Most Indians would draw a blank if asked, “Who was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke?” But mention the name ‘Dadasaheb Phalke’ and it would sound so familiar to most Indians. This is because Dadasaheb Phalke, the name with which Dhundiraj Govind Phalke is better known, is considered the Father of Indian cinema. He made India’s first full-length feature film, Raja Harishchandra. It was shown publicly on 3 May 1913 at Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema. He also made 95 movies and 26 short films in his career, from 1912 to 1937.
The Government of India in 1969 instituted the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for lifetime contribution to Indian cinema. This award is the highest official recognition given to most eminent of Indian film personalities.
Here is an interesting and brief account of the life and times of Dadasaheb Phalke.
Early Life and Education
Dadasaheb, whose official full name was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, was born 30 April 1870, at Triambakeshwar, near Nashik in Maharashtra, India. His father was a Sanskrit scholar, and belonged to Marathi Deshastha Brahmin family.
In 1985, Dadasaheb took admission in the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai. He passed out in 1990. He then went to Vadodara in Gujarat and joined at Kala Bhavan, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Here he studied sculpture, drawing, painting and photography.
Dadasaheb’s Forays in Business and Industry
In Gujarat, Godhra is the town which is now known for the horrific tragedy where train passengers were burned and the incident started the communal riots. Godhra was the small town where Dadasaheb started his career as a professional photographer.
His profession and business was growing, but there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Gujarat and his wife and child died. A devastated and heart-broken Dadasaheb left Godhra for good.
At that time in Mumbai, the Lumiere Brothers had already brought cinema to India, and Dadasaheb met Carl Hertz, a German who was employed there.
Dadasaheb then took up employment with the Archaeological Survey of India as a draftsman. Soon his restless nature made him leave the job.
Then he decided to take up the business of printing, and he specialised in lithography and oleograph. Raja Ravi Varma was a renowned painter and artist of his time. Dadasaheb took up his works.
Buoyed by his success; Dadsaheb started his own printing press. With the good amount of profit that he made, he went on to his first foreign trip to Germany, to study the latest printing technology and machinery; and also to learn more about art.
Despite so much effort and success in printing business, Dadasaheb had a dispute with his partner and he gave up the business of printing press.
Starting a Career in Film Making
During those days, Dadasaheb watched a silent film called ‘The Life of Christ’. He got interested in the moving pictures, which was a novelty in those days. He yearned to make similar films on Hindu God and Goddesses.
Bitten by the film-making bug, Phalke took loans from his friend and pledged his life insurance. He then went to England in 1912, and learned about filmmaking and purchased the required equipments, before returning to India to make films.
Phalke’s maiden venture was the film, Raja Harishchandra, made in 1912. It was first shown publicly on 3 May 1913 at Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema. This was the first Indian feature film and marked the beginning of the Indian film industry.
After this successful beginning, Dadasaheb made several silent films, shorts, documentary, feature and educational films. His success drew several investors to this new art form, who were excited by it business potentials.
Setting Up the First Feature Film Company – Hindustan Films
The astounding success of his films made Dadasaheb start his own film company – Hindustan Films. This venture was in partnership with five Mumbai businessmen. He also set up a studio; and gave training to technicians and actors.
However, by 1920 he had developed serious conflicts with his partners; and he left the company and announced his retirement from film making.
The company ran into losses and his partners persuaded him to come back. But after directing a few films, Phalke again left for good. Meanwhile he wrote a play called Rangbhoomi, which was very much appreciated and became a classic Marathi play. In its film avatar a few years back, famous star Nana Patekar played the lead role.
The Advent of Sound Films
With the arrival of the technology of sound films, the silent films became obsolete. It was the time of the “Talkies” where the audience could also enjoy the dialogues spoken by the on-screen characters.
Dadasaheb’s last silent movie was Setubandhan, which was initially released in 1932. It was later released again with dubbing of sound.
Years after the popularity of the talking films, he produced his last film, which was the only talkie he made. It was Gangavataran, which was released in 1937.
Dadasaheb Phalke then retired and settled in Nashik. There he breathed his last on 16 February 1944 and India lost the doyen of Indian film industry.
Quotes by Dadasaheb Phalke
“I have to keep making films in my country so that it gets established as an industry at home.”
“While the film Life of Christ was rolling past before my eyes I was mentally visualizing the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell. I bought another ticket and saw the film again. This time I felt my imagination taking shape in the screen. Could this really happen? Could we the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen. The whole night passed in this mental agony.”
― (After watching the film ‘The Life of Christ’ in 1910).
“During this period I was constantly preoccupied with the analysis of every film, which I saw, and in considering whether I could make them here. There was no doubt whatsoever about the utility of the profession and its importance as an industry…this was the period of the Swadeshi movement and there was profuse talking and lecturing on the subject. For me personally, this led to the resignation of my comfortable Government job and taking to an independent profession. I took this opportunity to explain my ideas to my friends and leaders of the Swadeshi movement. Even people who were familiar with me for 15 years found my ideas impracticable.”
“Those who are susceptible to depravity do not need cinema or theatre to mislead them. There are numerous other factors which lead to immorality.”
Tributes to Dadasaheb Phalke
The Government of India, besides instituting the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in his memory, also released a postage stamp in his memory in 1971.
Dadasaheb Phalke besides his path-breaking film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ released in 1913, will also be remembered for his other most noted films like Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918), Kaliya Mardan (1919), Buddhadev (1923), Setu Bandhan (1932) and Gangavataran (1937).
He will remain the pioneer and guiding spirit for Indian cinema.