I am thrilled to be part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, organized by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. By the time I decided to toss my hat in the virtual ring, there were three years left to choose from -- one of them being 1919. It felt as if the fates were calling, because 1919 happens to be the year that one of my favourite films of all time, D.G. Phalke's Kaliya Mardan, was made.
It’s almost impossible to try to encapsulate the magic of D.G. Phalke (more popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke), but his importance as the “father of Indian cinema” is inestimable. The Dadasaheb Phalke award, established in 1969 (the centenary of Phalke’s birth), is the highest honour in cinema, awarded by the Indian government to recognize lifetime contribution to Indian cinema.
Phalke himself was, and remains, a fascinating figure: The son of a Sanskrit scholar, he studied both art (his studies included ceramics, photolithography and blockmaking) and architecture. A proficient landscape painter, he went on to learn how to develop and print film negatives. Fascinated by an itinerant German illusionist, Phalke himself learned the art of magic and began giving public performances under the name Professor Kelpha.
If all this were not fascinating enough, Phalke moved to Lonavala around 1908 and began Phalke’s Art Printing and Engraving works. Lonavala was, importantly, the home of Ravi Varma Press, an important chromolithographic press originally owned by renowned Malayalam artist Raja Ravi Varma. It is suggested that Phalke might have also worked at Ravi Varma Press, but he almost certainly produced prints of Ravi Varma’s paintings (Varma himself saw the production of prints of his works as a way to reach the masses and perhaps encourage interest in the arts).
Phalke, then, can be seen as a kind of jack-of-all-trades – or someone, these days, we might call a multi-disciplinary artist. If Paresh Mokashi's 2009 Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory (about Phalke's attempts to make his first film, Raja Harishchandra. Phalke called his studio a "factory" to make it less of a stigma for his artists to come and work for him), captures Phalke’s personality even remotely, he can be seen as a kind of curious, inventive, passionate genius.
Phalke’s relationship with cinema began sometime around 1910 or 1911 – Phalke saw the film The Life of Christ in a Bombay cinema, and it completely turned his life upside down. Phalke found himself both moved by the images he viewed, and excited by the possibilities of taking this new medium and creating something uniquely Indian. The importance of this must be emphasized: Phalke felt that he could make cinema that would contribute to the Swadeshi Movement, a part of the Indian Independence Movement that emphasized self-sufficiency through the revival of indigenous industry and production. Phalke set about bringing mythological themes to the silver screen, not necessarily as a means to inspire devotion, but, simply, he felt them the best way to reach out to people. It’s important to keep in mind, watching what remains of Phalke’s films, is that these are stories/themes that people would have been very familiar with, and for a Westerner, making oneself familiar with the stories is definitely a help in understanding them.
In 1912, after acquiring financing from the photographic equipment dealer Yeshwant Nadkarni (Phalke showed him a short trick film entitled The Birth of a Pea Plant, an event recreated in Paresh Mokashi's Harishchandrachi Factory) Phalke headed off to London where he acquired a Williamson camera, Kodak negative film, and a film perforator. He also used the opportunity to approach Walton Studios and to be tutored by Cecil Hepworth (one of the founders of the British film industry). On his return to Bombay, he established Phalke Films, under which banner he made five films, including the one considered the first Indian feature film – Raja Harishchandra.
Phalke’s initial ventures into filmmaking are also interesting because they are, in essence, also family ventures. The Phalke’s kitchen was turned into a laboratory; a family friend, Trymbak B. Talang, was trained to use the camera; Phalke’s wife, Saraswati, took on many different tasks, including perforating film stock. His children also appeared in his films, most notably his daughter Mandakini, the 7-year old star of Kaliya Mardan.
That said, Phalke was almost a one-man cinema show – writing, shooting, directing, editing – in fact, Phalke was a master at both editing and special effects, and part of the enjoyment of his films comes as much from the spectacles he creates as from the stories he is portraying on screen.
His 1919 film Kaliya Mardan (“The Death of Kaliya”) is a perfect example of all of this. Kaliya is a poisonous snake god, and as one version of the story goes, one day, the god Krishna was playing ball with some herdboys, when the ball fell into the river. Krishna went into the river to retrieve the ball, and the snake Kaliya entrapped him by wrapping himself around Krishna. Krishna escaped by making himself so big that Kaliya could no longer hold him. Then Krishna danced on the snake’s head (after taking on the weight of the whole Universe, of course), and Kaliya began to die. Kaliya’s wives came and prayed to Krishna; Kaliya recognized Krishna’s greatness and promised not to bother anyone ever again; Krishna pardoned Kaliya and banished him from the river.
Tomorrow: Kaliya Mardan, the film in more detail.