Shri Kiran Phakle, grandson of pioneer of Indian Cinema Dada Saheb Phalke, is a guitarist and acupuncture therapist in Dombivali, Mumbai. Organiser representative Manasi Jawale spoke to him about Phalke at his residence in Mumbai. Excerpts.
Dada Saheb Phalke had a dream for Indian cinema. Where do you find those dreams in today’s cinema?
Dada Saheb’s main aim at that time was to explore our religious texts to the contemporary people through this medium as at that time British people used to show films of Jesus Christ. We don’t see those dreams as such in Indian cinema today. Yes, there are some religious and mythological serials which have carried forward Dada Saheb’s dream for example the Ramayana, the Mahabharata. I must admit that movies like Santoshi Mata and some others have surely made his dream come true.
What was the contribution of Dada Saheb’s family as a whole in his endeavours, especially his wife Saraswati’s contribution? Please share with us some memories.
I don’t have any direct memories as such about her work as I was born after Dada Saheb Phalke’s death but I was introduced to her and Dada Saheb by my father and other family members.
As per I know, Dada Saheb Phalke’s elder son, my father, my aunt they all performed in his cinemas. So his children were already part of it. But my Grand Mother, Saraswati, his wife, I must say she was half Dada Saheb Phalke. She learnt all techniques like to make chemicals ready for film roles, to put holes on them and then to develop them and this all she used to do in the light of lantern because at that time there was no electricity. So, almost half of the work of Dada Saheb used to be done by her. She was not literate but her logic and IQ towards everything was great. So whatever was taught to her she just mastered it. She was really the first female technician of Indian cinema.
She used to do all household work like cooking, etc. Interestingly, the female characters, at that time, were used to be performed by male actors, so Swaraswati Bai used to help them in maintaining their long hair by oiling, brushing, washing them as those boys could not manage them. Even makeup of those boys was done by her. She did all backstage I must say.
Some projects conceptualised by Dada Saheb remained unrealised. What happened to those dreams?
I really don’t know about any projects of Dada Saheb which remained unrealised or were ever conceptualised. Absolutely no idea. I just know one thing that the British Government denied him permission to make and release movies at that time. That may be is the main reason behind it.
Is there any one from Phalke’s family in film industry?
I think this question in itself is wrong. It’s like expecting Mahatma Gandhi’s son doing satyagraha or Tilak’s son entering politics?
But still if I have to answer this question, Phalke family has seen rise and fall through cinema. So we couldn’t dare to step in the same shoe again. Success was so that at times we brought money in bullock carts but the end was a tragic blow. Dada Saheb once said in one of his letters written to a son, “I don’t have money even to buy poison for myself”. Nobody bothered to help him not even government. V Shantaram gave him prize of Rs 5000 with which he built his house and Dada Saheb was requested to use this money for himself and not to make films as his financial situation was too bad at that time.
There was a car which he used in his up times which is completely vanished now. Raj Thackeray has said that he would make that car work again but I don’t think so any action was taken thereafter.
Even our old ancestral house was almost on the verge to breakdown. Even if we would have tried to rebuild it, it would not have been possible. It was really at its worst condition. I asked my brother to demolish it and build a small house and put on the board saying, “Here lived Dada Saheb Phalke once.” One has to become practical these days. The strange thing was, unknown people, who had nothing to do with us for these years, were protesting us from doing so. And at last the Collector came and announced that this house belongs to Phalke family and they have full right to take any decision about the same and build it as per their wish. Thus, the end of Dada Saheb Phalke was so terrible that we could even imagine entering into the same field again; we couldn’t dare so as all is still printed on back of our mind.
When the British Government did not allow Dada Saheb to make movies, we were left without a single penny. It was a complete zero. So what can his children do? My father and my uncle went in army, my elder uncle tried to do some film distribution work but he could not do it well. The last son of Phalke, Devadatta, my uncle, sold scented sticks (agarbattis) and dhoop. Once a Marathi daily, published one article saying that Phalke’s son earns his livelihood by selling agarbattis! It made me angry and I warned them. “Your news paper is also of 1 Re and what my uncle is selling is also of the same prize”. He lived his life his way and each individual has right to do so. He was also a great Harmonium player but he never made business out of it. So we never came in film line and even we were kept ten hands away. In fact when my sister started working in drama, aunt wrote me a long letter saying to stop her immediately from doing so. We are cursed with the worst and we must not enter in it again.
My aunt Mandakini who performed in Dada Saheb’s film, her children are at great positions at their professions. They are really brilliant children. My grandson is just 6 years old. But he has started to compose music! My grand daughter is a piano player and my brother’s grandson is also doing rhythmic.
I must say genes of Dada Saheb have entered through in his family, no doubt. I am blessed with many qualities which he had. I am grateful to him for the same.
Is there any thing or memories you have still cherished about Phalke?
To be frank we were not exposed to Dada Saheb much. I remember once we found some films of Dada Saheb in our house and when we opened those boxes they were all ruined but luckily enough Raja Harsihchandra and other two films were in a good condition and thus, without charging a penny we gave those films to a film institute. And recently they have published a CD of the same.
How do you feel yourself to be the grandson of a great personality like Dada Saheb Phalke?
I just feel fantastic. But you know what, 100 years have gone and as we were not introduced much to Dada Saheb so we were not even knowing proper dates of events happened in his life. But recently when the film, Harishchandrachi Factory was made on his life, we just felt great again and I searched as much as I could about him as this was the time when people again started taking interest in Dada Saheb and his life journey and they even started asking us questions about him, it’s really a great feeling must say. One day, I was called to Satara Short Film Festival to inaugurate it. I was, for the first time, treated so nicely there as if I am Dada Saheb Phalke! I feel very great now. Dada Saheb Phalke made 113 films in 3 years and its breathtaking to even imagine.
What contrast do you find in the Indian cinema then and now—especially, technology, music, songs, storyline, messages, etc.
There is drastic change and no doubt it’s a change for good. It’s wonderful. The technology at that time was appropriate for that period but it’s too superior no doubt. All the techniques are advanced and it’s all time bound. But I have one objection that the art of dance in today’s cinema has nothing to do with art, it just has become a kind of physical exercise. To look at themes or topics touched by today’s cinem, it is almost always Love. I sometimes wonder why they don’t focus on other themes as well. But shorts films have done great job in this context. These days I feel films are giving wrong massages like immorality, violence, cheating, etc. may be indirectly or may be directly, but they are giving.
These days I hardly watch movies but I must say Marathi film industry is doing great in sending messages. Even comedy is full of political and cultural satire. And we could see other countries taking consideration of the same. In Hindi film industry, I like Raju Shrivastava, he is an intelligent comedian as well as Surendra Sharma. They are sending good messages through comedy.
Are you satisfied with the direction towards which the Indian cinema is moving today?
Yes, I am satisfied with the speed and quality apart from all what I told you just now. Recently, I saw skate dance and you won’t believe they all were foreigners and danced on Indian classical music. I was glad to see that. There artists are eager to work on Indian culture. Diaspora films are also on verge these days and are sending good messages as well. We are definitely moving ahead with a considerably constant speed. But sometime I feel that film industry should invite us at least for some programmes. Now I truly feel we must have patented Dada Saheb’s name. If we would have done this, the picture would have been different. May be we would have lived on Malabar Hills!
There is dramatic change in the display of women, values, ethics, etc in today’s cinema. How do you look at it especially in the context of growing crimes against women, which are attributed to vulgarity being shown in movies today?
Immorality is on hype these days. Like to love someone else’s wife, cheat someone, to look at the women as material possession. These massages are too wrong. They send indirectly negative impact on the society. But it’s a Kaliyug and it’s a flow. I have nothing much to say on it. Sometimes I feel this box office obsession and desire for money has made women character as a material to gain both. We have illiterate population and for them these kinds of films are enough to engage them in activities like rape and violence. But there are films which are showing women as a power. Now it’s all on individuals, what to take and what not.
How do you see the role of cinema in promoting Indianness?
Yes, it is there in the films. Our films are showing some shades of our culture like marriage, couples from other countries are coming forward to marry with our wedding style. I had been to Reshikesha once. Near river Ganga River, some foreigners were doing Ganga pooja with the help of Bhramhan and they were also taking Ganga Snana to wash out their sins. Thus, Indian Cinema has taken our culture and Indianess far away and has surely left impact on other countries. Cinemas also show our faith on God by showing Lord Krishna and a woman praying him in difficult times, then a song following it etc. It takes our culture to the viewers. Indian Cinema is doing good job in promoting Indianness. But you know what, no one is doing it intentionally; it is happening! Dada Saheb Phalke nor his family ever did anything for money and till the date we are proud to maintain it. As I said it’s Kaliyug. We, Phalke family, to the date are very happy and contented.