made from each print of the film was more than the debt he incurred in setting up the studio. The news of his success reached foreign shores and up to twenty copies of his film (prints in modern parlance) were demanded from overseas. An optimistic Phalke thought it wise to invest a large sum in new electric driven machinery and went abroad to buy them. He took prints of his four films for trade shows in London before their public release while sailing for England in June 1914.

Fate once again had other plans.

A war broke out in Europe in late June 1914 and created a lot of panic in India and around. Phalke reached England, met his friend Cabourne and purchased necessary machines. He could also arrange the trade shows and got very good reviews for the technical quality of his films. The situation in England was more normal than that in India. The streets in London had placards stating ‘Business As Usual’. Phalke was feted for his technical virtuosity and even got offers to make films in England, which he refused. The “Swadeshi” in him had a strong belief in a cinema that had an indigenous native Indian base of stories, employees, ownership and financial resources.

The war continued and spread to other countries to be named The First World War. An India under the British rule feared a crisis of supplies expecting a stoppage in imports for enterprises depending on foreign materials with the expansion of war. Cinema being an expensive medium and depending entirely on imports became a vulnerable sector. With a break in supplies from abroad, new production and printing could suffer and to invest further in imports was a huge risk. The financiers of Phalke withdrew from making further investment fearing losses in case the war continued. He somehow persuaded them not to disband his production company, now called the Factory. With support from his father in law, Mr. Chitnis, Phalke managed to get a confirmatory telegram to London to ship his new equipment but had to agree to a half salary cut to his employees in the film company. In due course of time the equipment arrived and Phalke continued his film work in Nashik away from Bombay which was suffering from effects of the continuing war.

Instead of making regular feature length films like ‘Harishchandra’, Phalke started making short films of smaller length like ‘Pithache Panje’. He produced comedies like ‘Soulagna Rasa’, ‘Mr. Sleepy’s Good Luck’, cartoons like ‘Agkadyaanchi Mauj’, ‘Animated Coins’, ‘Vichitra Shilpa’, topicals like ‘Sinhasta Parvani’, ‘Kartiki Purnima Festival’, ‘Ganesh Utsava’, documentaries like ‘Glass Works’, ‘Talegaon’, ‘Birds Eye-view of Bodh Gaya’, ‘Rock Cut Temples of Ellora’ and educational shorts like ‘How Films Are Made’. Professor Kelpha’s Magic was a film of his magic tricks, using in reverse his own name for the magician (Kelpha is reverse of Phalke). Phalke acted in this film. By this time to cast willing female actresses for female roles became possible.

By the end of 1915, Phalke was back in trouble. His financiers refused to pay the promised half salaries. His electrician died of cholera, his photographer suffered serious illness and his other dependable staff had malaria attacks. The electric generator broke down and became redundant. His manager had serious ailment that required surgery. This manager was also implicated in a false case by the police. Phalke had to pay attention to all these additional expenses of medical and legal nature. It also required Phalke to give his working time to postponed court hearings and travels. Still he managed to start a new film ‘Life of Shriyal’. As luck would have it, the actor playing the role of Shriyal ran a temperature of 103 degrees and continued to shoot till he fell seriously ill and was out for several weeks. The lady playing role of Changuna sprained her while descending a stair and had to sit at home. Phalke was in distress when his wife came to his rescue one more time. She could see the dire straits Phalke was in without adequate support around. She volunteered to act as Chaguna if only Phalke would play the role of Shriyal. Referring to the ability of Phalke to make matchsticks act (as in ‘Adkadgyanchi Mouj’), she told him about her confidence in his talent to make an ordinary human being like her act. Her second condition was that her name would not be publicized. The film eventually had to be abandoned for various reasons, but the incidents around that project gave Phalke enough courage to keep his struggle going.

The continuation of war increased his troubles of convincing financiers to invest further in his projects. A large part of 1916 was spent by Phalke in travelling to various places in India to look for funds to make new films. He also showed the films he had made and could generate sufficient funds to survive this phase of despair.

But Phalke was determined to have one more fling with serious film-making which seemed distant, yet possible.

(To be continued…)

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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