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Screen break

Movie monarch comes alive on stage

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THE SILENT ERA: Phalke attempted only one talkie in his life, which was a box-office disaster. Mohammad Ali Baig (top and left) with Lillete Dubey (left) in the play

A short play on Dadasaheb Phalke at IFFI details the amazing journey of the Father of Indian Cinema.

He made India's first feature film in 1913 on a budget of Rs 25, 000, pawning his wife's jewellery and heralding the advent of an industry that's poised to touch US $5 billion a century later. While it was befitting, therefore, to screen Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra at the 100 Years of Indian Cinema section at the India International Film Festival (IFFI) 2012 in Goa, what added to the tribute was the hosting of a theatre production, Dada Saheb...A Journey...A Quest, prior to the screening. The 20-minute stage production, an exchange of dialogues between Phalke (played by theatre revivalist Mohammad Ali Baig) and his second wife Saraswati (essayed by Lilette Dubey), unravels the journey traversed by the father of Indian cinema.

Baig, founder-director of the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation (in memory of his late father, noted playwright Qadir Ali Baig) in Hyderabad, says that Shankar Mohan, director of IFFI, roped him in to direct the piece scripted by Phalke's great grand-niece Sharayu Phalke Summanwar. "Mr Mohan and I interacted in October in New Delhi, " he says. "I was a jury member on the Indian Panorama section and things had to be set in motion pretty fast, as our own annual theatre festival in November was approaching. Sharayu, who's written a biography of Phalke called A Silent Film: Dadasaheb Phalke, had originally written this dialoguebased piece of theatre, which culls milestones from Phalke's life. But we thought an English version would work better for the global audience at IFFI, and so she adapted it in English. "

To give a feel of the black-and-white era of silent films, the sets, props and costumes designed by veteran film-maker and theatreperson M S Sathyu were in B and W - as was, of course, the archival footage from Phalke's films.

The milestones include the moment when Phalke was mesmerised by The Life of Christ which he saw in a tent theatre on Bombay's Chowpatty beach during the Christmas of 1910 - it was after this that he was inspired to make films on Indian mythological characters. A poignant vignette was the episode of him losing his first wife and twin daughters in 1900 to the bubonic plague in Godhra, where he was working as a photographer - Phalke had to return to Nashik, as his black box camera was considered to have brought on the evil of the plague.

It was Phalke's single-minded passion for cinema that took him to England in 1912 to buy a movie camera. After getting acquainted with the technical processes of movie-making, he returned to make Raja Harishchandra based on the mythological character - a film he not only produced, wrote and directed but also processed, printed and edited. Working in films was taboo then, so Phalke told his cast and crew to stave off enquiries from nosy people by saying that they were working in the factory of a certain 'Harishchandra' (hence the title of the 2009 Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, which was India's official entry to the Oscars that year). No woman in those conservative times was ready to face the camera, but undaunted Phalke got men to play the female roles. Through all the trying times, his second wife Saraswati, whom he once described as the 'architect of his destiny', stood by him in rock-solid support.

The crowning milestone of Phalke's life was, of course, the screening of India's first feature film Raja Harishchandra at the Coronation Theatre in Bombay. It was followed by several other silent films, mostly mythologicals, such as Mohini Bhasmasur, Satyavan Savitri, Lanka Dahan (his biggest hit) and Sri Krishna Janam. Researching Phalke's look, Baig discovered that "he was extremely well-groomed and stylish, often sporting three-piece suits even on the sets". The extremely creative Phalke was not only a graduate from Bombay's JJ School of Art but had also studied architecture and dabbled in art printing at MS University, Baroda.

Ironically, while he had a successful stint with silent films, the advent of the talkies spelt doom for him, and the only one he attempted, Gangavataran in 1937, was also his last film. Big-budget films with social themes were getting popular and mythologicals were on the wane. Phalke never recovered from the shock of his first talkie being a box-office disaster, and died in ill-health and penury in 1944.

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