Kaliya Mardan (1919)

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.

33 Comments to “Kaliya Mardan (1919)”

  1. Oh how wonderful! I look forward to watching this!

  2. How do you whip up such golden oldies, Memsaab? This is remarkable. Now I am completely sure you would also find Bengali silent movies in your mysterious Ali Baba cave of movie-goodies. I am requesting you to watch at least one and then share with us your opinion about the film and the difference between contemporary Hindi and Bong movies. (Just a Bengali whim of pride about that era of film-making)
    Coming back to this movie, Phalke’s daughter bears an striking resemblance to a nipper who played the same role one year back in a Hindi soap on the COLORS channel-the same chubby cheeks, dreamy eyes and even the nahiiin face at times. He became an instant craze for both kids and adults. Actually we have grown up watching soaps on the birth, childhood and early adulthood life of the deity Krishna, produced dominantly by the Sagars and the Kaalia snake incident is a must-include episode. Even in our home, there was picture of Krishna playing his flute and prancing on the five headed monster while the entire village was gathered on the bank of Yamuna shocked, scared, delighted and amused.
    In this movie I see Krishna’s friends flaunting Gandhi caps and khadis- a little unhistoric if you ask me Memsaab, because in Gujarat and the Dwapar age, boys did not wear such long clothes even in winter and used to wear pagris(round turbans)-I think Phalke sahab was trying to put in the existing nationalistic sentiments that were prevailing in India in that period. Also will check the names of the couple playing Krishna’s parents(Purushottam Parchure and Yadav Gopal Takle)-dunno, both sound masculine.
    I know I would never find this movie anywhere in Kolkata, even in big retail centers, so your review would have to suffice. PS: Memsaab, I vote for the inclusion of the missing button in this page intimating us of “further comments” on existing posts.

    • Yes, it makes no effort really to be “historic” but that is actually part of the charm for me. Gods and their legends are timeless, right? And I have included a link to this film online—it is not available on dvd as far as I know, but it’s on YouTube!

      The names of the people playing Krishna’s parents I think are right. It is very obvious throughout that almost the entire cast is made up of men, which was very common at that time. I have some early PC Barua films (does New Theater count as Bong?) and I really need to get to them :)

      I will think about the “follow comments” option. I wish WordPress hadn’t screwed it up so badly :(

      • It definitely counts as Bong movies, Memsaab, and PC Barua movies are vintage silent era. Do review one of them please.
        WHOOPS, seems to have sent the same voluminous post twice! Sorry Memsaab(pls cover up).

  3. Interesting film, I thought Kaliya Mardan means ‘slaying of Kaliya’. Though we know Kaliya wasn’t killed. (sorry if it is a spoiler).
    Can anyone explain this title? or am I wrong ?

  4. Another gem of a review. I HAVE to see this movie again. Had seen it long long ago on TV. Thanks for providing the link..

    I am not sure if you have heard of the movie ‘ Harishchandrachi factory’ based on the life of Dadasaheb Phalke. It is an amazing movie showing his passion of film making and struggle that he faced, but it is done in an entertaining manner (it is not a documentry). It is available on youtube.

    Thanks so much for the review!!

    • I have seen Harishchandrachi Factory (and reviewed it here I’m pretty sure)—it’s fantastic. Glad you enjoyed this review, do go and see it again :)

      • So how did u like it? I thought it was quite nicely made with believable performances!!! Anyway, I could not find your review of Harishchandrachi factory :(

  5. Hi, your blog has been mentioned in Outlook today.


  6. Chris ji,
    Kaliya Mardan means the bashing up of Kaliya.
    The story goes that Krishna is about to kill Kaliya,but the 2 wives of kaliya appear and pray to Him to spare kaliya’s life,with a promise to go elsewhere and not trouble the people living on the banks of the river anymore.so,Krishna leaves him alive.
    The real meaning of Mardan is Massage,but here it is different ‘massage’ of Kaliya.

  7. Memsaab ji,

    Hats off to you !

    Thank you for discussing this old silent film and also giving a link to it.

    The kind of work you are doing is a great service to the Indian Film Industry.We are fortunate that some people like you are amongst us who are the saviours of the dying history of Hindi films.I salute and Thank you on behalf of the fraternity.

    One point.The children in this film are NOT wearing the famous Gandhi cap,nor is there any relevance to political inclinations of Phalke in this.It was common for the children,in the times when this film was made,to wear a cap of cardboard and velvet like material MAKHMAL.Remember this was a film made in Maharashtra and by a Maharashtrian.As the film was B/W,the cap looks different.

    Secondly,I have seen ” The great train robbery “,which was made in 1903 and was the FIRST narratve silent film of US.I feel that Kaliya Mardan is no way less that that film in Technique ,content,acting or presentation.It should be a matter of pride.

    I once again thank you for all that you are doing.

    -Arunkumar Deshmukh

    • Mandakini could have been a STAR! She is so so cute and charismatic in this. Do you have any idea what happened to her? I guess she probably went on to live a fairly normal life. And thanks for the information about the makhmal caps :)

      • Memsaab ji,
        Mandakini did lead a normal life.She married one Mr.Pusalkar from Bombay and had children.However her last days were spent in very pathetic condition.I am attaching a link of 2005,which details her condition(Mrs.Vrinda Pusalkar).Sunil Dutt took up her cause later and they were given a monthly pention till she died in 2007.

        -Arunkumar Deshmukh

    • Thanks for the reply. I got confused because of the title is similar to ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ a title given to Goddess Durga. Here Mardini means slayer. (Hema Malini played this role on TV once)

  8. Amazed, amazed, amazed!
    Didn’t knew that this was on you tube! Thanks for the link and the loving (can that be used as an adjective here?) review. Your love for this movie shows!
    Will have to look it up as soon as possible!

  9. That was a treat. Thanks for writing this up and pointing to the YouTube posting. I don’t think I ever would have found this one otherwise.

  10. I think this movie is really cute and you just nailed it out again memsaab. Great review as usual. You made it very fun to read and very interesting even if the movie is shown in the 1919’s.

  11. It just occurred to me that the little girl in this movie would be 100 years old now :)

  12. It would be interesting to see this film just to have a look at how Dada Sa’ab Phalke managed the special effects in the Kaliya vs Krishna scene. A very good article Memsaab

  13. I am really impressed. By the way, the little child seems to have actually climbed the trees, and forayed onto the limbs. And look at those children jumping off the fountain into the water. The whole movie’s full of vitality, life. The child’s precious; coundn’t have been more natural!

  14. Hi,

    Just to let everyone know that this film is available on DVD now on a ‘3 in 1’ compilation along with Raja Harishchandra (1913) and Jamai babu (1931)



  15. Awesome post! Love your blog.

  16. wow…
    whenever I watch this movie I get goosebumps.
    its all about how lord Krishna killed kalia.

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