Dhundiraj Govind Phalke popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke (30 April 1870 – 16 February 1944), was an Indian producer-director-screenwriter, known as the Father of Indian cinema. Starting with his debut film, Raja Harishchandra the first Indian cinema in 1913, now known as India’s first full-length feature, he made 95 movies and 26 short films in his career spanning 19 years, till 1937, including his most noted works: Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919). The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for lifetime contribution to cinema, was instituted in his honour by the Government of India in 1969. The award is one of the most prestigious awards in Indian cinema and is the highest official recognition for film personalities in the country. A postage stamp bearing his likeness was released by India Post to honour him in 1971. An honorary award from the Dadasaheb Phalke Academy Mumbai was introduced in the year 2001, for lifetime achievement in Indian cinema.
1870–1892: Early life and education
Dhundiraj Phalke was born on 30 April 1870 at Trimbak, Maharashtra (then Bombay Presidency) into a Marathi-speaking Chitpavan Brahmin family. His father, Govind Sadashiv alias Dajishastri, was a Sanskrit scholar and worked as a priest conducting religious ceremonies and his mother, Dwarkabai, was a housewife. The couple had seven children, three sons and four daughters. Shivrampant, the eldest, was twelve years elder than Phalke and worked in Baroda. He briefly worked as the Dewan (Chief Administrator) of the princely state of Jawhar and died in 1921, at the age of 63. Phalke’s second brother, Raghunathrao, also worked as priest and died at a young age of 21. Dajishastri taught Phalke to conduct religious rituals like yajna and dispensing of medicines. When he was appointed as a professor of Sanskrit in the Wilson College, Mumbai, the family shifted its base to Mumbai (then Bombay). Phalke completed his primary education in Trimbakeshwar and matriculation was done in Mumbai.
Phalke joined the Sir J. J. School of Art, Mumbai in 1885 and completed a one-year course in drawing. At the beginning of 1886, he accompanied his elder brother, Shivrampant, to Baroda where he got married to a girl from Marathe family. Later, he joined Kala Bhavan, the Faculty of Fine Arts, at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and completed a course in Oil painting and Watercolor painting in 1890. He also achieved proficiency in architecture and modelling. In the same year, Phalke bought a film camera and started experimenting with photography, processing, and printing. He was awarded a gold medal for creating a model of an ideal theatre at the 1892 Industrial Exhibition of Ahmedabad. While his work was much appreciated, one of his fans presented him a “costly” camera, used for still photography. In 1891, Phalke did a six-months course to learn the techniques of preparing half-tone blocks, photo-lithio, and three-colour ceramic photography. Principal Gajjar of Kala Bhavan sent Phalke to Ratlam to learn three-colour blockmaking, photolitho transfers, colotype and darkroom printing techniques under the guidance of Babulal Varuvalkar.
1893–1910: Early career
In 1893, Gajjar allowed Phalke to use the photo studio and laboratory of Kala Bhavan where he started his work under the name of “Shri Phalke’s Engraving and Photo Printing”. Despite his proficiency in various skills, he did not have a stable family life and had difficulties in making a living. Thus, in 1895, he decided to become a professional photographer and relocated to Godhra for doing business. His business did not do well in Godhra and he lost his wife and a child in the 1900 plague epidemic in the city. Phalke returned to Baroda and started photography business. It did not run well because of the myth spread across the city that the camera sucks up the energy from a person’s body which leads to their death. He faced similar resistance from the Prince of Baroda who refused to take photographs with the assumptions that it would shorten his life. Though, the Prince was later convinced by Phalke who went on to advocate the benefits of photography in his court, it did not help Phalke’s business. He started the business of painting the stage curtains for the drama companies. This got him some basic training in drama production and fetched him a few minor roles in the plays.
Phalke learned magic tricks from a German magician who was on a tour in Baroda that time. This helped him use trick photography in his filmmaking. At the end of 1901, Phalke began to hold the public performances of magic using professional name of Professor Kelpha with letters of his last name in reverse order. In 1902, Phalke remarried to Girija Karandikar, niece of proprietor of Kirloskar Natak Mandali. Girija was renamed as Saraswati after the marriage. In 1903, he got a job as a photographer and draftsman at the Archaeological Survey of India. However, not satisfied with the job, Phalke resigned in 1906 and set up a printing press at Lonavla under the name of “Phalke Engraving and Printing Works” with R. G. Bhandarkar as a partner.
The press majorly worked for making photo-litho transfers for Ravi Verma Press, owned by painter Raja Ravi Varma. Later, it also started the work of halftone blockmaking and printing and tri-colour printing. With the growing business, the press was shifted to Dadar, Mumbai. Later in 1908, Purushottam Mavji replaced Bhandarkar as a partner and the press was renamed as “Laxmi Art Printing Works”. Phalke went to Germany in 1909 to buy the necessary colour printing machinery.[a] Though the printing business grew exponentially, the partners had increasing differences about the running of the press. Soon, Phalke decided to abandon the partnership, without availing any monetary benefits.
1911–1917: Filmmaking struggle, debut, and success
Initial obstacles and London visit
After quitting “Laxmi Art Printing Works”, Phalke received multiple offers from various financiers to start another printing press but he did not accept any offers. On 14 April 1911, Phalke with his elder son Bhalchandra went to see a film, Amazing Animals, at the America India Picture Palace, Girgaon, Mumbai. Surprised at seeing animals on the screen, Bhalchandra informed his mother, Saraswatibai, about his experience earlier that day. None of the family members believed them, so Phalke took his family to see the film the next day. As it was Easter, the theatre screened a film about Jesus, The Life of Christ (1906) by the French director Alice Guy-Blaché instead. While watching Jesus on the screen, Phalke envisioned Hindu deities Rama and Krishna instead and decided to start in the business of “moving pictures”.
For the next one year, Phalke started collecting various film related material like catalogues, books, and movie making equipment from Europe. He bought a small film camera and reels and started showing movies at night, by focusing candle light on a lens and projecting the pictures on the wall. He watched movies every evening for four to five hours and was deprived of sleep. This put strain on his eyes and he developed cataract in both eyes. He continued working against the advice of taking rest and lost his sight completely. Ophthalmologist Dr. Prabhakar treated Phalke with the aid of three or four pairs of spectacles which helped him restore the eye sight. Phalke wished to go to London to get technical knowledge of filmmaking but had difficulties getting finances for his trip. With the help of Yashwantrao Nadkarni and Abasaheb Chitnis, he secured a sum of ten thousands by mortgaging his insurance policies worth twelve thousands. On 1 February 1912, he boarded a ship for London.[a]
At London, Phalke saw a nameboard of “Bioscope Cine-Weekly” near Piccadilly Circus. He was a subscriber of the weekly in India. He met its editor, Mr. Kepburn, and explained the purpose of his visit. Kepburn advised Phalke against the idea of filmmaking in India based on the unsuccessful attempts in England and suggested that the Indian climate might not be suitable as well. However, he was impressed with Phalke’s dedication and introduced him to the film director, producer, and screenwriter Cecil Hepworth of Walton Studios. Hepworth allowed Phalke to visit all the departments of the studio and their workings along with the demonstration of filming. At the advice of Kepburn and Hepworth, he bought Williamson camera for fifty pounds and placed an order for Kodak raw film and a perforator. Phalke stayed in London for two weeks and returned to India on 1 April 1912. He founded the “Phalke Films Company” on the same day.