Of Dadasaheb Phalke and Trimbak: Little Remains of the Legend in His Native Village

Located 30 km from Nashik city in Maharashtra, there's hardly any worthy monument or memorial in Trimbak village to celebrate the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, after whom India's most coveted film award is named.

A prominent temple town in Maharashtra has forgotten its lesser god, its prodigious son and the one dubbed as the ‘father of Indian cinema’, Dadasaheb Phalke, aka Dhundiraj Govind Phalke. An unkempt, busy, and narrow street in Trimbak town bears his name only on some shop signs leading up to the famous Shiva temple of Trimbakeshwar. A name that decorates the most coveted film award in the country – Dadasaheb Phalke Lifetime Achievement Award.

Off National Highway 848, about 30km away from Nashik City, Trimbakeshwar is an important pilgrimage centre and one of the 12 Jyotirlings which is visited by approximately three lakh tourists each year. A Kumbh Mela, on the banks of Godavari, in the same city is held every 12 years which attracts over twelve lakh people to this small town which can barely provide for its own needs. Nashik airport has only two flights coming in, one from Delhi and the other from Hyderabad.

“Phalke was born somewhere here,” is the answer I got from a teacher at a local school. It was a small village in 1870 where Phalke grew up and went to a Brahminshala. Neither the municipal records nor the local administration knows the exact location of the Phalke family house. Other than the shop sign, I couldn’t locate any official road sign bearing his name.

The town is too busy making money from pilgrims visiting the black-stone-clad Shiva temple, its gopuram competing with the Brahmagiri Hills behind it. Large LED screens telecast the proceedings live from inside the sanctum-sanctorum of the temple but no one in the town seems to know Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who made the projection of analogue imaging possible in the first place. There is a small theatre in the town but there too his name finds no mention.

Trimbak village

Sitting in the valley floor of the Anjani and Brahma hill ranges, Trimbak village is surrounded by Sahyadri Hills or the Western Ghats on the southwest. The village is a part of Nashik town. River Godavari cuts through the town of Nashik and irrigates parts of this otherwise rocky moonscape dotted with rain-fed lakes. Its predominantly tribal settlements survive largely on agricultural produce sown on red soil around lakes and ponds created by rocky table-like hills and their watershed area.

Brahmagiri hills’ Trimbak-three faces. Photo: Rajinder Arora.

Over the last three decades, a few vineyards and breweries have come up in the surrounding areas. Grapes are a commercial crop helping a few rich farmers. Poultry for self-consumption and cattle rearing helps supplement the income of villagers. Water is scarce in parts other than those closer to the Godavari River, Vaitarni Lake and Gangapur Lakes fed by many small water channels.

Almost all the jungle in this area has been cut. Barren hills stretch for as far as one can see around Nashik, Trimbakeshwar and further southwest. Other than the elusive hyena and leopard, there is no wildlife here, though you will find hundreds of stone-sculpted elephants at many locations in the town. Also, there are sculpted horses, with their left forelimbs up in the air ready to jump and trample you.

On the 393rd birth anniversary of Shivaji, many roundabouts and important locations in the city of Nashik have been decorated with black plaster-clay statues of Maratha warrior Chhatrapati Shivaji, raising a sword from his right hand and the left controlling the reins of his horse Moti. Some locations in the town also have glossy white-painted sharp-horned young cows looking at the visitors with their kohl-lined eyes. I have never seen one such healthy or beautiful cow on the streets.

Dadashaeb Phalke’s journey from Trimbak to Bombay

Dundiraj Govind Phalke’s father, Govindraj Phalke, was a Sanskrit scholar and a senior priest at the Trimbakeshwar temple, as was his older brother. Dadasaheb too did a short stint as a temple priest performing ritual yajnas for jajmans (patrons) before stepping out of Trimbak village after completing middle school.

The Mumbai-Agra expressway running through the town is currently being widened cutting the ancient rocky hills blessed by none other than Lord Brahma himself. The coarse red dust is floating low. The sunset captivates me with its colours. The reddish-orange merging into mauves and purples on the horizon mesmerises me. The magical spell is broken as I look behind, towards Phalke’s village in the east, where the colours are dull ochre and grey. I realise why the Phalke family would have moved to Bombay. In the West were magical colours, motion and progress. Trimbak was frozen in time, as it is even today.

Phalke brothers moved to Bombay where Dadasaheb completed his matriculation and later joined Sir JJ School of Art. On completing his art degree, he dabbled in painting, architecture, modelling, printing, lithography, print-making, block-making, photography and even theatre building design (for which he was awarded a gold medal) but never settling or opting for any one of these.

He had seen a few motion pictures in Bombay and was fascinated with the moving images. Young Dadasaheb ended up in England to study film-making where he learnt its techniques, bought a movie camera and ordered film rolls before returning to India and setting up his own film production company. His initial years of film-making were frustrating and beset with multiple failures which resulted in him accumulating large financial debt.

After initial hiccups, Dadasaheb produced and successfully exhibited the first full-length feature film “Raja Harishchandra”. The film was a commercial blockbuster making money for  Dadashaeb’s company and clearing his debts. It inspired awe among Indian masses who had not known about moving images and were only just being exposed to the magic they created. In this venture, Dadashaeb was a director, screen-writer, editor, production designer, make-up artist and even processed the exposed film rolls. After the success of “Harishchandra,” financers chased him and many rich families set up exhibiting theatres for Dadashaeb’s film company. Phalke produced 97 Silent films, two Talkies, and nearly 30 documentaries before he died in 1944.

No worthy memorial or museum 

In 2012, the then chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chauhan, announced in the state legislature that Dadasaheb Phalke’s “home” will be converted into a national memorial and a museum. The proposal and the announcement fell flat on its face as the local administration couldn’t even locate the house where the founder of the Indian cinema, Phalke, was born or lived during his early years.

Away from Trimbakeshwar, a memorial to Dadasaheb Phalke was finally built on the outskirts of Nashik in 2016, on the Mumbai-Agra highway, close to Pandavleni Caves. The visitors to the memorial say that there is very little in it to celebrate the great man or his legacy. I wonder if any of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award winners (even one) has contributed to the development of the Phalke Memorial or even gone there to pay their respect and thank him for his contribution to the Indian film industry and the cinema.

Dadasaheb Phalke. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/India Post, Government of India.

They are the ones who have earned a name and fame in the film industry. They are the ones who can move the authorities to ensure that a respectable museum is made in honour of the man and also an archive of films and industry-related equipment is made in the town where Dadasaheb was born. An industry that talks in terms of hundreds of crores for each film can surely contribute small sums to preserve a legacy.

A carbon-arc lamp 35mm film projector from the 1950s placed in Shanti-Krishna Museum of Money History reminded me of Phalke again. This mixed-bag museum is located on Trimbakeshwar Road some 10 kilometers short of Phalke’s village. The colourful backdrop of large Hindi film posters and the presence of an antique film projector made me jump to the conclusion that surely there is a Phalke connection here. I mentioned the name Dadasaheb Phalke to the senior conservator of the museum whose eyes looked through me as if I was speaking Greek. Was I expecting a miracle?

Can’t we create sacred sSpaces of another kind, sometimes sans gods? If a tree, a river, a lake, a planet or land could be sacred so could a scientist, an inventor, an innovator or an artist. If we can keep the memories of our gods alive for thousands or millions of years and build places of worship for them, why can’t we keep the memory of our great-men alive and also build memorials to them, celebrate them for what they have given us, have left behind with us?

Around the temple town, I search lane after lane to find some more clues to Dadasaheb Phalke’s early life, but I find none. Standing inside the Trimbakeshwar compound I wonder what if someone – a philanthropist, a person who believes in cinema as much as a religion, or an atheist –made a large film theatre next to the temple and made the entry to the theatre free for everyone, just like the entry to the temple is free. Which of the two will attract more crowds? I think the film theatre may just about win that round.

Consider this, nearly 3,000 million people paid money to watch a film in India and visited theatres in the year 2011 alone. Three thousand million, i.e. three billion, i.e. three hundred crore people paid money to watch cinema. Think of the crowd numbers if film watching was made free.

Consider this, only 230 million people visit all pilgrim centres across the country which includes Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian pilgrimage sites.

Rajinder Arora is a mountaineer, trekker, photographer and a memorabilia collector but a graphic designer by profession. His adventure travelogues have been published in Indian Mountaineer and many online journals. He is the author of several books in Hindi and English.