Pras on World Films: HARISHCHANDRACHI FACTORY (Harishchandra’s Factory”)

The film is the story about the beginning of the Indian film industry, set in 1913, when two business partners fall out resulting in one leaving the company. As the family struggle to survive Phalke (Nandu Madhav) decides to make his own silent motion picture along with the support of his family.He travels to England to learn about the new medium and after he returns brings together a team of actors and technicians to produce his first film about the story of Raja Harishchandra. Through all the hard work the movie becomes a hit thus marking the beginning of one of the world’s biggest film industry. With a budget of Rs 2 crore, Harishchandrachi Factory will be the costliest Marathi film till now, and with ace set designer Nitin Desai working on re-creating Girgaon of the 1900’s. In September 2009, it was selected as India’s official entry to Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film Category[

The Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, directed by Paresh Mokashi, is an engaging account of the making of India’s first motion picture in the year 1913 by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke or Dadasaheb Phalke, who has since come to be known as the father of Indian cinema. The film is based on two years in the life of Dadasaheb Phalke, more popularly known as the father of Indian cinema. The film, which is roughly 90 minutes long, recreates the moments in Phalke’s life when he suddenly grew enamoured of the motion picture and decided to make one for himself. Raja Harishchandra was released 95 years ago-on May 3, 1913, a period of modern Indian history that is preoccupied with the idea of freedom, and is full of important political figures.

In 1911, Dadasaheb Phalke had abandoned a well established printing business after a quarrel with his business partner. He gave his word to the worried partner that he would never enter into the printing business again as competition. Phalke got instantly unemployed and workless. The family was struggling to survive. One day he accidentally stumbled across a tent theatre that was screening a silent motion picture. Phalke became obsessed with making his own film after he happened to chance into the screening of an English film in a tent theatre with his son. Soon after, Mokashi gives us a delightful scene in which Phalke along with his wife and two sons is seated on the floor of the same theatre, all of them completely mesmerized by the moving images, and Phalke with his back turned to the screen examining the beam of light projecting the pictures. It is evident he has come here many times now and today he’s trying to figure out how this thing works. Harishchandrachi Factory begins with showing the early life of Phalke (played by Nandu Madhav). He’s shut down his printing press, and becomes a local magician to earn a living. It is after one such magic show in a chawl, when the soon-to-be filmmaker chances upon a film screening in town – a place mostly frequented by the white. Phalke watches the proceedings inside in wonder with his young son – what he later addresses as “a play on screen” or “moving images”. Having been an art and architecture student and run a photo studio once, (shut down due to some funny rumours) Phalke has a decent understanding of the art and craft of images.

Curious to learn the new “moving” form, he takes big risks, selling off his valuables to watch more movies and buy books on the subject. And soon, he takes the biggest risk and embarks on a journey to London, to meet up with filmmakers and learn the craft. The film follows Phalke in London as he tries to acquire a camera and the skills required to make a motion picture. It tracks him as he returns to his home in Girgaum in Mumbai and begins production on his mythological film, Raja Harishchandra.
Once in London, Phalke endears all and lands a job assisting pioneering filmmaker Cecil Hepworth. The learning process of the budding Indian filmmaker is shown in a fast-forward way, making it interesting and funny rather than just boring documentation of events.

Phalke returns home with a Williamson camera and lots of ideas in his head. After his first experiment, he zeroes in on the story of Raja Harishchandra for his first commercial feature. And so the search begins for the cast and crew. And then the training, shooting and the difficulties that come with it. This part takes up most of the second half of the film, and is again dealt with in a hilarious way, not letting the viewer feel the tension and anxiety Phalke must’ve lived with in that gestation period of his career.

What it does reflect is his optimism and ability to turn an adverse situation to his favour. And also his dedication – like when his son is seriously ill and Phalke still goes and shoots him on a funeral pyre. Imagine what must have gone through the man’s mind! And finally,the film gets made.

Phalke is shown as a gentle husband and father, and as a filmmaker too, he is determined but not too aggressive. And yet, one could use some marketing and film promotion techniques applied by Phalke. What is heartening is that in whatever he does, Phalke has the full support of his two kids and his wife (played by Vibhavari Deshpande). In fact, in all their experiments, she’s the one helping him shoot and develop the prints. Mokashi shows her seriousness in one funny role-reversal scene where she’s busy in the dark room and her husband Phalke cooks dinner! But yes, in all his endeavours, the two kids and the wife (and the newborn) live his dream. He, too, does not let them down, not forgetting to let his wife know that she’s the inspiration behind all this.

Never a lofty biopic that romanticizes Phalke’s struggle, Mokashi’s film in fact is a humorous, light-hearted take on a challenging adventure filled with impossible hurdles. From raising money by selling his furniture, and casting men in female roles because no women agreed to act in the film, Harishchandrachi Factory looks for irony and laughs even in the darkest places. A portion in the story when Phalke combats near blindness is recounted evenly, without any trace of over-sentimentality or heavy-handed direction.

The film works primarily as a sweet comedy and leaves it entirely to the viewer to absorb and understand the enormity of Phalke’s achievement. Mokashi’s film is also the remarkable story of Saraswati Phalke’s unconditional love and support for her husband. Easily the strongest character in the story, she’s a pillar of strength, an ever-willing collaborator brought to life in a restrained yet solid turn by Vibhawari Deshpande.

Mokashi paints an entirely believable portrait of the early 20th century with able assistance from a sharp technical team that uses clever production design to set up the period. Working from a tight script that tells you as much about society in those times as it does about this man on a mission, Harishchandrachi Factory is an important film that should not be missed.

In the central role of Phalke himself, Nandu Madhav delivers a stunning, winning performance, infusing the character with his legendary restlessness, and practically stealing the film with his infectious charm. Harishchandrachi Factory successfully recounts Phalke’s passion and singular obsession with his dream, and does so with clarity and simplicity. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride that’s hard to resist.

THE FILM HAS A FEW FLAWS THOUGH :   Mokashi’s fundamental idea with this film – to capture just the time when Phalke got attracted to the motion picture till the time he made Raja Harishchandra – is one of its biggest flaws. Mokashi limits the potential of his own narrative by choosing such a narrow focus and sticking to it. Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913, a period of modern Indian history that is preoccupied with the idea of freedom, and is full of important political figures. The ripe political scene could have worked as a healthy backdrop to the events captured in the film, especially since Phalke himself was deeply moved by the freedom struggle, but apart from one offhand mention of Tilak’s release from jail towards the end of the film, this context is ignored.
Not only is the context ignored, the film betrays a great deal of naiveté about colonial, racial relations. There is hardly a moment where any tension is visible or even implied between Indians and their British rulers. If this film is to be believed, Phalke faced no racial trouble when he went to England to learn about and buy filming equipment. Once again, the film refuses to use even the material it already has to its fullest potential. In the film, all the screenings of motion pictures, whether British or later Indian seem to be preceded by performances by white (possibly British) singers. The possibilities of suggesting racial baggage in scenes where white singers are performing for a brown audience and then taking a bow are immense, but it remains an ignorable detail in Mokashi’s film.
The film glosses over, mostly in its use of comedy, the problems Phalke must have faced in the mammoth task of merely understanding how a picture is made to move and tell a story. Comedy can and has been an effective tool in conveying pathos in narrative in general, but it isn’t that aspect of humour that Mokashi’s film uses, instead it works towards erasing how trying that process must have been.

However, in opting to do away with the complexities of the process involved, it is closer to the biopic mode that Mokashi has brought his film. And that genre has moved miles in the recent past. A figure like Dadasaheb Phalke and the idea of the first Indian film is sadly wasted in Harishchandrachi Factory.

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