I normally review only Hindi movies, but I made an exception for Harishchandrachi Factory. The Marathi movie was India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2010 Academy Awards. Ultimately, it wasn’t one of the five nominees, but it is worth watching.
The film is about the creation of the first full-length Indian motion picture in 1913: Raja Harishchandra, a depiction of the life of an ancient king renowned for always keeping his promises and telling the truth, no matter the consequences for him and his family.
(I didn’t think the moral of the story of Harishchandra was explained clearly via the movie’s subtitles. I had to look up the story later to appreciate some of the references.)
Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was the man responsible for Raja Harishchandra, in addition to dozens of other movies over the span of 19 years. He’s credited for founding the Indian film industry, back when cinema was dominated by the British.
Harishchandrachi Factory begins in 1911, when Phalke (Nandu Madhav) sees his first motion pictures: a documentary on bullfighting and a depiction of the life of Jesus Christ. He’s instantly seized with the notion of making an Indian film for an Indian audience.
Phalke, having recently sold his stake in a printing company, convinces his wife, Saraswati (Vibhawari Deshpande), and several investors that movie making is just another kind of printing, winning their support. He spends two months in England learning the trade and returns with the necessary camera equipment.
Phalke’s path is remarkably free of obstacles. Saraswati takes her husband’s career change in stride, never complaining as he sells most of their furniture to finance his London trip, which he schedules when she’s supposed to give birth to their third child. And Phalke has little trouble getting money from investors, who are impressed by his hard work ethic and the potential of the new storytelling medium.
The only hiccups occur when Phalke actually starts making his movie. Motion pictures are held in such low regard that even prostitutes refuse to join Phalke’s production, for fear of ruining their reputations. The men he hires to play the female roles are reluctant to shave their mustaches.
The lack of conflict, despite conventional wisdom, actually makes Harishchandrachi Factory more enjoyable. There is enough inherent risk in being a pioneer. Manufactured arguments between, say, Phalke and Saraswati would’ve been depressing, rather than dramatic. Happy onscreen relationships are rare enough as it is.
Harishchandrachi Factory is impressive, given that it was made for less than $500,000. But the meagreness of the budget is evident in some aspects of the movie. The costumes, particularly those of the British characters, look cheap and made from modern synthetic fabrics.
Despite the fact that they’ve little to do, the Anglo actors are distractingly bad. Most of the extras look like they were kidnapped from a British university field trip. Still, Harishchandrachi Factory is a fun and educational experience, if not a completely immersive one.