Novelist Shanta Gokhale once remarked that the difference between how Bengal and Maharashtra construct their social identities is the difference in the icons they revere. Bengal chose a poet and an educator. Maharashtra chose a warrior.
The result is that to the rest of India, Maharashtrian history looks like a series of angry men making angry remarks about other people. This is a terrible untruth. Maharashtra threw up a series of brilliant and sensitive scholars and thinkers: Gokhale, Ranade, Tilak, Karve, Phule, Dange, Gore, Pagdi, Amte and Phalke (if you need first names for any of these, shame on you).
Therefore, one was happy that someone thought of making a film on Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who brought cinema to India. Harishchandrachi Factory is a romp. It is funny, well paced and stays with the two years in which Dhundiraj Govind Phalke made his first film, the now legendary Raja Harishchandra. We all know that women, even sex workers, refused to act in cinema, but it is great to see how the high-born Brahmin Phalke (Nandu Madhav) must deal with the one woman who agrees, and how Mrs Phalke (Vibhavari Deshpande) must comb her hair and remove the lice. At the last minute though, she backs out and Phalke rounds up some young men and begins to groom them into women, again with the slightly broad humour of all gender-crossing encounters.
The original: The film uses humour to highlight the struggles of Phalke.
It was during the shooting of this film that an incident occurred bringing into focus how terrifyingly committed Phalke was to his art. On a shoot in the countryside, Phalke’s own son, who was playing the role of Raja Harishchandra’s son, had an accident. Any other father would have rushed his child back to the city and medical care. Phalke loaded his son on to the pyre for his death scene, shot it with the sun going down, and only then did he return to the city.
Unfortunately, director Paresh Mokashi does not slow down and allow us to absorb the full implications of a man in the early 20th century actually shooting his son’s death scene fully aware that his son might die. He makes this part of the romp.
The scenes set in Britain, where Phalke went to acquire his camera and his craft, are constrained by the budget and you see the same clothes turning up in different places.
But this film is a blessed relief compared with the stodgy stuff we have been served as biopics of famous Maharashtrians. It glows with energy compared with the careful and stainless Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the somewhat slow-moving Dhyasparva based on the life of Raghunath Karve, another fin de siècle Maharashtrian reformer who believed in the value of sex education and tried to teach birth control in 1920s India.
You can see why this film was chosen to represent India at the Oscars. But in the year that Satish Manwar’s Gabhricha Paus was also made, you can see why this was a mistake.
Jerry Pinto is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.
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