Iconic and revolutionary filmmakers live on for generations after their passing through their body of work and often, perhaps through biographies and films based on their lives.
It is however rare, rather unusual and unprecedented, especially in India, to explore a great and yet forgotten life like the one of Dadasaheb Phalke, the man we all know as the father of Indian cinema, through the medium of a play. Thespian Aamir Raza Husain is doing just that.
Come April 30, Husain and his wife Virat will stage The Forgotten Film, based on Phalke’s great grand niece Sharayu Phalke Summanvar’s book The Silent Film at Siri Fort as part of the Centenary Film Festival.
“It was Sharayu who approached me to adapt her book into a play,” Husain says. “At that time she had conceptualised it on the lines of a series of love letters between Phalke and his wife Saraswati. I was not keen on the concept because it had already been done before: George Bernard Shaw’s letters to Mrs Patrick Campbell (British stage actor with whom Shaw had a passionate, yet unconsummated love affair) and more recently actors Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh in the play Tumhari Amrita.”
A staunch believer in originality, Husain told Summanvar that he was willing to adapt her book only into an original play. “Then Nirupama Kotru got involved and we began work on it,” he says.
Husain adds candidly that the actual writing of the play began as recently as the beginning of April. “As it was a collective effort, there was no conflict of opinion between me and Sharayu,” Husain elaborates. “In fact Sharayu and we agreed that a film we had watched where Phalke was shown like a Charlie Chaplin character was totally off the mark as far as the man was concerned.”
Husain has, of course, taken artistic licence while expanding simple narratives in the book into scenes with original dialogue in the play. “For example I have taken Phalke’s belief that films should never preach and developed it into a dialogue where he says the medium is primarily for entertainment; if there’s a message in a film, that’s a bonus. It’s like adding honey to milk,” he explains.
However, omissions from the book were inevitable. “My play focuses on how Phalke goes about making his first film,” Husain says. “I have left out parts in the book dealing with his childhood and also much of the frustration he experienced.”
The man behind acclaimed outdoor stage productions such as The Fifty Day War (2000) based on the Kargil War and The Legend of Ram (2004) based on the epic Ramayana acknowledges the irony of Indian cinema completing 100 years since Phalke made the country’s first indigenous and original film Raja Harishchandra and yet having little originality left. “You will find irony reflected in several scenes in the play too,” he adds.
While the creative director of Stagedoor theatre company is more than willing to adapt the play into a film, he asks, “Where are the funds?”
He is also uncertain whether The Forgotten Film will be staged again. “I would be glad to take the play to other places, but it is up to the information and broadcasting ministry (which is organising the film festival),” he adds.
While the Padmashri winner is fine with compromising on the budget for staging the play at Siri Fort, he minces no words in saying that the auditorium has a faulty design and is not at all suited for staging plays. “Maintenance cannot do the job; reconstruction is required,” he says. “The auditorium could become a world-class venue, but for the way it is built now.”
Ask him about his favourite films, Husain, a firm believer that theatre and films have to be couched in entertainment reels off Mughal-e-Azam, Garam Hawa, Pakeezah, the Munnabhai series, Anand and most of Rajesh Khanna’s and Shammi Kapoor’s films and the more recent 3 Idiots.
Sneak peek into the play
The play begins on a spoofy note with the mahurat (announcement) of a film in the present day and takes digs at some film personalities and how politicians are eager to be connected with films. The humour is unmistakable.
That Phalke’s wife Saraswati and his close friend had a prominent part to play in his journey towards films is explored well.
Watch out for the scene where Phalke visits a kothi to look for a girl who will play her gender in his film and astonishes the kothi girls. In those days men played all the parts, including those of women.
The scene where an actor starts mouthing dialogues for the film and is told by Phalke that he would be emoting only through actions, not words.