Remembering Dadasaheb Phalke: The father of Indian Cinema

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke was an Indian producer-director-screenwriter, known as the Father of Indian cinema.

Phalke was born on 30 April 1870 at Trimbak, Bombay Presidency into a Marathi-speaking Chitpavan Brahmin family.

His debut film, Raja Harishchandra, was the first Indian movie in 1913, and is now known as India’s first full-length feature film.

He made 95 feature-length films and 27 short films in his career, spanning 19 years, until 1937.

Some of his most noted works are: Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919).

The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for lifetime contribution to cinema, was instituted in his honour by the Government of India in 1969. The award is one of the most prestigious awards in Indian cinema and is the highest official recognition for film personalities in the country.

An honorary award from the Dadasaheb Phalke Academy Mumbai was introduced in the year 2001, for lifetime achievement in Indian cinema.

A postage stamp bearing his likeness was released by India Post to honour him in 1971.

In 2009, the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, which was directed by theatre veteran Paresh Mokashi and depicts Dadasaheb Phalke’s struggle in making Raja Harishchandra in 1913. It was also selected as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Phalke joined the Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay in 1885 and completed a one-year course in drawing. Later, he joined Kala Bhavan, the Faculty of Fine Arts, at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and completed a course in Oil painting and Watercolor painting in 1890. He also achieved proficiency in architecture and modelling.

In the same year, Phalke bought a film camera and started experimenting with photography, processing, and printing. He was awarded a gold medal for creating a model of an ideal theatre at the 1892 Industrial Exhibition of Ahmedabad. While his work was much appreciated, one of his fans presented him a “costly” camera, used for still photography.

In 1891, Phalke did a six-months course to learn the techniques of preparing half-tone blocks, photo-lithio, and three-colour ceramic photography. Principal Gajjar of Kala Bhavan sent Phalke to Ratlam to learn three-colour blockmaking, photolitho transfers, colotype and darkroom printing techniques under the guidance of Babulal Varuvalkar.

In 1895, he decided to become a professional photographer and went to Godhra, where he lost his wife and a child in the 1900 plague epidemic in the city.

He came back to Baroda, but his photography business couldn’t run well because of the myth spread across the city that the camera sucks up the energy from a person’s body which leads to their death. He faced similar resistance from the Prince of Baroda who refused to take photographs with the assumptions that it would shorten his life.

Then he started the business of painting the stage curtains for the drama companies. This got him some basic training in drama production and fetched him a few minor roles in the plays.

Phalke also learned magic tricks from a German magician who was on a tour in Baroda that time. This helped him use trick photography in his filmmaking.

In 1903, he got a job as a photographer and draftsman at the Archaeological Survey of India. However, not satisfied with the job, Phalke resigned in 1906.

Having watched a silent movie titled The Life of Christ, Phalke was inspired to depict the story of Indian deities on the large screen. That proved to be a turning point of his career and led to the beginning of cinema in India.

During 1911-12, Phalke started collecting various film related material like catalogues, books, and movie making equipment from Europe. He bought a small film camera and reels and started showing movies at night, by focusing candle light on a lens and projecting the pictures on the wall. He watched movies every evening for four to five hours and was deprived of sleep. This put strain on his eyes and he developed cataract in both eyes. He continued working against the advice of taking rest and lost his sight completely. Ophthalmologist Dr. Prabhakar treated Phalke with the aid of three or four pairs of spectacles which helped him restore the eye sight.

While relocating from Bombay to Nashik, the negative film of Raja Harishchandra was lost, so Phalke filmed it again with “almost the same script, cast and all other things” and released it as Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra, a 2,944 feet (897 m) long film which was screened on 3 April 1917 at Aryan Cinema, Poona.

He announced his retirement when differences with partners at Hindustan Cinema Films Company increased. Various people tried convincing Phalke to join back the film industry. Phalke replied: “I am dead so far as the cinema industry is concerned and have no inclination to go back to it”. Kolhatkar published Phalke’s letter under the heading, “Dadasaheb Phalke is Dead”. Several readers wrote to Sandesh requesting Phalke to make a comeback. All these letters were published in Sandesh and Kolhatkar sent all the issues of the newspaper to Phalke at Kashi. Reading these letters, Phalke decided to come back to Nashik.

His last silent film Setubandhan was released in 1932 and later released with dubbing.

Gangavataran was the only sound film directed by Phalke, which he made on the invitation of Maharaja of the princely state of Kolhapur, Rajaram III. This was his last film and he retired to Nashik, where he died on 16 February 1944.

The times changed and Phalke fell victim to the emerging technology of sound film. Unable to cope with the talkies, the man who had fathered the Indian film industry became obsolete.




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