On May 3, 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, India’s first feature film, was released in Mumbai, at the Coronation Cinematograph and Variety Hall, Girgaon. To mark the occasion, here’s revisiting Paresh Mokashi’s gem of a film, Harishchandrachi Factory.
Here was a story just waiting to be turned into film, and it took so many years for someone to think of it.
Dadasaheb Phalke, is called the Father of Indian Cinema, and promptly forgotten. There is an award named after him, but no other attempt to preserve his legacy or tell his extraordinary story. April 30, 2020 happened to be his 150th birth anniversary, which slid past without much online brouhaha.
Producer Shrirang Godbole and playwright-turned-filmmaker Paresh Mokashi, made a Marathi film called Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), about the making of India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra.
Period films, especially those about historical events and pioneering men and women, tend to be ponderous, but Mokashi’s film is suffused with warmth and humour and portrays Phalke as a lovable eccentric.
In 1911, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (Nandu Madhav) was struggling for survival with his patient and supportive wife (Vibhawari Deshpande) and two children. He discovered a tent theatre where a ‘moving picture’ was being screened and was smitten. He wanted to learn all about it and make his own film—even it meant selling everything in his house and almost losing his sight.
He managed to raise funds, go to London, learn filmmaking and buy equipment, but making the first film was not easy. For one, no woman (not even a prostitute) would star in it, no mother would let her kid act out a death scene, and there were innumerable other problems. It is a wonderful, inspiring story and told with tremendous empathy for the characters, and bringing out all the pains and pleasures of filmmaking. His wife Saraswatibai was the first female technician, editing the film in her kitchen—and her unstinting support to Phalke is given its due in the film. His daughter Mandakini went on to star in Kaliya Mardan, the first female film star.
Harishchandrachi Factory is great fun to watch, has many laugh-aloud moments, but recreates the period and the passion of the man who refused offers to make films in the UK, because he wanted the industry to be established in India. It was a sacrifice, that has been forgotten and gone mostly unrewarded.
Only two reels of Raja Harishchandra remain at the National Film Archive of India, Pune, but they serve as a reminder, that it wasn’t for Dadasaheb Phalke, there probably wouldn’t have been an Indian film industry. Maybe someone else would have accomplished that feat, but Phalke was, to use today’s phrase, a first mover. Harishchandrachi Factory won several awards and was sent as India’s entry for the Oscars. Didn’t win…what a pity!