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Phalke, Dhundiraj Govind [known as Dadasaheb Phalke] (1870–1944), film-maker, was born on 30 April 1870 in Tryambakeshwar, near Nasik, Bombay presidency, India, the third son in the family of seven children of Govind Dadashiv (Dajishastri), Sanskrit scholar, and his wife, Dwarkabai. His father, a learned Chitpavan Brahman, was a priest in Tryambakeshwar and a professor of Sanskrit at Wilson College, University of Bombay. Phalke's primary schooling was in Tryambakeshwar but his secondary education was in Bombay. He studied drawing at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art, Bombay (1885–6), and on joining his eldest brother, Shivrampant, in Baroda he attended the art school, Kala Bhavan, until 1890. He then became a professional photographer while also studying lithography and printing. After a brief period in Godhra he returned to Baroda to continue his photography and work in Marathi theatre as well as performing as a magician. His first wife died of plague in 1900 after four years of marriage, and in 1902 he married Saraswatibai (d. 1953), who came from a theatrical family. The first of their nine children, Mandakini, was born in 1912.

In 1901 Phalke joined the Archaeological Survey of India as a photographer and draughtsman, travelling around India. Supporting the home rule movement, he resigned in 1906 to set up a printing press in Lonavla, near Bombay, called the Phalke Engraving and Printing Works, where he also worked for the Ravi Varma Press. In 1908 he moved to Dadar, Bombay, and opened the Lakshmi Art Printing Works in Byculla. In 1909 he went to Germany to buy machinery; as an orthodox Hindu he underwent purification rituals on his return from this and his other foreign travels.

Phalke decided to become involved in film-making after seeing a film version of the life of Christ in 1910; this was most probably The Life and Passion of Christ (1903), a British film of the Horitz passion play. After making some short films, in 1912 he went to London to buy equipment and to meet the editor of Bioscope, John Cabourne, and Cecil Hepworth. Back in India, having founded the Phalke Film Company, he made the first entirely Indian film, the four-reeled Raja Harischandra, thereby founding the ‘mythological’ genre. The film was very much a one-man effort: Phalke told the Indian Cinematograph Committee that he had to direct, write, photograph, print, and edit. A major problem was to find actresses, as even prostitutes refused to act in cinema, so a man, Krishna Hari (Anna) Salunke, played the part of Harischandra's wife, Taramati. (Salunke also appeared in Phalke's Lanka dahan in 1917, playing both hero and heroine.) Premiered on 3 May 1913 at the Coronation Cinema, Bombay, Raja Harischandra was a great success. Phalke's first version has disappeared but he remade the film in 1917. Portions of this later version, along with some of his other films, have survived in the National Film and Television Archives of India. Meanwhile Phalke returned to Nasik where he made his second mythological film, Mohini Bhasmasur (1914), soon followed by Savitri Satyavan (1914), neither of which has survived. In 1914 he again went to London, where these films were screened to acclaim, but he left on the outbreak of the First World War.

Despite his films' success Phalke endured a lifelong struggle against financial hardship, keeping his studio open on a shoestring, and making many shorts including cartoons and a film of himself performing magic tricks. His most popular film was Lanka dahan (‘Lanka aflame’, 1917), the story from the Ramayana of Hanuman setting fire to Lanka with his tail. Portions of this have survived along with Shri Krishna janma (‘The birth of Shri Krishna’, 1918), which showed episodes from Krishna's childhood. These included a sequence where Krishna rises from the River Jumna on the demon snake Kaliya, with a famous shot of Krishna framed by his devotees. Phalke's Kaliya Mardan (1919) included a sequence where his daughter, Mandakini Phalke, who had played Krishna also in Shri Krishna Janma, displayed various acting expressions. Phalke used complex editing and was clearly a master of special effects, but his films were driven by narrative as much as by spectacle.

Phalke wrote articles about film-making for Marathi journals such as Navyug and Kesari, and set up his studio in Nasik on a more secure footing in 1918 as the Hindustan Film Company, which employed about 100 people. However, after disputes with his partners he left the following year and, in a symbolic gesture of renunciation, went to Benares. In 1922 he returned to directing as an employee of the Hindustan Film Company until 1929, when he left to found the Phalke Diamond Company. He made his only talkie, Gangavataran, in 1937. The film did nothing to reduce his debts and he retired to Poona, before returning to Nasik. After a long period of declining health, afflicted with diabetes and symptoms of dementia, he died on 16 February 1944 in Nasik. By then he seemed a forgotten figure despite his pioneering role in the development of what would become one of India's major industries, and it was only after his death that he was acknowledged as Dadasaheb (approximately ‘respected grandfather’) Phalke and the father of the Indian film industry. The surviving parts of his films, estimated variously at between fifty and a hundred feature films and thirty shorts, were assembled in 1956 for the Indian Motion Picture Producers' Association.

Rachel Dwyer

Sources  

‘Oral evidence of Mr D. G. Phalke, or Nasik, on Monday, the 13th February 1928’, Indian Cinematograph Committee, 1927–8, 3: Oral evidence of witnesses examined at Madras, Rangoon, Mandalay, Calcutta (one witness), Jamshedpur, Nagpur and Delhi, with their written statements (Calcutta), 869–93 · D. G. Phalke, ‘Dossier: swadeshi moving pictures’, Continuum: an Australian Journal of the Media, 2/1 (1988–9), 55–73 [Asian cinema issue, ed. B. Shoesmith and T. O'Regan] · B. Shoesmith, ‘Swadeshi cinema: the writings of D. G. Phalke’, Continuum: an Australian Journal of the Media, 2/1 (1988–9), 44–50 [Asian cinema issue, ed. B. Shoesmith and T. O'Regan] · A. Rajadhyaksha, ‘The Phalke era: conflict of traditional form and modern technology’, in T. Niranjana and others, Interrogating modernity: culture and colonialism in India (1993), 47–82 · B. Watve, Dadasaheb Phalke: the father of Indian cinema (New Delhi, 2004) · R. Dwyer, Filming the gods: religion and Indian cinema (2006)

Likenesses  

postage stamp, 1971 · photographs, repro. in Watve, Phalke