I wrote this post for Dadasaheb’s birthday, but it also works for the anniversary of Indian film.
This story starts with a woman. I didn’t even know this until I was at a conference a few years back and heard a talk on her. Alice Guy-Blache, a French woman who settled in New Jersey, and one of the first makers of long form narrative film in the world. She made a movie called “Life of Christ” in 1906, a massive big budget production which became a huge international hit. A few years later, it made its way to a theater in Bombay, where a middle-class owner of a printing press went to see it.
At the time, film was not unknown in India. If the start of film history is marked by 1896 and the Lumiere Brother’s first public exhibition, than film reached India within a year after that, when a traveling exhibition was first put on in Bombay of this new technology. Film was a curiosity, something the privileged classes and the British enjoyed. There were small theaters springing up in cities around the country (with separate sections for separate classes, of course), and you could go in and watch short films of trains arriving at stations and so on, along with the narrative style films that were slowly getting popular. But film was not the most common form of entertainment by any means.
In India at the time, specifically within Bombay, there were 3 strong artistic performing traditions. The first was the Ramleela, and other religious plays. Familiar stories told through declamatory style, there was a particular pleasure in seeing them played out again and again, and of course they were also very good stories. These were not “religious” as in “sit down and be quiet, this is good for you”, these were stories that let you boo the villain and cheer the hero and just generally feel involved in the narrative that was playing out on stage. And they were also very well done, costumes and sets and everything else were not just “good for a religious play” but good in general. (I say this not for my desi readers, you know this, but for non-desis who may read “religious play” and picture something cheap and boring in a church basement)
And there was the Parsi theater. For whatever reason of historical quirk, the Parsi minority community of India (Zoroastrians fleeing persecution from then Persia who came to India around 1000 CE) had by the 1800s become leading theater company owners in Bombay, eventually setting up traveling groups that went around the country. They drew on multiple influences, everything from Shakespeare to ancient Persian folktales to those same religious plays and crafted something unique, big spectacles complete with songs, complex stories, massive sets, just in general a fun big wild night at the theater. They also used a lot of special effects and fantasy, there was a little Arabian Nights built in as well.
And finally, there was the Tawaif tradition. Mostly a north Indian tradition, it had made its way to Bombay as well. Traditional dancers, traditional singers, performing on street corners or in high class salons. Not as common and familiar as the two previous traditions, but still there.
Which brings me back to Dadasaheb Phalke watching Life of Christ in a movie theater. He watched it onscreen and had a vision. He suddenly saw the Gods and Goddesses of his familiar Indian stories marching across the screen. He knew what he had to do with his life. So he rushed home and grabbed his wife and dragged her to the theater to watch the film a second time and share his vision. And the next day, they began working on putting his vision into reality.
Dadasaheb needed this vision, this mad quest, because only a crazed obsession would make it possible for an Indian to make a movie at that time and place. Under colonial rule, technology was hard to come by in India. Purposefully hard, the value of the Indian citizen for the British was their need to purchase British made consumer goods. If Indian made goods were available, then Britain lost.
(Thus, spinning wheel to break colonialism. Gandhi was smart)
Dadasaheb determined that the first step would be to get a film camera. And he also realized that such a thing did not exist in India. And so he mortgaged his home and business and bought a boat ticket to Europe. He went all the way to Europe and bought a film camera. And then a little pamphlet on how to use it. But the pamphlet wasn’t enough, so he looked up the name of the author, found his address, and went knocking on his door asking for help.
Film is unique in how it can break down international borders. An art form that can be understood without language, that (ideally) deals with universal human desires, that shows us and reminds us we are all human, reveals the living breathing person with honesty and without prejudice. And Dadasaheb’s story shows that is how Indian film began, grounded in India, yes, but also connected outside of it. A film made by a French woman living in New Jersey inspired an Indian man in Bombay who then sought (and found) help from a British man in London.
Dadasaheb took all of this, his camera and his lessons, and brought it back to his house in Bombay. And decided he would make a movie. A movie on a story that was familiar but not too familiar, Raja Harischandra, a minor character mentioned in the Puranic stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The next step was to cast his actors. The children of the tale would be played by his own children, he could fill in for some other roles, but he needed someone to play the title character and his beautiful wife.
Dadasaheb traveled up and down Bombay looking for an actress. All the regular stage actresses turned him down, finding film disgusting and humiliating. He reached the point of even asking some of the courtesans of the city, they similar refused, film was not respectable enough even for them. Finally, Dadasaheb went to a lunch counter and noticed that the cook behind the counter was remarkably graceful. He spoke with him, and solved his casting problem. The Queen would be played by a man, Anna Salunke.
That is how the legend goes, that Dadasaheb had this sudden brainwave, but I don’t know if I necessarily believe it. Men playing women, especially in religious plays, was not uncommon at the time, is still not uncommon now. I can believe that Dadasaheb wanted a woman to play the role and even went so far as asking prostitutes. But I’m not sure if I believe that he only considered having a man play both parts when he noticed a graceful short order cook. It’s so far in the past now, over a 100 years ago, and all we have are the stories, but I could easily believe that this random graceful restaurant worker might have already had experience playing female roles in some other context. Only that doesn’t make as good a story.
So Dadasaheb made his movie. Filmed primarily in the backyard of his house with his wife serving as lighting assistant. It was shown to the public on May 3rd 1913, a day which is celebrated as the start of films in India. And it was a massive massive hit.
Money follows success, Phalke was offered backers to fund his next films, started his own studio, grew out of his backyard. But he never grew very large, it just wasn’t possible in that time. The British did not like him making his own movies, there were dozens of tiny ways that he was hindered, he had his own camera but he still needed to find a way to get film, his movies had to be sent abroad to be rendered and finished and then shipped back to India, he had to find financiers who were willing to take a risk on a risky local product, and so on and so on.
And the Indians weren’t necessarily supportive as well. Not the general audience, they loved Phalke films, and the other films that sprang up in his footsteps, but the Indian National Congress, the leading Indian political body at the time, was not for movies. Gandhi himself spoke out against them. So Phalke and the other filmmakers kept working on their own, following their mad passion, strengthened by the love of the audience for their work.
Like many early filmmakers, Dadasaheb struggled with the transition to sound. His films, the historic epics and religious plays, relied on the audience knowing the story and the actors enacting certain set emotions. Very different from the free and easy world of the sound film, or at least freer and easier.
(Raja Harischandra still.)
Other filmmakers developed and they had their strengths and weaknesses. Bombay Talkies with its German trained gloss. Wadia Movietones and the other “stunt” and fantasy houses. PC Barua in Calcutta and his complex social novel based movies. The introduction of sound also increased the language bifurcation of the country, which opened up more avenues of experimentation, Marathi comedies talking about specific social sets of Marathi society, southern film showing epic moments of southern (not northern) history, and so on. Phalke was the father of Indian film and, like many fathers, he was watching his children surpass him, move on to areas he could not even understand.
One of the things that Indian culture prides itself on is the reverence it pays to its parents. And Indian film, the industry itself, did pay that reverence to Phalke. But the country of India forgot him. Here is what I wrote a few years back about the “Dadasaheb Phalke” award:
Not that Phalke or his family gets anything out of this. This article gives a great overview of how the family has been treated by the government. They have never been invited to the Phalke awards ceremony, neither Phalke nor his wife (who was his cameraman, editor, chief technician, set designer, and everything else), has ever been given an award by the government. At the same time that a stamp was issued in his name and postcards were made of his studio, his descendants were forced to sell the land for development in order to survive. The only public honor they ever remember getting was when V. Shantaram, himself a filmmaker, publicly presented Phalke with a purse containing 5,000 rupees as part of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Indian film. The money was used to buy their first house.
So, Phalke was a true “father” of cinema, in the way I think of fathers. He gave and gave and asked nothing in return. He was beloved of his “children” in film, but his sacrifices and gifts were not noticed by the larger society. He did what he did not for fame or adulation, but out of love. And this whole massive national film industry that exists today, it is thanks to him. The man who gave his house, his business, his family, his everything to create Indian film. His family may never have gotten respect from the government, he may have died alone and forgotten, but I think he would be fine with that. If he can look down from heaven now, and see his country covered in theaters playing films inspired by his work, I think that would be enough for him.