This Dadasaheb Phalke silent film may be the first start-to-finish ADORABLE movie ever made. I in no way mean that condescendingly: I loved every frame of this and was wowed by some of the special effects (the much talked-about battle between young Krishna and the Kaliya serpent at the end particularly). Phalke’s seven-year-old daughter Mandakini plays young Shree Krishna as a hyperactive mischief-maker who gleefully torments the local villagers with the help of his friends, and she is brilliant—when she’s onscreen, you don’t want to look at anybody else. It is also absolutely hilarious in places, worthy company for the likes of Buster Keaton.
Occasionally it has an air of being a Phalke home movie, especially at the beginning where he introduces his young actress (and her skills) to us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It adds to the charm.
But it is of course also so much more than that. I can only imagine how much fun this would have been for the audience in 1919, but it encapsulates so perfectly what I find fascinating about the Hindu religion: the gods (and goddesses) have a full spectrum of human qualities and are part of the family and every day life, not stashed away in heaven or an imposing cathedral. Krishna here is a little troublemaking child with abilities (and a hint of generosity) that he is only beginning to show. Plus (s)he is ADORABLE (did I say that already?).
This particular day in his life begins at the ghats down by the river Yamuna. One of the gopis there gives him a drink of water from her jar when she sees him cupping water in his hands, but when his gang of friends descend on her for their share she tosses water on them and shoos them away.
To retaliate, young Krishna and his friends break into her house to steal butter from a pot hanging from the ceiling (I assume to keep animals out of it). She catches Krishna stuffing butter into his little face from his perch atop his friend’s shoulders, and sets about them all with a stick. His friends run off, but before Krishna leaves he smears butter over the poor girl’s face. Then he runs straight to her mother-in-law and escorts her back to the room where her daughter-in-law is still cleaning butter off her face (how I *totally heart* this intertitle).
The old woman beats the girl with a rolling pin as Krishna’s merry band of miscreants peer in through the door and laugh and laugh.
What a bunch of little devils, na? The old woman rewards naughty Krishna with a bunch of mangoes, which he gives to some poor cowherders outside (demonstrating his future signature benevolence, according to the intertitle). He and his friends then help an old lady grinding flour by taking over the wheel when she goes inside.
When the old lady comes outside she gives them bread in gratitude for their help.
Now Krishna leads his friends into more mischief, breaking into a house and stealing another pot of butter before wandering off to give a farmer some fodder for his cows.
In all of these situations, Krishna is the clear ringleader, giving the orders and going in first to scout around. It is just hilarious, especially because Mandakini is an exuberantly bouncy little thing and the lack of sound and accompanying exaggeration of movement makes it all the funnier. More mischief ensues with the victims being a bunch of gopis whose water pots are stolen and broken by our little rapscallions.
Then one of Krishna’s buddies (wearing a fake mouche for some reason) gets knocked over by a merchant and his wife going past in a hurry. Krishna picks him up and dusts him off, and that night his friends help him gain entrance to the sleeping couple’s bedroom. He ties the man’s long beard and his wife’s long braid together.
The next morning an agitated crowd of villagers gather at Krishna’s adoptive parents’ (Purushottam Parchure and Yadav Gopal Takle) door. He pretends to be working on a chalk drawing of a bull while he eavesdrops on their vociferous complaints.
Summoned by his parents, he is chastised and releases the poor merchant and his wife from their hirsute bond. He cries some crocodile tears, and is sent off to help herd cows for the day. He soon tires of that, and begins to play his flute while his friends dance and play around him. The flute-playing also enchants the gopis in the village, who follow him into the forest, put him on a pedestal (literally) and play dandiya around him.
He gets bored with that too, and heads through the village down to the river, where he jumps in to do battle with the giant serpent Kaliya, who is poisoning the river (at least according to legend; it does not say that in the movie). As word spreads and the villagers gather to weep and pray at the river’s edge, Krishna wrestles with the evil snake as bubbles rise to the surface of the water (Phalke had a special tank built for the water scenes).
Can our little divine buddy prevail? Will the villagers forgive him for his mischief? Well, probably most of you know how it all turns out, but if not you can watch the film here (it’s only 45 minutes or so—6000 feet of film) (and the uploader has added a nice soundtrack to it).
As I said, I loved this movie from start to finish. Mandakini Phalke is unbelievably cute and the stories of young Krishna’s mischief well done, plus it’s fun to see an all-male cast playing women (the only “real” girl being our scamp Krishna). It is a lovely little treat and requires just an hour of investment. Do see it—and it’s a piece of history too of course.