The gentleman was Dhundiraj Govind Phalke who went on to become the founder of the Indian Film Industry. Phalke was born in 1870 in Trymbakeshwar in Nasik. The son of a Sanskrit scholar, he studied at J.J. college of Art in Bombay and at Kala Bhavan, Baroda. He then studied architecture and became proficient as a landscape painter of academic nature studies.
He worked in a photographic studio and at Ratlam learned three-colour block making and ceramics. He then worked as a portrait photographer, stage make-up man, assistant to a German illusionist and as a magician! He was offered backing to start an Art Printing Press and his backers to acquaint him with the latest printing process especially in colour work arranged for him to go to Germany provided that he remain with the company for at least a stipulated time after the journey which he did. But by the time Phalke returned he knew that a printing career would not satisfy him.
Raising a loan from an old friend and pledging his life insurance, Phalke sailed for England on February 1, 1912 to purchase the necessary equipment and acquaint himself with the technical aspects of filmmaking. After two weeks in London Phalke returned to India with a Williamson camera, a perforating machine, developing and printing equipment and some raw stock. He launched Raja Harishchandra about an honest king who for the sake of his principles sacrifices his kingdom and family before the gods impressed with his honesty restore him to his former glory.
He raised finance from Yeshwant Nadkarni, a photographic equipment dealer with a short trick film Birth of a Pea Plant shooting one frame a day to show the plant growing. Nadkarni was astounded by the film and agreed to be Phalke`s backer. Also as in Shakespearean England female roles on the Indian Stage were still performed by men. Phalke however wanted to have a woman play the queen`s role. He even visited prostitutes from the red light areas but they backed out. Finally Phalke found an effeminate looking cook Salunke in a cafe who played the queen.
Raja Harishchandra was 3700 feet long and distributed by Phalke himself. The film opened for regular commercial showing on May 3, 1913 at the Corporation Cinema. The film fetched him rich returns. As exciting as foreign films had seemed, audiences were far more thrilled to see a familiar story performed by Indians.
Phalke moved operations to Nasik and within three months produced his second feature Mohini Bhasmasur (1913) which was 3245 feet long and gave Phalke ample scope for trick photography. Satyavan Savitri (1914) followed this. By now Phalke`s films were much in demand and at least 20 prints of each film were required for wider exhibitions. Phalke visited England again in 1914 to organize trade shows. He received many offers to stay back in Europe but he preferred to return to India with new equipment.
After a period of hibernation, Phalke made some of his greatest and most successful films - Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janam (1918) and Kaliya Madan (1919). The impact was overwhelming. When Lord Rama appeared on the screen in Lanka Dahen and when Lord Krishna appeared in Shri Krishna Janam, men and women in the audience prostrated themselves before the screen! Phalke also became an exhibitor and traveled far and wide by bullock cart with projector, screen and films. The revenue was in coins and the weight of the coins on the homeward trip was enormous!
Phalke`s films show a fine pictorial sense and remarkable technical resourcefulness. Like George Melies, Phalke was a special effects genius. He explored a vast range of techniques including animation, tinting and toning. He used scenic models for a number of sequences, including the burning of Lanka for which he also burned down two full size sets!
Initially the mythological film was to dominate Indian production for some years but rival genres in the 1920s began to compete for audience attention, like the `stunt film` for example. Phalke gradually began to feel like a stranger in the film world. Film tastes were changing and as the atmosphere was becoming increasingly commercial, in 1928 Phalke declared his retirement.
However in 1931 he tried again with Setu Bandhan. Coming at the last moment of the silent era, it was ill-timed and Phalke tried to salvage it by post-synchronizing dialogue. He made a talkie, Gangavataram (1937) but the tide was no longer with him and he died in Nasik in 1944, a forgotten man.
However he will always remain the founder of the world`s largest Film Industry. Today the most prestigious award of the Indian Film Industry, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award` is named after him.