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Swaroop’s immersion in Phalke’s life began in 1990. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
Swaroop’s immersion in Phalke’s life began in 1990. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

Kamal Swaroop

The cult director reveals his magnificent obsession with Dhundiraj Govind Phalke

The centenary of Indian cinema marks a hundred years since the first screening of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra in Bombay in 1913. By the end of next year, Phalke and other pioneers will have been returned to the vaults, but Kamal Swaroop’s project on the director will continue to take new and fascinating turns.

“People think a hundred years are over, I say it is only beginning," Swaroop says.

On 3 May, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) co-published Tracing Phalke, a collage of images, observations and digressions put together by Swaroop and his collaborators. The book gives a taste of the infinite and idiosyncratic nature of Swaroop’s Phalke project. It is by no means a linear account of the life and times of the magician, inventor, publisher, artist, photographer and film-maker, who died in 1944 at the age of 73. For Swaroop, Phalke is a process rather than a project, a means to examine the mechanics of film-making and myth-making, an opportunity to tinker with forms of storytelling, a platform from which to address the thin boundary between fiction and non-fiction.

Swaroop’s magnificent obsession with Phalke, which began 23 years ago, has resulted in an outpouring of words and images. He has made short films on the time Phalke spent in Bombay, Nashik and Benares. At least two more films are in the pipeline, set in Kolhapur and Pune. “The question is, should I end it here, or continue? The zero is beginning again, so I will start counting again," says the 60-year-old film-maker.

The films, like the book, merge research and fiction while carrying out digressions into the mental and geographic landscapes of Phalke. For instance, the film about Nashik includes footage of the places Phalke talked about in his writings, reimagines the experiences he had there, and merges this footage with fictional episodes drawn from the film-maker’s life, which were scripted by the participants in the workshop. “There is information about Phalke but we have to fictionalize it in order to store it," Swaroop says. “It’s a process, and it’s not about the final product. It never ends, but it will keep shifting."

As tributes go, it’s safe to say that there’s no project quite like this one.

Swaroop has set himself a deadline of 2016 to make his cherished Phalke biopic. “I will be looking for funds the way he looked for them," Swaroop says. “Phalke tapped crowdfunding and political parties, he got money from his patents. In 2016, when I script his life, I will go through the phases he went through."

Swaroop’s immersion in Phalke’s life began in 1990 with a timeline that mapped events in his life on to actual historical incidents. Out of that timeline flowed a documentary, Phalke’s Children, a comic book on the same subject for the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the website PhalkeFactory. Swaroop collected a group of like-minded film-makers and set out on a Phalke pilgrimage. “We focused on his lifespan from zero to 73, but also the lifespan of the cities he lived in," he says. Swaroop created his own personal Phalke timeline, mapping his life on to the multi-hyphenate director’s. He started reading up on Phalke’s areas of interest, like printing and photography. “I go through the learning process by following his life," he says.

Swaroop has made other fascinating discoveries along the way, which will find their way into the project one way or another. “What happened during the early years of cinema is what is happening during the early years of the digital camera, in terms of the kind of equipment, the way images are being recorded," he says. “I am trying to crack this mutation—what different kind of technologies will emerge, and how people will think about them."

Swaroop’s maverick approach to an equally maverick film personage is not one bit surprising. His only fictional feature, Om Dar-B-Dar, is a brilliant avant-garde tribute to Ajmer, where Swaroop grew up. Produced by the NFDC in 1988 for 10 lakh, Om Dar-B-Dar was never released and rarely seen until 2005, when it was screened at Experimenta, an experimental film festival in Mumbai. Clips from the movie, which exist online, are enough to send viewers into paroxysms of ecstasy. The NFDC is currently restoring the movie, and will bring out DVDs in a few months.

The stream of consciousness narrative is about a schoolboy, Om, and his fantastical impressions of his small-town life, which is “set in a mythical small town in Rajasthan, akin to the Jhumri Telaiya from whence stem the largest number of film music singles addressed to All India Radio’s commercial channel", according to the authors of the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. Paul Willemen and Ashish Rajadhyaksha write that the “jerky, fast-moving and witty film proceeds by way of symbolic imagery including tadpoles, skeletons and fantasies derived from Hindi movies, advertising, television, and the popular Hindi novel".

The tadpoles are used in a dissection sequence that invited the wrath of animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi at the time. “Maneka Gandhi wrote an article in The Illustrated Weekly about it, she said this guy is pathological," Swaroop says. “I bought 500 frogs for four annas each from Agra and chloroformed them."

Swaroop studied film direction at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. He made educational and science programmes for the Indian Space Research Organization, worked on documentaries and movies, and wrote Hindi copy for advertising agencies. His instinctive understanding of the workings of popular culture led to freelance assignments with Channel [V], where he produced parodic movie shows and promotional fillers.

“People working in the channel in those days were young and wanted to express themselves, which they did by retreating into their early memories—the posters and matchbox wrappers they saw as kids, the games they played," he says. “Most of them were also from small towns, so they were expressing themselves from their impressions. Childhood and adolescent memories were being parodied, but it often didn’t go beyond that."

One of the series he did much before Shemaroo Entertainment’s 15 Min Movies on the YouTube channel was called Mini Movies, in which he compressed popular Hindi films into 5 minutes. “We did a Manmohan Desai festival in 4 hours," he says.

Om Dar-B-Dar came out of his own adolescent experiences. “It’s not a grown man’s fantasy," Swaroop says. “It’s about Ajmer as well as a fantastical remembrance of it. There are memories, but also small-town observations and comments. I got news about a caste-certificate racket in Karnataka. I went into census reports. I had an uncle whose name was Mathoo, then he converted to Christianity and called himself Mathew, and then he moved to Rajasthan and became Mathur." The script took three years to write, during which time Swaroop, following in the footsteps of Dadaist thought, tried to “remove familiarity" and “explore the uncanny". He says: “Om Dar-B-Dar is not trying to hypnotize you through illusion. There is an authenticity about Ajmer that comes through. I took total fiction and tried to impose it on a real space. The real space is going to reject something it can’t absorb. There will be a transformation of the fiction."

Even he was surprised by the movie, he says. “People connected with it physically—it became like a totem, something that helps people resurrect their adolescent memories in their own way." He has written scripts since, including Miss Palmolive All Night Cabaret and Om And the Satellite City, but he can’t be bothered to make them and has posted them on the Internet for free.

“When I was doing fiction, it needed a high level of concentration, it was too much stress," he says. “I will feel nice if somebody else makes them and I don’t have to."

Besides, if he starts making fiction films, what will happen to the all-consuming Phalke project? “Phalke keeps me busy," he says. “What will I do otherwise?

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