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Saraswati Dadasaheb Phalke was India’s first female cinematographer: Paresh Mokashi

The Harishchandrachi Factory (2010) filmmaker was speaking at CineTalkies, an event organized by the ministry of culture. 

Nandu Madhav and Vibhawari Deshpande as Dadasaheb and Saraswati Phalke in Harishchandrachi Factory

Keyur Seta

On 3 May, the first-ever Indian movie, Raja Harishchandra (1913), turned 109. The film, directed by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke aka Dadasaheb Phalke, marked the genesis of the Indian film industry.

Director Paresh Mokashi’s Harishchandrachi Factory (2010) recreates the pioneer’s efforts to make Raja Harishchandra amidst adversity. Starring Nandu Madhav and Vibhawari Deshpande, the film was India’s official entry for the Oscars. 

During the first day of the event CineTalkies, which was held on the University of Mumbai's Kalina Campus on Friday, Mokashi pointed out that it wouldn’t be right to credit Dadasaheb Phalke alone for the birth of the Indian film industry. His wife Saraswati Phalke also made a major contribution. 

“This is one thing I like about my film,” said Mokashi. “I gave Saraswatiji Phalke a high place and showed her contribution as much as I could.” 

A still from Raja Harishchandra

The session on Dadasaheb Phalke was moderated by Rakesh Mittal while filmmaker and writer Kamal Swaroop and veteran film critic and author MK Raghvendra were Mokashi’s fellow speakers. The event was organized by the ministry of culture. 

Discussing the significance of Saraswati Phalke's contribution, the filmmaker said, “She realized that her husband had become obsessed with something about which there was no knowledge in India [back then]. Only British officers and some elite Indians knew about cinema and used to watch films. But the common Indian citizen knew nothing about this art. In such a situation, an entire family spends two years making a movie. This is a very important event. And this has a major contribution from Saraswatiji.” 

Mokashi highlighted how Phalke’s wife learnt different aspects of filmmaking. “When Phalke tried teaching Saraswatiji the technique of making films, she readily learnt it,” he said. “In the olden days, films were made on stock reels that were made of plastic. One had to create holes in them with a punching machine. This was called perforation.” 

Paresh Mokashi

Mokashi added, “He also taught her developing and printing. In fact, he also taught her how to handle the camera. There were a few scenes from a few documentaries [made by Phalke] that were shot by Saraswatiji as the first camerawoman of India.” 

Mokashi termed Saraswati Phalke’s passion invaluable. “That’s why I keep saying that Dadasaheb Phalke wasn’t the only one who gave birth to the Indian film industry. The credit goes to Dadasaheb and Saraswati Phalke,” he said.

How Dadasaheb Phalke promoted Raja Harishchandra

During the making of Raja Harishchandra, Dadasaheb Phalke was struggling to find a female actor for the role of Taramati because in those days it was considered taboo for females to join the acting profession. He and others thought that Saraswati Phalke could be cast in that role but she vehemently turned it down as she was shy. 

“If she had agreed, she would have also been India’s first actress,” pointed out Mokashi.