In the past twenty years or so, India has sent distinguished films like Bandit Queen, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan as its official Oscar entries. It has also somehow managed to pick clunkers like Jeans and Eklavya. What is common amongst the films that get nominated is that, either through the dint of being big-budget releases or because they are path-breaking enough to generate a cult following, they usually get seen by a wide audience long before their actual selection. This year’s nominee may be unique in the way it actually needs the buzz its selection has generated, whatever little of it there may be.
Harishchandra’s Factory is a relatively modest production, in Marathi, with subtitles. It has no known faces acting in it. It’s set in the 1920s, and captures that period with the minimum of cinematic flourish. In telling us the story of how Dadasaheb Phalke made India’s first film, it takes potentially ponderous biopic material and handles it as lightly. There are some hilarious moments – the one where Phalke is convincing his actor to shave off a moustache was my favourite – but there are also hints about how difficult the journey must have been for Phalke and his family. These moments are handled much better here than they would be in movies with larger budgets and over-eager background scores. And though the comedy is at times broad, it never degenerates into farce.
There’s a lovely moment that occurs just before the first shot of the first scene of the first Indian film. The crew has gotten off from the train that has brought them to their location, Phalke is the last to alight. As he does, he says a line that may have been part of his movie script, but is beautifully apt for the task he is about to undertake. “Today I will tear the heavens apart” he says, and the camera cuts. It’s a tiny moment, and the only real bit of self-indulgence the director allows his character, but you can feel his fondness for Phalke come through. Biopics often get mired in reverence or cross-examination, this one floats along on the helium of its own good natured enthusiasm.
This is not really a review – I saw the movie at the Osian Cinefan yesterday, and I just wanted to give it a small shout-out. I am also afraid that this movie, one of the nicest, most cogent and least mannered films to come out in recent times may need other, more influential shout-outs if it is to reach the magnitude of audience it deserves. One hopes this is achieved - it would be a fitting way for the world’s largest film industry to pay back the man who started it all.