Harishchandrachi Factory: India’s latest Oscar blunder?
The last few months have seen much frenetic activity around Paresh Mokashi’s Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, primarily because it was picked as India’s official entry to the Oscars. While a lot of dinnertime conversation seems to revolve around this film and its supposed uniqueness, it is likely that most of this excitement in the air is based on some reviews about this film and its supposed archival value, because very few people have actually seen it. The question therefore is, is the film really the right choice to send to an international forum as our selection of the best film made in India this year. The answer, is, no.
Harishchandrachi Factory is a film based on two years in the life of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke, more popularly known as the father of Indian cinema. The film, which is roughly 90 minutes long, recreates the moments in Phalke’s life when he suddenly grew enamoured of the motion picture and decided to make one for himself.
The good news is that the film is lighthearted, entertaining, and has some very good performances. The rest is mostly bad news.
Mokashi’s fundamental idea with this film – to capture just the time when Phalke got attracted to the motion picture till the time he made Raja Harishchandra – is one of its biggest flaws. Mokashi limits the potential of his own narrative by choosing such a narrow focus and sticking to it. Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913, a period of modern Indian history that is preoccupied with the idea of freedom, and is full of important political figures. The ripe political scene could have worked as a healthy backdrop to the events captured in the film, especially since Phalke himself was deeply moved by the freedom struggle, but apart from one offhand mention of Tilak’s release from jail towards the end of the film, this context is ignored.
Not only is the context ignored, the film betrays a great deal of naiveté about colonial, racial relations. There is hardly a moment where any tension is visible or even implied between Indians and their British rulers. If this film is to be believed, Phalke faced no racial trouble when he went to England to learn about and buy filming equipment. Once again, the film refuses to use even the material it already has to its fullest potential. In the film, all the screenings of motion pictures, whether British or later Indian seem to be preceded by performances by white (possibly British) singers. The possibilities of suggesting racial baggage in scenes where white singers are performing for a brown audience and then taking a bow are immense, but it remains an ignorable detail in Mokashi’s film.
In fact, if the narrative of this film, and its allegiance to realism is taken at face value, the coming into being of Indian cinema was on the brink, waiting to happen and that’s why things just fall into place, almost magically. The film glosses over, mostly in its use of comedy, the problems Phalke must have faced in the mammoth task of merely understanding how a picture is made to move and tell a story. Comedy can and has been an effective tool in conveying pathos in narrative in general, but it isn’t that aspect of humour that Mokashi’s film uses, instead it works towards erasing how trying that process must have been. I should mention, at this point, that while the larger issues are not dealt with, Mokashi has included some cultural details effortlessly. For instance, men playing women and how they were trained to adopt the body language is an interesting detail that has been worked into the film.
Coming to the aesthetic of the film, it is surprising how evidently constructed the film’s look is. Its sets are, well, sets and very obviously so, leading me to consider for a while that it may be a formal devise used by the filmmaker in an attempt to bring the audience’s attention to the fictionality of cinema and the cinematic world and its apparatus. However, the film showed such a serious lack of complexity that I discarded that idea.
The discontent I feel with regard to Harishchandrachi Factory stems not from its completely misunderstood and misplaced Oscar potential – after all the director didn’t tailor-make the film for the Academy – but rather from what all it could have but chooses not to be. Mokashi doesn’t agree with the label of biopic for this film, and one has to respect that, and given that the film, like most lighthearted films (comedies, for instance) doesn’t really make space for understanding the psychology of the central character, he might even be right. However, in opting to do away with the complexities of the process involved, it is closer to the biopic mode that Mokashi has brought his film. And that genre has moved miles in the recent past. A figure like Dadasaheb Phalke and the idea of the first Indian film is sadly wasted in Harishchandrachi Factory, especially since the director has forgotten the era he has made the film in. We live in an age of incredibly easy access to knowledge, and no one relies on a feature film for information on a person as integral to cinema’s history as Dadasaheb Phalke. A simple Wikipedia page has more information, which is also more fascinating in its detail, on him than this 90 minute film.
Coming back, however, to the Oscar question, the selection of this film has once again demonstrated our reliance on our local and immediate excitement over a film, that often stems from a sense of political and social correctness (Taare Zameen Par) or like in this film, a sense of national and historical pride. And this is exactly why we pick films on their themes rather than their aesthetic and send them off to international forums. We forget that a cultural context that we watch these films in will not be the same for an international selection committee, and secondly, we have to compete with every cinema producing nation in the world in order to just be nominated for an Oscar, and most countries have the better sense of basing their entries on art rather than a personal feel-good factor. Unless, therefore, political ties between India and the US interfere with the Oscars (and US foreign policy is often made evident through their Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars), Harishchandrachi Factory has a dim chance of even making the hallowed five nominees at the Academy for the coming award season.