Dadasaheb Phalke’s 1919 film Kaliya Mardan ("The Vanquishing of Kaliya") was, like his previous film featuring the god Krishna, Shri Krishna Janma ("The Birth of Krishna"), by all accounts a smashing success. It’s a perfect example of Phalke’s use of cinema to support the concept of Swadeshi – Krishna’s vanquishing of the snake god Kaliya could be, and certainly was, seen as a commentary on the contemporary political situation in India. Phalke’s audiences understood the connection that was being made, the comparison of the concept of evil, represented by Kaliya, to British Colonial rule. In fact, there are reports that at the end of screenings people stood up and shouted nationalist slogans, as well as singing devotional songs.
That doesn’t mean that Phalke’s film was a tedious or heavy-handed means of passing on political or social commentary – far from it. In fact, the film is joyous and delightful at every step. Krishna’s defeat of Kaliya comes at the very end of a series of scenes that illustrate both the mischevious and benevolent nature of Krishna, even as a child. When Krishna is given a gift of mangos, he gives them away, which, as a title card reveals:
When Krishna’s friends have water thrown on them by a village woman, Krishna leads them in taking revenge upon her, by stealing butter from her house and making it look as if she’s the culprit. Krishna’s antics also involve tying together the beard and hair of a sleeping couple, and drawing a picture of a cow on a wall, all the while listening to the villagers who have come to complain about him to his parents.
These same villagers are seen leaving their chores, drawn away by Krishna’s flute playing near the river, where they gather and dance to his tunes.
And when Krishna climbs a tree and falls into the river, they gather at the riverside, their distress palpable. Sadness turns to joy when Krishna rises out of the river on the head of Kaliya, having soundly vanquished him. Kaliya’s wives garland Krishna, and the villagers pull Krishna out of the river, hugging and kissing him, dancing with joy, and, ultimately, blessing him for his great feat.
The thing that strikes me about Kaliya Mardan is how much it reminds me of modern Indian films, so timeless is its fimmaking. The use of familiar themes (especially those from Hindu mythology) to comment on touchy political or social situations; the use of both comedy tracks as well as drama; the use of song and dance – it may seem odd to think of song and dance in a silent film, but it’s there in Kaliya Mardan, and it’s just as entertaining as it is in modern Indian films, as is the rather ripping underwater sequence in which Krishna fights with Kaliya:
However, Kaliya Mardan wouldn’t be what it is without the talented and adorable Mandakini Phalke in the role of Krishna. The film opens with Mandakini reading what is purported to be the film’s script. The image dissolves, and Mandakini becomes Krishna.
Dressed as Krishna, she proceeds to give us, as the title card states, a:
I have no words to express how happy Mandakini Phalke's performance makes me, and how charmed I am every time I watch Phalke's film.