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An oral history project gives rich insights into the fathering of Indian cinema

Cinema is one of the marvels of the 20th century, said Satyajit Ray. The invention of images moving on the screen gave a new dimension to storytelling. When the Lumière brothers projected these images in a dark hall in Paris in 1895, the viewers were excited. They had seen nothing like it before. Next year, these silent visuals were screened in Watson hotel in Bombay and there was a sense of bewilderment among the audience. Few years later, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, a trained photographer and magician took fancy to this latest invention and dreamt of telling Indian stories on the silver screen.

He gained knowledge and got trained in London in film-making to make the first feature-length film in India, Raja Harishchandra in 1913. Thereafter, he shifted to his hometown Nasik and put together a motley of people from different backgrounds to form a film company. This was at a time when this new medium of cinema was looked down with contempt and people refused to come forward to work in films. Phalke then successfully convinced friends, relatives and people around him to do a variety of jobs in his company.

It is these very people whom I discovered in the vaults of National Film Archive of India sometime last year. When the entire world was busy grappling with the Covid pandemic, the voices of old men who had worked with Phalke came alive in the archive. As part of Oral History project of NFAI, several of the old cinema artists had shared their experiences and these recordings were done in 1980s. A huge task of digitising about 8,000 minutes of the audio interviews was undertaken. The interviews were mostly in Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali apart from English.

It is interesting to listen to these old voices reminiscing about the silent era of Indian cinema. These people, coming from different backgrounds who had nothing to do with art, joined Phalke’s company and under his tutelage became artists. With family professions as varied as farmer, potter, ironsmith, barber, pot maker, coppersmith, wrestler etc these people entered the film industry to earn a living. Most of them were not much educated. With strict discipline, Phalke moulded them into performers. These recordings reveal the humane side of Phalke apart from throwing light on his craft.

Sahdevrao Tapkire joined Phalke’s film company and did many side-roles and acted in mob scenes. When he realised he neither had physique nor flair for acting, Tapkire focussed his energy on learning makeup. There was no independent discipline of makeup in those days and no way to learn it. Phalke taught him the basics and Tapkire picked up the techniques by observing on the sets. “Keep this in mind and show me something new every day,” Tapkire remembers Phalke telling him. Eventually, Tapkire joined the Gemini Studio of SS Vasan during World War II and ended up doing makeup for many Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films including iconic Chandralekha.

Narayan Tambat was the classmate of Neelkanth, Phalke’s son and joined his film company as assistant storekeeper. He remembers, “Everyone was equal in Phalke’s company. There was no class difference. Even though Phalke was short-tempered, he was a visionary. He was passionate about making the film industry a noble and progressive profession and didn’t care about profits or losses.”

Another artist from Nasik, Haribhau Lonare joined Phalke’s company for Setubandhan. Coming from a profession of brickmaking, Lonare remembers Phalke as a disciplinarian: “He would first showcase whatever is needed from actors and then insist on us following his orders.”

Not many know that veteran Marathi comedy actor Vasant Shinde entered the film industry while working with Phalke. He grinded out in every department in the studio be it painting, carpentry, stores, editing and laboratory before getting minor roles. Phalke would pick up subjects from Hindu epics just before the festivals and make films in about 8-10 days so that the release could be coincided with these festivals. “He literally taught everybody the tricks of the trade and we all are reaping the benefits of it today,” says Shinde in his interview.

Oral history is a very important tool in studying history. These are the tales coming directly from the people who closely worked with Phalke. These stories of Phalke’s struggles and victories along with his persona provide a glimpse into how he shaped India’s nascent film industry.  NFAI would put all these recordings in public domain for the benefit of film researchers. When the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Dadasaheb Phalke are coming to an end today, it would surely be a befitting tribute to the father of Indian cinema.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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