2/1/2009 by and
The film, daringly made in the Marathi language, a regional language unknown in much of India, is India’s official entry for the Oscar’s foreign language film competition. It’s a good pick as Academy members, as well as movie fans worldwide, should enjoy revisiting those early days of the 20th century when a few crazy folks tried to figure out how to bring drama and laughs to a thing called motion pictures.
In 1911, during British rule, only Europeans and a few elite locals attend picture shows in Bombay. Phalke (Nandu Madhav), unemployed after leaving the printing press business, happens upon a tent theater where such silent movies play. Mesmerized, he sets out to learn all he can about this new entertainment form, which isn’t much. He raises enough money to go to England to visit movie sets and talk with Brits making movies. He returns to India with the equipment to make one himself.
Mokashi makes Phalke onto a Chaplinesque figure, who succeeds largely due to his wide-eyed innocence and the determination he, his wife and two enthusiastic kids have for this new medium. Early sections contain some speeded-up action one associates with silent comedies, and the hero’s fondness for magic only increases the resemblance this talkie has to old silent films.
The behind-the -scenes activities for the first Indian film has its share of comedy. Explaining his methodology with family and friends, Phalke shows he understands intuitively how a producer must function when he declares, “I can’t tell the truth all the time!”
When he can’t find any women to act in his film, he resorts to recruiting in red light districts only to get turned down by prostitutes who fear acting will ruin their “reputation.” He settles, as did Shakespeare, for boys to play women but several resist his demand to shave mustaches.
The journey to a location, recruitment of extras and whole slapdash way in which people figure out how to make a movie are cause for further merriment. Mokashi’s touch is always light. He shows considerable talent himself in this — for him — new medium.
The story ends with the projection of India’s first film, “Raja Harishchandra,” in 1913. It does not explore how Phalke went on to make many films only to die a forgotten man in 1944, much as America’s D.W. Griffith did. Funny how movie communities treats their pioneers. At least the Indian film industry has since named a prestigious film award after Phalke.
Opened: Nov. 2, South Asia Film Festival, New York (UTV Motion Pictures)
Production companies: UTV Motion Pictures and Paprika Media present a Mayasabha production
Cast: Nandu Madhav, Vibhavari Deshpande, Mohit Gokhale, Atharva Karve
Director/screenwriter: Paresh Mokashi
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Smiti Kanodai, Paresh Mokashi
Executive producers: Shrirang Godbole, Manish Hariprasad
Director of photography: Amalendu Chaudhary
Production designer: Nitin Chandrakant Desai
Music: Anand Modak
Costume designers: Mrudul Patwardhan, Mahesh Sherla, Geeta Godbole
Editor: Amit Pawar
No rating, 90 minutes
A charming and heartwarming tribute to the two years and many sacrifices that Dadasaaheb Phalke made smilingly. Only to bring us the magic of cinema. His dedication and unwavering attitude will be an inspiration to date because of this well-made film.
Only an enthusiastic, never-say-die, determined, and crazy person could have brought films to India in that day and age. Importing and understanding mechanical equipment was considerably easy when you compared it to the taboo associated with doing anything out of the normal. An art form absolutely unknown to the masses, let alone go around stigma-free. And women working in a venture like this would be a social suicide. These are the odds we are transported to.
Mokashi does a wonderful job of making this a light peek into the hard work without letting us get too sentimental or too stark a depiction of his hardship. He doesn’t introduce us to the darker side of Phalke’s life at all. His insecurities, the craze for his work completely taking over his life to the extent that his and his family’s health is at stake. Not to mention the bleak financial situation that they were already in. While we can complain about the ever-smiling Phalke, the harshness is treated in the same tone as the rest of the film.
Every once in a while the film switches to the 8mm and silent era feel albeit in color. And it adds humor and is in perfect context. Also you can’t help but smile at the compare and contrast of how things have changed to today. For example, shunning anyone who wants to work towards his passion and go against the tide; the younger generation being more receptive to a new thing; the diminishing value of other forms of entertainment after the advent of the moving images; attempt of actors to steal more screen space from co-stars; we accord her on screen today; the need to imitate the technologies used in the west; the contrast between the mute but strong role a woman played in that time with the respect(?); the contrast between people applauding something as simple as the growth of a plant and the need for constant entertainment(?) now.
The film is after all an obituary of sorts. To the 2 years that the Father of Indian cinema spent in making THE first Indian film Raja Harishchandra. And like an obituary it is polite and sweet. It is also an enchanting time travel to a century ago. Go for it and take the kids along!