The Marathi bio-pic “Harishchandrachi Factory” is based upon the life of Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of the motion picture in India. The film portrays Dhundiraj Govind Phalke as an intensely curious and eccentric sort of a man who is fascinated by the movies when he chances upon an English film. Mesmerized he watches show upon show, spending entire days at the cinema-tents, and finally decides to make a movie himself. To learn how to make films he journeys to England. On his return he brings back knowledge and the paraphernalia to make his beloved films, and makes “Raja Harishchandra” the first full length feature film created in India.
Director Paresh Mokashi presents Phalke’s film-making story in a light-hearted manner. I say “film-making story”, because Mokashi restricts himself to only that phase of Phalke’s life when he became enamored of film, and Phalke was already in his 40s then. “Harishchandrachi Factory” does not touch upon Phalke’s earlier vocations, and he had many – photography, magic, printing, drafting (working as a draftsman for the Archeological Survey of India). Phalke himself is portrayed as Chaplinesque, ever-smiling with a demeanor to match. His family’s financial troubles do not bog him down, nor does the condemnation of friends and well-wishers. He is single-minded in his devotion to film, leaving the mundane problem of feeding and clothing the family to his wife (who is apparently a saint).
Even when Phalke goes to England, a dhoti-clad man of limited financial means with little knowledge of the country or it’s language, he is, in the film, fortuitous enough to bump into another Marathi manus, who ecstatic at meeting another countryman and entranced by Phalke’s desire to learn film-making for himself, helps him get settled. Thus, the film skims over Phalke’s life extracting from it only a light-hearted bonhomie and treating any problems he must have faced with disdain or ignoring them completely. While this produces a cheery, amusing film, it is also its biggest fault, and the reason why I didn’t like it.
Given the limited nature of the film, it’s actors do well. Nandu Madhav as the lead character is quite the bumbling knowledge seeker, holding onto his principles. Having fought with his printing press partner, Phalke is unable or unwilling to fend for his family with a “regular”, uninteresting job, and Madhav does exude the single-minded curiosity required of such an inquiring mind. Vibhawari Deshpande is his patient wife Saraswati, birthing children, keeping the family afloat, inspite of poverty, and Phalke’s propensity for selling off furniture and household goods to raise funds for his film-making opportunities.
From the film, we can surmise that Phalke is a restless, creative soul, caught in a pragmatic householder’s life. His wife, according to the times, is all-accepting of her husband’s flighty behavior and inability to hold onto a job with a steady income. She fends for the family through parental support, and supports Phalke in his making “Raja Harishchandra” by not only helping with camera work, but by caring and feeding the cast and film-workers, and serving as general dogsbody. The film does not explore Phalke’s mindset or the probable anguish or angst of his wife – a fascinating drama could have come just of of Phalke’s family life. Instead Phalke proceeds to flit from career to career, and his wife continues to stoically shrug her way through her hard life. Indeed, if she was as dedicated to Phalke and his work as she is portrayed as being in the film, I wish they had also instituted an award in her name, for she has as much of a contribution in the making of Indian’s first feature film as Phalke himself.
This is a decent watch, although I’m not recommending it for discerning adults; it is an innocuous, unblemished portrayal of a legend’s life, almost fairytale like in it’s simplicity. Because of its uni-dimensional depiction, and inability to deal with any of Phalke’s hardships, racial tensions, and political climes of that time, this does not satisfy. I am quite surprised that this contextually-limited film was India’s nomination for the Oscar’s in 2009.