India's official entry to the next Oscars is Paresh Mokashi's Harishchandrachi Factory, a work in Marathi. Happily, this is one of the better films that India made this year.
For decades, the nation of a billion-plus people and 1200-odd movies a year has been callously sending up for possible Oscar nomination B and C grade stuff. The Mumbai-based Film Federation of India, in charge of selection, has been largely Hindi centric, overlooking cinema from other regions. Since 1956 -- the year the Academy started presenting Oscars for foreign language pictures -- only three Indian movies, Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1988) and Lagaan (2001), have been nominated in the category. All three were Hindi films. None won the coveted trophy though.
India made some brilliant cinema in this period. Satyajit Ray's classics, Ritwick Ghatak' gripping works, Mrinal Sen's captivating fare, Buddhadeb Dasgupta's poetic cinema (all four from Bengal), Aravindan's touching films, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's excellent body of work (both from Kerala) are some of the examples. None of these was even considered by the Federation, let alone sent up for possible nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that runs the Oscars.
Admittedly, the Federation was -- and continues to be -- deeply biased against non-Bollywood cinema. Even among the Mumbai movies, the better ones were never sent up. Examples: Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and early Raj Kapoor.
Harishchandrachi Factory, therefore, comes as a wonderful surprise. Neither mainstream nor in Hindi, it delightfully narrates the story of Dadasaheb Phalke and his tryst with cinema. The movie engages us with details about how India's first full-length feature, Raja Harishchandra was made by him in 1913.
Director-scriptwriter Paresh Mokashi has been a theatre person for 20 years, and Harishchandrachi Factory is his first attempt to roll a camera. And strangely he discovered cinema through a pioneering Indian in the field. I suppose Phalke's excitement at making the film gets rubbed on Mokashi, and it is all there for us to see.
Phalke (played by Nandu Madhav) is smitten by the moving images he sees in a Bombay tent theatre. He collects money, sails to England, learns about the craft from Brits and comes back home with the equipment to make a movie.
Harishchandrachi Factory turns its lead actor into a Chaplin of sorts and the film into a roll of unimaginable energy. What emerges is comic and magic. And, of course, a touch of tragic, when Phalke's efforts to hire prostitutes to play female characters (because other women would not dare act in those days) hit a wall. The prostitutes refuse, because they feel that cinema would tarnish their image! Ultimately, he settles for boys, but they resist having their moustaches shaved. Phalke's trials go on, but so does his will to entertain through motion and movement.
He made many more movies, but when he died in 1944, nobody remembered his historic contribution to Indian cinema, a la America's D.W. Griffith. But then there is a consolation here: an award has been instituted in his memory. Mokashi's debut work may well lift his protagonist to a still higher plane, and an Oscar nod, if it comes, could be well deserved.