Kamal Swaroop’s illustrated book on Dadasaheb Phalke is a labour of love. It started as a short biography but gradually acquired a life of its own. Swaroop’s quest to find out everything about Phalke’s life drove him crazy and he often found himself wandering around with a pair of scissors and glue to cut and paste material on Phalke in his scrapbook. The identification with his idol became so intense that at one point he started thinking of himself as Phalke. In a conversation with Bikas Mishra, Swaroop talks about his eccentric way of writing scripts, Phalke, Om Dar Badar and the lost hope of cinema in digital era.
How did the journey begin?
I was thinking about something to do with Phalke. After reading up about him I discovered that his father was an astronomer, a ritual storyteller and a Sanskrit scholar. Phalke studied at the J.J. School of Arts. He learnt tracing, drawing and moulding there. Then he went to Kala Bhavan in Baroda where he learnt printing, photography, music and theatre. He started his career as a photographer. Later he got into printing. In printing technology he was ahead of his time. He worked with Ravi Varma. Then he started making films. In his short life span he had gone through almost every single discipline of art necessary for filmmaking.
I thought if I worked on him I would get a chance to learn about arts, history of printing technology, photography and cinema. The idea was that I will make a feature film on him. So I took up a small assignment of writing a monograph on him. Then I started meeting his family members. That’s how I started discovering more about him.
I gradually started researching about all these fields – photography, printing, chitpavans (the Konkan community he belonged to), nineteenth century astronomy, methods of translating Sanskrit texts to English, ritual storytelling. I studied all 108 stories which ritual storytellers used to narrate. I had a deep interest in Purana. As I started meeting more characters, I got more interested.
That was the pre-internet era. I used to roam around with a pair of scissors and glue. I typed the monograph on Phalke and pasted it on a notebook. I arranged it year wise from 1870 to 1844. On the left hand side were the events in the life of Phalke and on the right, I used to paste all the images and text that I found related to the era. I used to paste everything that I laid my hands on which were related to Phalke or his era. Anything that had to do with cinema, photography and printing also found a place in my book. Gradually, the book kept getting thicker. I carried this one till 1990. It took me two years to compile.
So you had already imagined this book in the form that it is right now?
See, the reason was that I have very little command over languages. I neither know Hindi nor English. I can’t express myself in languages. If I ever stumbled upon an idea, I would start looking for words, sentences or even paragraphs already written about it. When I chanced upon the exact expression of my idea, I would cut it and paste on the pages of the book.
I think in terms of collage. I can play around with visuals and I really enjoy doing that. I started spending hours and hours in a row collecting things and information and playing around with the presentation of them. I don’t think in languages. I can’t follow the logic that’s inherent in languages but if you ask me to make a collage, I will readily do it.
So how did you manage to write “Om Dar Badar”? Was there a script at all?
I had no way out but to write one. It was a hundred page script. I first wrote it in English that got approved. I don’t write a script in that sense but I just jot down my ideas.
I used to sit for hours then I would suddenly have a dream. I knew what was cooking inside my head. It used to happen almost like a vision, a sudden outburst of meaning. Then I tried to capture that image in words. I kept thinking even while shooting and it kept transforming.
The whole idea in the form of images and sounds used to reverberate in my mind. My job was to capture it. I never thought in words. I still can’t do that.
What’s the idea behind the book?
I was attempting to make a film. It entailed the period of 1870-1844 and 138 characters and history of technologies such as printing, photography and cinema. I couldn’t have possibly fitted all this into two hours. That’s why I had to compress it.
I used to say earlier that a story means “to store”. We construct stories to store information. If you deconstruct a story, you can retrieve all the information it has. But it would be impossible to store so much without weaving a story around all these information.
I try to construct images that can be interpreted in multiple ways. I like the process of construction of images rather than the ultimate creation. I’m not into hypnotizing people.
The book also tries to reconstruct the missing autobiography of Phalke. How is that possible?
I first interviewed the family of Dadasaheb in 1990. His two sons were alive then – Neelkanth and Prabhakar. I interviewed them both for over thirty hours each. His daughter lived till 1992. I also made a film on them titled “Phalke’s Children”.
Dadasaheb’s daughter Mandakini had told me that he had written an autobiography. He used to dictate it to Mandakini. After his death some Mr. Kulkarni visited them and took away the manuscript. He said he wanted to get it printed. After that there is no trace of the book. I tried to reconstruct the missing autobiography. It was impossible to practically reconstruct the autobiography only through the accounts of others and what they told me. So my concern wasn’t just to reconstruct his daily life but to reconstruct the era. So I chose this method of following Phalke and tracing his time in the book.
At any point did you start identifying with Phalke?
Phalke was trained in Sanskrit, storytelling, printing and photography. I’m not that well educated. I’ve interest aplenty in all these arts and crafts but I can’t master them. I’ve worked on a lot on lithography but I still can’t understand the principle behind the technology. That way I’m challenged but I share interests with Phalke.
Another common ground that I discovered amazes me a lot. I was interested a lot in Lord Brahma and his temple in Pushkar. I did a lot of research trying to find out who Brahma was and why he wasn’t worshipped. He was considered “father” of the entire universe but strangely no one worshipped him. Why was he considered an outsider? Where did he come from – Himalayas, Tibet or maybe Europe?
Then I stumbled upon “Rangabhoomi”, a play that Phalke wrote. His play begins with a prayer to Lord Brahma while the tradition was to offer prayer to Goddess Saraswati. Phalke chose to pray to Brahma because he is the creator of the universe. Phalke wrote the play in Banaras in exile after he had left his film company and taken a vow to never make films again. He identified deeply with Brahma and his exile.
I made a film about Brahma (Om Dar Badar) but couldn’t find him. My quest ended in Nashik. Finally, I found him in Phalke. I had no godfather but from thereon Phalke became my godfather.
I wanted to bring out the book in 1996 on the occasion of 100 years of world cinema but I couldn’t complete it by then.
When Dadasaheb Phalke made “Raja Harishchandra” he was 42. I was also 42 around the time when I started working on Phalke. He made his last film when he was 65. Now I think I have five more years to make my next film.
Tell me more about “Rangabhoomi”.
It’s an autobiographical play. Phalke had disputes with his partners at Hindustan Films, and then he quit everything and left for Banaras. He started writing “Rangabhoomi” there. It was a scathing critique of the theatre of that time.
Some very bizarre things happened around that time. When Phalke was in Banaras, a journalist from Pune, Mr. Koratkar, visited him for an interview. He asked, “You’re here while the world is searching for you everywhere”. Phalke replied, “I am dead for the film industry and the film industry is dead for me”. He was living a life almost like Raja Harishchandra. He had given up everything and had left for Banaras like the character of his film. Newspapers carried headlines: “Phalke dead”. Then people discovered that he is living in Banaras. It’s a seven hour long play.
I have just finished a film on the play. It’s a 1.5 hour documentary.
While reading his play and making a film on it, I started getting into his role. Gradually I became Phalke myself. I got into his state of mind. His life was full of trouble. He had eight children. I visited the lives of all the eight children.
What do you think of the current New Wave in Hindi cinema?
These films are snakeskin of time. Had I been as young when I made “Om Dar Badar”, I would not have accepted these films as new wave. But I will accept them today because these films are the truth of the time we are living in. Technology has changed, so has cinema. People make films with still camera nowadays but it can’t capture the flux of time and space. Digital cinema is at par with the cinema of the early nineteenth century.
On the subject of these films – I doubt these filmmakers are making films through self-processing. Cinema is like an outside object. It’s becoming more like Hollywood. Everybody knows what the subject of the film is and they manufacture a film around the subject. It’s an outside product. I doubt if there is any unique individual contribution to these films. These filmmakers aren’t artists in the sense that they aren’t deeply connected with their stories, they make films for the world. Filmmaking has become more like industrial construction.