The press begins its chatter, you see the first rushes of the film. You mark your calendar and like a hyperactive puppy, jump onto the online booking as soon as the dates open up. You dress up like you were heading out on a date and time yourself to be there before the showtime. You queue up, consuming the smell of fresh popcorn and cacophony of movie buffs, you feel the pulsating rush of watching the film, the doors open and the usherer calls you in. And you tread ahead to take the stairway to heaven of cinematic magic…the movies. Unbounded by apprehensions, you take your seat and drift away like a cloud when the lights go off and the screen brightens up. It’s time!
Cut to – Easter, 1911, a man along with his family walks into America India Picture Palace to watch Life Of Christ (by the French director Alice Guy-Blaché) and his life alters forever. He gets so enamoured by the possibility of bringing Indian characters come alive on screen, that he immerses himself into watching movies endlessly, even at the cost of losing his sight. Blessed be that doctor, who found the cure to this man’s vision being compromised, or else, how would we, the laymen, who consume these visuals of film voraciously, find the figure to thank for it?
Setting a voyage in motion to bring to us, a wonder we marvel at, a wonder we love and a wonder we possibly cannot imagine our lives without – THE INDIAN CINEMA. The man who became the horizon line where the beauty of stories could meet the magic of a screen, Dada Saheb Phalke.
But that’s not how it all started. Phalke, born in the time of British India, was deeply inclined towards arts and creativity from the very beginning. Eventually, his curiosity led him to not only watch films but make them too.
He led a life laced with interesting, artistic twists and turns prior to his venture into the world of movies. The torch bearer of the Indian Film Industry, embarked on his creative journey by picking up a course in drawing at J J School of Arts, Bombay and went on to refine his skill by learning oil painting and watercolour painting at Kala Bhavan, Baroda, along with developing a sharp interest towards architecture and modelling objects.
Soon photography and lithography arrived in his life and his curiosity piqued to an extent that he even started his work under the name of ‘Shri Phalke’s Engraving and Photo Printing.’ But as he had to dabble with the dwindling finances, he moved on to becoming a professional photographer to meet his ends.
Despite losing his first wife and child to the plague in the 1900s, Phalke moved like an engine – only forward. From painting stage curtains, to trying his hands at dramatics, Phalke’s learning curve never hit a pause. After getting acquainted with a German magician, Phalke even took to conducting magic tricks and performances publicly for a short bit. Unaware that his life is soon going to lead him to the stepping stone of his success, the curious learner even worked at ace painter, Raja Ravi Varma’s press, carrying out photo-litho transfers. He did set up his own printing business later, but owing to the discord amongst the partners, they had to shut shop.
Phalke’s next chapter in life was a turning point not only for him, but for our entire country. With his first viewing experience at the America India Picture Palace, Phalke had been touched by the magic spark of movies. And from thereon began this ingenious man’s journey of cinematic brilliance.. Had it not been for his unquenchable thirst of watching stories and bringing Indian characters to life onscreen, we would have been kept away from the treasure of cinema for eons. Though someone would have eventually discovered the craft and taken it forward, who is to say they would have the same intensity and devotion to the craft like Dada Saheb?
After conducting his study in London for about two weeks, Phalke returned to India, resolute, and formed Phalke Films Company that very day. And who said, he had it easy? Despite being proficient at his work, Phalke faced several challenges for making the first Indian film ever. From the financers to the cast, everything was difficult. But nothing could beat his desire to pulp. He knew he wanted to do this in his flesh and bones. However, the trail of challenges continued. Since times were different back then, he could not manage to arrange for female actors, but interestingly, the male actors took up those characters and did a fine job with it.
Dada Saheb not only penned the first film but also took over the role of direction, production, design, make-up, editing and film-processing. Such was his love for the craft. The first silent Indian movie, Raja Harishchandra took over six months for completion and was a massive film running into approximately four reels, which is somewhere close to 3700 feet. From giving us the first silent Indian movie, to giving us movies where women were casted for the first time, Dada Saheb knew his way around the business and the craft.
He made over 100 films and won accolades and hearts, all at once. However, his walk was never an easy one. He constantly encountered obstacles and tried to stand tall in front of the challenges. From shifting businesses, quitting companies, trying his hands at numerous things, Dada Saheb will always be exemplary as an avid student, learner, giver and creator.
Surging through the odds not only requires effort but tremendous belief in the kind of work one does, and that is what Dada Saheb was all about. He gave his best to everything he truly believed in. The maker of several silent films, even had the opportunity to give the audience an experience of a sound film. His last work, Gangavataran, was released in Bombay at the Royal Opera House.
Though today we credit people for their noteworthy contribution to the Indian Cinema by lauding them with Dada Saheb Phalke Award, what must truly be remembered and inculcated is how the legendary man never rested on his oars and kept pushing the envelope further. All creations are subject to transformation…and we must learn through lives like these that adaptation is the only key.
Here’s to the gentleman, who gave us the opportunity to sink in our seats and soak the beautiful, mesmerising tales. Thank you for the movies, Dada Saheb.