Harishchandrachi Factory -- Film Review

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"Harishchandrachi Factory" is a complete delight. The film tells the story of Dadasaheb Phalke, often referred to as the father of Indian cinema, and how he came to make the first Indian film in 1913. In a sense, the story in the film is also the story of the film. Its writer-director, Paresh Mokashi, has worked in theater for two decades but never made a film. Indeed the first day he ever spent on a movie set was the day he rolled cameras for "Harishchandrachi Factory." So you have a man discovering cinema making a film about the first man ever to make a film in India. You can readily sense the utter joy both men experience with this new toy.

The film, daringly made in the Marathi language, a regional language unknown in much of India, is India's official entry for the Oscar's foreign language film competition. It's a good pick as Academy members, as well as movie fans worldwide, should enjoy revisiting those early days of the 20th century when a few crazy folks tried to figure out how to bring drama and laughs to a thing called motion pictures.

In 1911, during British rule, only Europeans and a few elite locals attend picture shows in Bombay. Phalke (Nandu Madhav), unemployed after leaving the printing press business, happens upon a tent theater where such silent movies play. Mesmerized, he sets out to learn all he can about this new entertainment form, which isn't much. He raises enough money to go to England to visit movie sets and talk with Brits making movies. He returns to India with the equipment to make one himself.

Mokashi makes Phalke onto a Chaplinesque figure, who succeeds largely due to his wide-eyed innocence and the determination he, his wife and two enthusiastic kids have for this new medium. Early sections contain some speeded-up action one associates with silent comedies, and the hero's fondness for magic only increases the resemblance this talkie has to old silent films.

The behind-the -scenes activities for the first Indian film has its share of comedy. Explaining his methodology with family and friends, Phalke shows he understands intuitively how a producer must function when he declares, "I can't tell the truth all the time!"

When he can't find any women to act in his film, he resorts to recruiting in red light districts only to get turned down by prostitutes who fear acting will ruin their "reputation." He settles, as did Shakespeare, for boys to play women but several resist his demand to shave mustaches.

The journey to a location, recruitment of extras and whole slapdash way in which people figure out how to make a movie are cause for further merriment. Mokashi's touch is always light. He shows considerable talent himself in this -- for him -- new medium.

The story ends with the projection of India's first film, "Raja Harishchandra," in 1913. It does not explore how Phalke went on to make many films only to die a forgotten man in 1944, much as America's D.W. Griffith did. Funny how movie communities treats their pioneers. At least the Indian film industry has since named a prestigious film award after Phalke.

Opened: Nov. 2, South Asia Film Festival, New York (UTV Motion Pictures)
Production companies: UTV Motion Pictures and Paprika Media present a Mayasabha production
Cast: Nandu Madhav, Vibhavari Deshpande, Mohit Gokhale, Atharva Karve
Director/screenwriter: Paresh Mokashi
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Smiti Kanodai, Paresh Mokashi
Executive producers: Shrirang Godbole, Manish Hariprasad
Director of photography: Amalendu Chaudhary
Production designer: Nitin Chandrakant Desai
Music: Anand Modak
Costume designers: Mrudul Patwardhan, Mahesh Sherla, Geeta Godbole
Editor: Amit Pawar
No rating, 90 minutes