Harischandrachi Factory (2009) – A funny, inspiring and feel-good biopic from Paresh Mokashi

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Harischandrachi Factory is an Indian biopic of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, also known as Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who came to be known as the father of Indian cinema and chronicles his experiences with the making of his first film, Raja Harischandra. It was a black and white silent film that came out in the year 1913 and set the foundation for the birth of the Indian film industry, known as the largest film industry in the world. The film was directed by a first-time Indian director Paresh Mokashi and the approach he adopted for making it is noticeably quite different and unique in that he did not resort to the conventional method of narrating a biopic as most directors usually do. Mokashi envisioned it as a fun, lighthearted and inspiring film and as a result of this, you won’t find a single sad or serious moment in the film. The first thing that came to my mind while watching the film was, “Wow! This looks very much like a P.G Wodehouse novel written by an Indian.”

The film doesn’t waste any time covering Phalke’s entire life and it simply begins in  his adulthood where we first see him at a magic show in which he is the main performer. Now, this interest in magic is also shared by Georges Méliès, one of the early pioneers of cinema. Phalke’s interest in magic, however, is secondary and he used to run a printing press business but later quits it after a dispute with his business partner. He also used to be a photographer. One day while returning from a magic show, he chances upon a British motion picture exhibition at a town fair that showcases some silent films from that era. It becomes a life-transforming experience for him after he watches a silent film called The Life of Christ. He is so spellbound that the thought of becoming a filmmaker and making a mythological film like that in India immediately occurs to him. From then on, there is no stopping him. He takes his wife and kids regularly to this exhibition and soon strikes up a friendship with the projectionist there in the hope of learning about this new art form.

Phalke spends every day and night learning about it and even gets an eye infection as a result of the excessive strain. The news of his obsession soon reaches the ears of his friends and neighbors and one day, two of his friends take him to a mental hospital thinking that he has gone nuts. But he escapes and later tries to convince everyone that he is not mad and that he is actually very serious about becoming a filmmaker and plans to pursue it by all means necessary. He plans a trip to London and in order to raise money for it, he sells all the excess furniture in his home. As soon as he reaches London, he comes across a Marathi chef and he directs him to the film studio that he is looking for. Upon reaching there, he learns everything he can about filmmaking, under the tutelage of a British filmmaker. After he gets back to India, preparations are made to get his debut film off the ground and adverts are placed in newspapers calling all actors and technicians. The subject he chose for his film is King Harischandra, a popular Indian mythological hero.

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There is an assortment of oddball characters in the film. One of his actors is unable to find a bride because at that time, some people saw filmmaking and acting as lowly professions. One actor refuses to shave because his father is still alive (some weird superstition) and Phalke has to call his father to get his son to shave lest he be struck by the wrath of the gods. Phalke is unable to find any woman to play the female protagonist in his film and so he has to rely on male actors to carry out that job and insists that they remain in character on and off camera (method acting?). His cinematographer happens to be a Hindu priest and in one scene, his expression is hilarious when he finds Phalke himself in a woman’s attire rehearsing with the “women”. And in another scene, his actors are mistaken for bandits by the cops and Phalke has to stage an entire scene inside the police station to convince them that they are actually actors and not bandits. Phalke also seems to be good at improvising his scenes. I also loved the brilliant marketing strategy he comes up with to lure audiences to the theaters.

Mokashi directs this film with enough flair, heart and conviction that I was surprised to learn that he had no filmmaking background prior to this and I realized that he is no different from the protagonist in his debut film (also, Mokashi had to mortgage his home to get this film made). You can tell that Mokashi was immensely passionate about this project as you can see it on every single frame. All the actors in this are sensational and there is not a single misstep from either one of them. The film is in the Marathi language and you get the feeling of watching one of those vintage classic films. A sequence in London where Phalke learns about the different stages of the filmmaking process is put together like a silent film. Marathi actors Nandu Madhav and Vibhawari Deshpande have done a splendid job playing Phalke and his exceedingly encouraging and supportive wife Saraswati (I wish all wives were like this). There are no unnecessary songs, dances and melodrama in this one. I haven’t had this much fun while watching an Indian film in a long time and there was a permanent smile on my face throughout the film. It’s one of the best Indian films ever made.

 

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