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Subhadra Sen Gupta

By Rupali Bhave
Year 2016, pp. 20, Rs. 35.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 11 November 2016

Imagine a time when people could ask the question, ‘What is a film?’ In 1913 a man stood yelling about a new show outside a Bombay theatre, ‘Fifty seven thousand photographs... two miles long... only three annas!’ Dadasaheb Phalke was selling a visual magic that no one had ever seen before. His film would instantly mesmerize people and within a generation lay the foundation of the film industry in Bombay. And today, within a century, we carry films in our pockets and watch them on the tiny screens of smart phones. This is the unforgettable legerdemain of moving and talking pictures. I still remember sitting in the dark at a puja pandal in Daryagunj in the 1970s, the audience around me whizzing with excitement. Then everyone fell silent at the whirr of the film projector, the screen turned bright and I was lost to the world. Trouble began with the second reel when Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar suddenly appeared before us, singing away but upside down. As the audience roared in protest there was tiny flash, then a puff of acrid smoke as the projector caught fire and the show was over. Film buffs never forget such scenes. A dreamer like Dadasaheb Phalke would have really enjoyed the show. In Rupali Bhave’s delightful biography of Phalke we are introduced to a remarkable man who risked everything to make India’s first film—a silent, black and white experience with puppet like, jerky movements and theatrical acting; men in bizarre droopy moustaches, boys playing female roles and ornate sets. Today it makes us smile but for its first audience it must have been pure magic. The book also introduces us to an extraordinary woman that history has ignored. History has a habit of doing that to such women as if afraid they would take over the world. Phalke’s wife Saraswati stood by him like a rock when everyone called him mad. She brought up nine children, cooked for the film crew of seventy people, worked around the sets and then at night edited the film. We all know about Dadasaheb; none of us remember that India’s first film editor was a woman who often worked by candlelight. Phalke was a painter, who studied at Bombay’s J.J. School of Art and then opened a photography studio. The enterprise failed, not because he was a bad photographer but ...

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