The Woman behind India’s First Film
The Dada Saheb Phalke award is the most coveted honor an actor or performer can get. And it should be, after all it is named after the man who made India’s first full-length feature film ‘Raja Harishchandra’, creating cinematic history. But as they say, there is a woman behind every man’s success. In Dada Saheb Phalke’s case, it was his wife Saraswatibai Phalke. India’s first film maker would never have been able to make his master piece without the film editing, that his wife did.
– Saraswatibai Phalke was India’s first film editor
Dadasaheb Phalke was born in a priestly family in the temple town of Trimbakeshwar near Nashik on 30th April 1870. He completed his education from J J School of Arts, Mumbai and later from the Kalabhavan at Vadodara, where he studied sculpture, engineering, drawing, painting and photography. In 1886, he established a photo studio in the town of Godhra in Gujarat. He was doing well for himself when a terrible tragedy struck. His first wife died in the Bubonic plague epidemic of 1899.
Devastated by the tragedy, he moved back to Vadodara. In 1902, he married a 14-year-old child bride Kaveribai Karandikar, whose name as per marathi custom, was changed to Saraswatibai. Initially opposed to marrying a minor, who was almost 19 years younger than him, Phalke had to relent, due to family pressure. From all accounts the marriage was a happy one. To support his growing family, Phalke did a variety of jobs such. This included working as a draftsman with the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) as well as working in the printing press of Raja Ravi Verma at Menavali, near Lonavala. In 1906, Phalke started his own lithographic press at Menavali called ‘Phalke’s art and printing works’. Saraswatibai played an important role in helping Phalke run and manage the printing press. At a time when it was considered taboo for women to work or run their own business, Saraswatibai held her own. However, the press didn’t do well financially, so the family was forced to move to Mumbai.
– After watching the movie ‘The Life of Christ’, Dadasaheb Phalke announced that he would make a movie
The couple’s life changed on Easter Day in 1910. Phalke told his wife to get dressed as he had a surprise for her. He took her to a theater run by a company called ‘America India Cinematographie’ on Sandhurst Road in Mumbai. The theatre was screening a short American movie called ‘The Life of Christ’. Saraswatibai couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw pictures move on the screen. After the show, Phalke took her to the projector room and as she watched in wonder, he announced that they would make a movie.
Most of Phalke’s family and acquaintances baulked at the idea some even ridiculed the very notion. It was Saraswatibai who served as his pillar of support. She sold her jewellery to finance her husband’s dreams. It was with this money, that Phalke could buy a camera and other film equipment from Germany, as well as travel to London to learn filmmaking. On his return in 1912, the work on India’s first movie ‘Raja Harishchandra’ began.
– Saraswatibai Phalke sold her jewelry to finance the movie Raja Harishchandra
Saraswatibai was just a young lady of 20 then, however, due to the lack of resources and technology, not only was she the film’s financier, but also the editor, developer and a kind of production manager. Apart from raising her two kids and cooking single-handedly for the entire film unit of 60-70 people, she also helped in the film shoots. For instance, she would hold white bed sheets for hours in hot afternoons, as light reflectors. Under her husband's guidance, Saraswatibai also mixed film-developing chemicals and perforated raw film sheets at night, in candlelight. In those days, holes had to be punched in film reels and a 200 mm reel would take up to four hours of work.
However, the film shoot hit another roadblock. There was a lot of social stigma and superstition associated with being photographed or being filmed on the camera. There was a bizarre belief for instance that the camera sucked a part of your soul, causing an early death! No stage actress or even courtesans were willing to play the part of the female lead. Saraswatibai offered to play the female role, though she begged her husband not to name her in the movie.
– Anna Salunkhe, a waiter, played the female lead of Rani Taramati in Raja Harishchandra
The book ‘The Moving Image: Melodrama and Early Indian Cinema 1913-1939’ by Anupama Kapse from the University of California-Berkeley notes how Phalke was extremely moved when ‘the dedicated wife was prepared to apply paint to her face (abhorred by ladies of high status for the sake of her husband...[even] her jewellery had already been sold’.
However, Phalke found an ingenious solution. He convinced Anna Salunkhe, a waiter, with delicate features, who worked in a Bombay restaurant to play the female lead of Rani Taramati in the movie. A crisis was averted and the film went back on track.
On the 29th April 1913, after many hurdles, the film was released. A grand premiere was held at the Olympia Theater in Bombay and it was an instant success. Phalke went on to make 95 movies and more than 26 short films. Anna Salunkhe also became a popular movie star and went on to perform the female lead role in five other movies. Incredibly, he became the first person to play the double role in Indian cinema, by playing the role of both the hero and the heroine, in the 1917 movie ‘Lanka Dahan’.
Meanwhile, having helped her husband fulfil his dreams, Saraswatibai Phalke retreated into domesticity. After the death of Dadasaheb in 1944, she wrote an autobiography on her life journey with him. Sadly, this manuscript was lost.
Today, Dadasaheb Phalke’s family wants the award for film technicians to be instituted in the name of Saraswatibai Phalke. This would be a fitting way to remember the work of a woman, who played such a pivotal role in making cinematic history - albeit behind the scene.
Cover Image: Saraswatibai Phalke and Dadasaheb Phalke/ Dadasaheb Phalke International Awareness Mission (www.dpiam.org.in)
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