Saraswatibai Phalke: The Lady with the Light

A new children’s book gives Saraswatibai Phalke, India’s first film editor, her due.

Written by Chintan Girish Modi | Updated: September 11, 2016 12:40 am
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Did you know that India’s first film editor was a woman named Saraswatibai Phalke? Apart from mixing film-developing chemicals, perforating raw film sheets at night by the light of a candle, and holding white bedsheets for hours in the blazing sun as light reflectors, she also cooked for a film unit comprising approximately 60-70 people. But not many know of her contribution to Indian cinema — she is largely known only for being wife to the much celebrated Dadasaheb Phalke, who directed India’s first silent film Raja Harishchandra (1913) Rupali Bhave’s new book for children, Lights…Camera…Action! The Life and Times of Dadasaheb Phalke, published this year by Pratham Books, seeks to rectify these omissions. It firmly establishes Saraswatibai as the renowned filmmaker’s creative collaborator. “In all the material I read, the information available about Saraswatibai gave me a feeling that she provided the support system that enabled Dadasaheb to achieve his vision. Not only did she support his work but also actively participated in it,” says Bhave, who is an actor, theatre facilitator and translator.

The book narrates how Saraswatibai suggested selling some of their belongings to raise money for Dadasaheb to travel to England and learn the craft of filmmaking from Cecil Hepworth, one of the founders of the British film industry. When he returned to India, and started talking about his plans to make films, some of his friends were terribly unsupportive. They even tried to get him admitted to a mental asylum. However, Saraswatibai stood by him; she sold her jewellery to bolster the finances for Raja Harishchandra. With these funds, Dadasaheb bought a camera and other equipment from Germany.

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Bhave writes about how Saraswatibai was also involved in brainstorming ideas with her filmmaker husband. She recognised his passion, and did her best to encourage him, alongside managing her nine children. However, she had to put her foot down when he wanted to cast her as the female lead in Raja Harishchandra. Apparently, Saraswatibai said, “I am already involved in so many things! If I act too, who will do all the things I am doing now? I won’t act in the film.” Eventually, the female lead was played by a male actor who worked as a cook in a restaurant.

“The importance of practical and emotional support is often essential to creative and other work. It needs to be acknowledged as part of the story of the famous person, whether in his/her public or private life,” says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Film scholar and historian Amrit Gangar refers to Saraswatibai as Dadasaheb’s “comrade-in-arms”. While he acknowledges “the sense of camaraderie” between them as a couple “way back in 1912”, he thinks that it is important to guard against romanticising their story too much. According to him, Saraswatibai had her own reservations about Dadasaheb venturing into films. However, when she was convinced, she helped him in all aspects.

“Cinema is a collaborative effort. There are many invisible crew members who make majestic contributions, but it is the director, who sticks his neck out to make a film. And it is he/she who is generally recognised for the unwavering passion,” says Apurva Asrani, a film editor who has worked on films such as Satya, Shahid and Aligarh. “ Asrani recalls that Alma Reville, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, was also the editor of many of his films. Apparently, in Hitchcock’s film Psycho, it was Reville who noticed “a huge blunder”. “Janet Leigh’s character lay dead but her throat was still moving. This had been missed by Hitchcock and his entire unit, and Reville’s astute observation saved Hitchcock a huge embarrassment. Ironically, Psycho was not edited by Reville,” says Asrani.

Gangar reveals that in Dadasaheb’s evidence before the Indian Cinematograph Enquiry Committee of 1927-28, one does not find him referring to Saraswatibai or her contribution to his filmmaking practice. Apparently, Dadasaheb said that his film company at Nashik had a permanent staff of 95, including actors and actresses. Many years ago, Gangar had the opportunity to interview Saraswatibai and Dadasaheb’s daughter Mandakini Athavale, who was a child actor in the films Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) that were directed by her father. “Mandakini was around 70 when we met,” says Gangar. “She narrated some stories about her mother Saraswatibai and how she would actively help her husband during filmmaking. She had mentioned Saraswatibai’s autobiography. I don’t know if it has been published or not. But I remember having read an article by her in which she says that in the initial stages, she had rendered her ‘quota of humble service in Indian cinema industry’s onward march as an ardent devotee in the sacred shrine of Mother Art’.”

Bhave’s book has stunning watercolour illustrations by Sunayana Nair Kanjilal, combined with simple digital textures for the background. “I got a lot of references for Dadasaheb across his career,” says Kanjilal, “But Saraswatibai’s photographs were hard to come by, except one in her old age. In the book, I had to depict her as a young woman, so I simply tried to imagine what she must have looked like in her youth.” When Kanjilal tried to visualise Saraswatibai working, she was reminded of her own mother who was “quite proficient in carpentry and electronics, commonly considered a man’s territory.” She liked working on the book because “it highlights Saraswatibai’s contribution to the process of filmmaking at a time when women were not even working as actors. I was asked to emphasise her role in my illustrations too, and I was happy to execute that task,” says Kanjilal.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, educator, researcher, and copy editor living in Mumbai.

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