Book Director and cineaste Kamal Swaroop talks of his labour of love, A Journey Tracing Phalke

A century ago, Dada Saheb Phalke directed Raja Harishchandra, and screened it at Coronation Cinema in Mumbai on May 3, 1913 marking the beginning of Indian Cinema. The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) has celebrated centenary year of Indian cinema by co-sponsoring the publication of A Journey Tracing Phalke by Kamal Swaroop.

An alumnus of Film and Television Institute, Pune, Swaroop’s work, is a perfect blend of text and visuals. Swaroop, followed Phalke’s for the past 23 years. He initially thought of bringing out a short biography, but the work gradually acquired a life of its own. In the city to conduct a script writing workshop for film enthusiasts conducted by Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy, Swaroop says: “I was mesmerised by his multi-faceted personality. Phalke learnt art, printing, photography, music and theatre. I thought working on Phalke is a chance to learn about art, the history of printing technology and cinema. I met Phalke’s family. That is how it began.”

After his graduation in science in 1969, Swaroop did his post graduation in direction from FTII. His documentary film, Dorothy got the best documentary film award by Filmfare. After working with Children’s Film Society of India and teaching filmmaking to children in villages for some time, Swaroop joined Indian Space Research Organisation as a senior producer. He made science educational programmes for children.

At this juncture, he and like-minded friends formed the film cooperative and produced films including Gashiram Kotwal and Aravind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan. He was also script writer for Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and art designer for Siddeshwari. Swaroop worked as second unit director in Attenborough’s Gandhi. He directed Om Dar Badr in 1988.

After Om Dar Badr, he did not have much to do and that was when his psychoanalyst friend suggested he make a film about learning and imagination. Swaroop decided make a film on Phalke as his life has all the necessary ingredients.

“I planned a film on the period between 1870 and 1944,” Swaroop says. “There were some 128 characters and I found it difficult to fit them all into a two-hour frame. I was forced to compress it. With progress in my study on Phalke, things started branching out. When I started arranging my typed manuscript in my own way, it was in the form of scrap book, while one side had the events in the life of Phalke, on the left I recorded images and text related to cinema, photography, painting that I located during my study. I continued this till 1990 when the internet era dawned. With the use of technology, I reconstructed images, which can be interpreted multiple ways.”

When asked about Phalke’s missing autobiography, Swaroop adjusted his glasses and reminisced: “I first met and spoke to Phalke’s family in 1990. His daughter, Mandakini, was alive then. I made a film Phalke’s Children for FDI. Mandakini told me about her father’s missing autobiography, which Phalke dictated to her. Mandakini said someone took the manuscript with a promise to publish and vanished in the thin air. The autobiography remains untraceable till date. I tried to reconstruct the missing autobiography. I did not depend completely on the information shared by his family and decided to reconstruct his life with the changes that occurred simultaneously in the outside world. I struck upon the idea of collage and spent time collecting materials and arranging them. I did not think of the book in terms of language.”

Considering all the time he spent with his subject, did Swaroop start identifying with Phalke? Swaroop says, though he cannot come anywhere near Phalke in terms of experiments, “I share similar interests with Phalke.”

Swaroop doesn’t feel Phalke has been given the recognition he deserves.

“Phalke was premier in everything. He was a technocrat who visualised 3D, when he was 75. He was a kind of Brahma (creator).”

With publication of A Journey Tracing Phalke, Swaroop is relieved. What would he do next? “I will complete the film on Phalke by compressing 128 characters, which I envisaged. And, the journey with Phalke continue.”