For a film about a god, Kaliya Mardan begins in a surprisingly offhanded manner. Mandakini, who the title card introduces as Dadasaheb Phalke’s ‘gifted daughter’, is shown in her everyday dress, reading what seems like the script of the film. She, then, dissolves into the image of a young Krishna, all costumed up, but still not in character — addressing the audience, mock responding to an invisible spectator applause, making faces. ‘Study in facial expressions by a little girl of seven’ says the next inter title, following which Mandakini performs some of the Navarasas that will come handy in the film — wonder, anger, happiness. She is freeing up in front of the camera, behind which is her father.
It was 1919, and this was Phalke’s “way of demystifying the cinematic medium, which the uninitiated might otherwise have taken for magic” – film historian BD Garga puts it in his book Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey. The scene is also characteristic of the rest of the film. The 47-minute-feature is a mythological, the telling of a familiar chapter from one of our epics, but it has some of that ‘home movie’ casualness of the prologue. Men play women, a girl plays a boy. There is a freeness to the whole enterprise. In one of the scenes, where the boys acting as Krishna’s playmates are supposed to be sad, one of them is caught on camera laughing. It’s a mistake. But no one’s trying too hard, and everyone seems to be having fun.
Kaliya Mardan, one of Phalke’s early feature films, is one of the handful of Indian silents that has been possible to be saved in its entirety (only about 1% of our silent films have survived). In 2013 – on the occasion of 100 years of Indian cinema – the National Film Archive of India had released the film as a part of a 3 in 1 DVD set. It’s available on YouTube. I saw it at a well-attended, open-to-public screening organised by Films Division, India last week. It’s the film’s the centenary year. Among the audience was present Phalke’s grandson, Chandraskehar Pusalkar, and other members of the extended family. There was live music, led by Sunil Kant Gupta, FD’s in-house Director of Music. An appropriately Hindustani classical outfit given the theme of the film, with the addition of keyboards, which generated atonal, suspenseful music during key dramatic moments in the film.
It’s impossible to see the movie the way it was meant to speak to the audience at the time of its release. Krishna comes off as an entitled, violent child, who harasses women of all ages. The socio-political context, too, has changed. The religious symbolism, especially that of Krishna’s image as the protector of cows, was intended to invoke Swadeshi sentiments among viewers against the Colonial oppression. But it assumes a completely different meaning in the current era of right wing populism.
What’s interesting is that in Krishna, even as he is shown as a child, you see the foundation laid for the traditional Indian film hero. The avatar. The extraordinary being who lives among the ordinary, he serenades gopikas, and defeats the demon snake Kaliya.
You also see in Krishna, the mischief maker, a sort of indigenous answer to Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Kaliya Mardan is a prequel to Shri Krishna Janma (1918), and it showcases a series of gags performed by Krishna and his friends. He steals butter from the kitchen of a woman, and makes her look guilty in front of her mother-in-law (how very Indian!). There is an elaborate sequence where he breaks into a merchant’s house climbing down a rope through the ceiling, and finding the merchant and his wife sleeping, ties his beard to her hair in complicated knots. These visual stunts don’t have the smarts of a Chaplin or a Lloyd, but there is something inventive about reimagining Lord Krishna as a silent movie comedian.
There is an elaborate sequence where he breaks into a merchant’s house climbing down a rope through the ceiling, and finding the merchant and his wife sleeping, ties his beard to her hair in complicated knots. These visual stunts don’t have the smarts of a Chaplin or a Lloyd, but there is something inventive about reimagining Lord Krishna as a silent movie comedian.
Kaliya Mardan ran successfully for 10 weeks, and Phalke’s daughter, who had earlier appeared in Lanka Dahan (1917) and Shri Krishna Janma, got a taste of early movie stardom, still in its infancy in India. Pusalkar, who spoke at the screening, said his aunt was “so famous for the role” that “she would be taken to Majestic cinema and made to stand on top, where people would gather, clap, touch her feet, give her chocolates.”
Pusalkar shared a few stories that say how Phalke’s roles as Mandakini’s father and her director often overlapped. The 7-year-old girl was hesitant to jump from a tree branch for a scene, until Phalke, in Marathi, told her, ‘Your father’s fate lies in your hands.’ When a member of the audience asked Pusalkar about Mandakini’s later life, he answered saying that she wasn’t encouraged to continue a career in the movies. These were times when the stigma attached to cinema was still strong, and even Phalke imposed restrictions on her daughter. As Mandakini said in an interview, he allowed her to be applied make up only by maternal uncle, and didn’t her mixing with the boys on the sets of the film. “He was conservative that way,” said Pusalkar.
Pusalkar donated the script of Rangbhoomi — the 7-hour-play Phalke wrote and directed when he was in Benaras, on a break from chitrapat (Marathi for cinema) — to the National Museum of Indian Cinema. He made an appeal to the Government of India to grant his grandfather a posthumous Bharat Ratna. “People know his name because of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, but they don’t know much about him,” he said.