Theatre of Life

Kamal Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi,which premieres at the ongoing Rome International Film Festival,throws light on a turbulent phase in Dadasaheb Phalke’s career

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Published: November 12, 2013 5:16:50 am

IN Rangbhoomi,a play by Dadasaheb Phalke,the protagonist Sangeet Rao — a stage actor — commits blasphemy by questioning the traditional ritual of offering prayer to goddess Saraswati before the start of a play. “Why don’t we worship Brahma,the creator of the universe,instead?” asks Rao,who by the end of that play is declared a madman. Rao’s character,deeply resonated with Phalke’s life,who at that time had renounced cinema,living a self-imposed exile in Varanasi.

“The father of Indian cinema,Phalke left Bombay disillusioned because he felt cheated by his partners at Hindustan Films,which he had set up with five businessmen. As a result,he wanted to enter a new territory,which he did by staging Rangbhoomi,” says Kamal Swaroop,the director of Rangbhoomi — a part-fiction,part-documentary that borrows its name from the play. The film is in competition in the CinemaXXI section at the ongoing Rome International Film Festival (November 8-17). Later this month,it will open the non-fiction section of Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India,Goa.

The play forms the core of the film. Rangbhoomi was a scathing critique of the then prevailing theatre trend — dominated by musicals but never touching upon social issues. Phalke’s seven-hour long “social drama” was an experimental piece where the backdrop changed every hour. It had a dismal reception,with the Marathi theatre circle rejecting it,calling it “self-indulgent”.

By then,the film industry had acknowledged his genius as a visionary but was wary to work with the eccentric megalomaniac that he was turning into. He was also challenged by Baburao Painter,a contemporary filmmaker and a rival. Painter,who made films with a self-made camera,challenged him on the grounds of “swadeshi cinema”,saying Phalke used the camera invented by the Lumiere Brothers.

“He used to envy Painter,” says Swaroop. Rangbhoomi became a catharsis for Phalke,who was going through one of the darkest phases of his life. When he moved to Varanasi,his wife had passed away and he had to raise their seven children.

Phalke stayed in Varanasi from 1920-1922,but instead of putting together a chronological narrative of it,Swaroop instead explores his subject by reconstructing memories of him shared by people who knew him. For instance,based on anecdotes by Phalke’s sons Neelkanth and Prabhakar from their childhood days in Varanasi,there is a sequence in the film which shows them both as two boys losing each other in the labyrinthine lanes of the city. “We tried to reconstruct memories in real time and place Phalke there,” he says. The film intertwines Phalke’s story with Swaroop’s personal engagement with the subject,ably aided by film students and artistes he has collaborated with.

“I had already done a lot of research on Phalke. But it was interesting to see him through the eyes of today’s youth,who are in many ways the children of Phalke,” says the 60-year-old. The film is a by-product of Tracing Phalke,Swaroop’s coffee-table book on the legend’s life that released to mark a 100 years of Indian cinema.

After Rangbhoomi,Swaroop wants to make a biopic,titled Bees Raniyon Ka Bioscope,in which he wants to cast Aamir Khan as Phalke. “Khan has the right physicality,but it’s just a wish for now. I want to make it in 2016,the centenary year of Phalke’s landmark film,Lanka Dahan,” he says.

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