Rangbhoomi looks into the struggles of the pioneer of Indian cinema.

Though Dhundiraj Govind Phalke is revered as the Father of Indian Cinema, and legends have been spun around his life and work that includes 95 movies and 26 short films in a career spanning 19 years, not much is known about his self-exile to Benares in 1920, at the peak of his creativity.  Beginning his filmmaking career with Raja Harishchandra, Phalke went on to make s everal highly successful films like Mohini Bhasmasur  (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917),  Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919). During this period, he also Hindustan Films at Nasik.

In 1920, Phalke broke with his partners and decided to renounce his filmmaking career. He left with his family for Benares and, during his stay there, wrote a semi-autobiographical play, Rangbhoomi, a searing satire on theatre and stage conditions. This play forms the epicentre of Kamal Swaroop’s eponymous homage to Phalke’s creative genius.

Rangbhoomi (2013/Hindi/80 minutes) starts with the shot of a stage being lit in preparation for a theatre performance. One can see the filmmaker himself giving instructions, and later reading out portions from Phalke’s text describing the stage setting and characters.  Interspersed with the reading are discussions about the nature of literature, theatre and cinema, about how cinema objectively ‘fixes’ pro-filmic reality while literature lets each viewer imagine the same from the words on the page. Meanwhile the old photographs of Phalke and his team are projected on to the screen behind the reader, creating a visual mixture of time, space and narratives where memories collide and erupt as text, sounds and images.

How else can one remember the legend called Phalke, and release him from the bonds of rigid dates and timelines, frail reminiscences and the inexorable decay of material evidences?  As the film progresses, it increasingly grapples with the elusiveness of memory and material evidences on the one hand, and against the stubbornness of certain spatial presences and also imagination, on the other. 

This is how Kamal Swaroop’s book A Journey Tracing Phalke: The Man and His Times 1870-1944 describes Phalke’s sojourn at Benares: “Eating off old gold, lodging at Agrechwadi, paranoid, in tatters, Dadasaheb ties five knots in his dhoti, one for each child, burns it to ashes and draws a circle around the children with the ash.” The film meanders through the ghats and lanes, institutions and wadis that Phalke must have inhabited. Friends and associates of his erstwhile friends sketch a visual collage where facts and fiction, history and imagination, reminiscence and retelling mix and fuse. Some of the film’s magical sequences have images of the screenplay being read by the filmmaker and characters being projected on to the sprawling steps of the ghats at Benares, creating a curious visual palimpsest of memory as it were. It is as if memories and incidents have suddenly sprung to life from forgotten spaces and distant times. In the middle, the film weaves into its fabric the very process of shooting the film, the frustrating hunt for evidences, thus reliving certain journeys of Phalke — both physical and spiritual — in his search for immortality, through and in film. Maybe in life too, for, what else was he seeking in Benares?  

It is this playful, yet intense, flight into various forms of memory and shards of imagination — coupled with ruminations and discussions about Phalke, his art and times — that make the film a riveting visual experience. This docu-fiction is a rare biographical sketch of one creative mind by another; the latter spending more than two decades to trace the multiple trajectories of Phalke’s life and era. It is also a heartwrenching tribute to the centenary of Indian cinema, one that prompts us to look beyond the glittering screen into the life and death struggles of a pioneer who gave everything to make what Indian cinema is today.

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