15 November 2009

The New Dadaist

Published in Tehelka magazine:

India's entry to the 2010 Oscars is a charming portrait of the father of Indian films. 

That cinema in India owes a great deal to one Dadasaheb Phalke, most of us are dimly aware. The Indian Government’s award for “lifetime contribution to cinema” is named after him. But very few people in Phalke’s film-mad country know more about the man. So when Marathi playwright and theatre director Paresh Mokashi read Bapu Vatave’s biography of Phalke in 2005, he decided it was a story waiting to be told. And since it was Phalke, it had to be told on screen, not on stage.

Harishchandrachi Factory tells how Phalke came to make his (and India’s) first feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), giving us a Phalke more charmingly eccentric than we could ever have imagined for ourselves. “But he had to have been that,” says Mokashi. “Imagine, as a Sanskrit pandit’s son in the 1890s, going off to the JJ School of Art, setting up a photo studio, or apprenticing with a German magician!”

The 40-year-old Mokashi, with a string of immensely successful plays behind him (Mukkam Post Bombilwadi [2003] ran for 460 shows), is known for his vivid brand of sharp, situational comedy. “To treat a serious subject with humour is no joke,” he says, deadpan. So in his film serious things happen, but are handled with a lightness that evokes Chaplin and Jacques Tati, as well as Shankar Nag’s televisation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. We laugh, but there’s a sense that we could cry instead. Our first glimpse of Phalke is in a black top hat, doing magic for a delighted bunch of kids – only to do a real-life disappearing trick as an irate debtor arrives. His return home to a grieving wife and neighbours creates foreboding – before we realise they’re mourning a cupboard he’s sold to fund his new obsession. Even his temporary blindness in 1912 is not allowed to remain tragic: as Phalke lies there with eyes bandaged, someone says with mock gravity, “Your eyes will get cured – what shall we do about your mind?”

Before the success of Harishchandrachi Factory – it’s won awards in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and is India’s entry for the Oscars – someone might have asked Mokashi that question. Starting as an actor with Pune’s Theatre Academy, he spent years adapting a Berlin-based realist children’s theatre movement called GRIPS to the Maharashtrian context. He then moved to Mumbai and struggled until 1999, when playwright Ramu Ramanathan and Sanjana Kapoor insisted he stage one of his plays at the Prithvi Festival. In 2005, having become a bankable theatre name, Mokashi decided to make a film. Suddenly, funding dried up.

“A Marathi film with no stars, no songs: I don’t blame them!” says Mokashi, who mortgaged his ancestral home to fund the film, Phalke-style. His cast and crew (all theatre people) swear by him. Disagreements happened – when he decided to use a still frame, or when he urged his actors to underplay scenes they saw as “dramatic” – but Mokashi stood firm. Vibhawari Deshpande, who plays Phalke’s wife Saraswati, describes Mokashi as “scientific, sensitive without being emotional, and totally sure of himself.” Sounds like Phalke.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 45 Dated November 14, 2009

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