Alchemists

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Phalke receives a letter from his wife She urges him once more to set up a separate home.

1895 - ALCHEMY, GODHRA

Godhra is a railway junction surrounded by small tribal kingdoms.

Phalke hangs a sign outside his house. ‘Photographer Phalke’ it reads.

A horse cart drives through the narrow lanes of a temple town bathed in silver moonlight.

The town is deserted.

The horse cart comes to a stop outside a ruined four-storey building.

Dhundiraj stops to feed the horse before he enters the house.

He searches inside the labyrinthine house, calling ‘Panditji! Panditji!’

Shastriji is busy making gold in the darkness of his underground alchemical laboratory.

Suddenly a small bubble comes to the surface of one of the boiling liquids and explodes.

It bursts into Shastriji’s face, turning it black with soot.

Green smoke begins to fill the room.

Dhundiraj bursts into laughter on seeing Shastriji’s face.

Panditji:

Have we been introduced? What can I do for you?

Dhundiraj takes out a small purse from inside his clothes, removes five rupees and places the money at the other man’s feet.

Panditji:

What is the meaning of this?

Dhundiraj:

I wished to speak to you.

Panditji:

You must be joking. Why would I spill my guts for five bucks?

Dhundiraj:

This is but a token of my esteem. After I have told you my problem, I will shower you with gold coins.

Panditji:

Gold coins! Real gold coins! It is true I desire gold, but only that which I can make with my own hands.


Wisps of smoke of many colors escape from the mouths of the alchemist’s crucibles.

Panditji checks one of the brass utensils, but there is no gold yet.

Flinging the vessel away in a rage, he wipes his hands.

Panditji:

All right, let’s talk. God, it’s hot!

Dhundiraj:

I hear you have a whole library of Sanskrit books and manuscripts?

Panditji:

I used to, but I fed them to the white ants. They were everywhere, curse them! Instead of letting them eat away my wooden doors, I fed them on those thankless, useless books. How hot it is! Sit, sit.

Dhundiraj:

A foreigner has arrived from abroad. He has a book. I’ve seen with my own eyes that he took out a small bottle from his pocket and dropped just two drops onto a large bowl of copper. Then he told his servant to wash the bowl. The bowl began to sparkle when it had been washed. Then he said, ‘The English government buys all this gold from me. I have a fortune in savings abroad. But I need at least fifty gold coins before I can leave here. So I said, ‘Why don’t you sell the bowl you just made? It’ll fetch you a good sum.’ He said, ‘No. The Resident made me swear on the bible that I would sell my gold only to the British government.’ So I said, ‘So sell it to the British government.’ The foreigner replied, ‘I make the gold here, then they write to the laath saab in Calcutta. Then the laath saab writes to the head of the company in England, who sends the money.’ But this poor chap gets nothing, because he’s known as a drunk. So the company sends his salary to his wife. He’s hoping that someone will buy his book on alchemy for fifty gold coins, because he remembers all the formulas by heart.

Panditji:

Such a book is possible only in Arabic.

Dhundiraj:

You’re absolutely right.

Panditji:

These Western empires might conquer and loot us, but they’ll never crack the Arabic language.

Dhundiraj:

Actually, this foreigner’s father is of the English race, but his mother is Arabic. In spite of being a Christian, he brought his son up like a devout Muslim. I suspect he got this book from his mother.

Panditji (leans towards Dhundiraj):

Have you seen this book?

Dhundiraj:

With my own two eyes. For just fifty gold coins, we can buy it from the old drunk.

Panditji:

He’s a fool to sell such a priceless book.

Dhundiraj:

He’s ready to sell it because he remembers it by heart.

Panditji:

But how will I get hold of fifty gold coins? Where will I live if I sell the house?

Dhundiraj:

I’ll give you fifty gold coins for all your books.


Panditji breaks out in a sweat. Thoughtfully, he heads towards another room. He opens a door, picks up a lit oil lamp, and enters within, followed by Dhundiraj and a small mouse.

There are about 3,000 or 4,000 books inside.

The books turn to dust at the merest touch.

Their titles are in gold leaf lettering and they are filled with colorful illustrations.

Dhundiraj picks up the oil lamp. Every book he has ever heard of is here.


Dhundiraj:

How much for the lot?

Panditji:

They’re not worth toilet paper. I hate the sight of them. Your gods and goddesses, your myriad religions - I hate all the religions of the world. All I want to do is make gold with my own hands just once.

Dhundiraj:

Are fifty gold coins acceptable to you?

Panditji:

No. It’s got to be either fifty-one or one hundred and one. I want an auspicious amount. Take it or go away.

Panditji comes out of the room and bolts the door behind him.

Phalke takes out his money and counts it.

Then he loads the books into the cart outside and comes inside again.

Panditji is making a green paste out of some herbs.

Phalke is holding a photogun in his hands.


Panditji:

Sir, are you a hunter too?

Dhundiraj:

No Panditji, this is a gun to take pictures only - flying birds, running horses…

Panditji:

Stop, I think you can help me. I have one herb that can turn a man into a tiger and another that can turn tigers into men. I want you to photograph me as I metamorphose into a tiger. So stay ready and shoot me. I also want to see what happens to me. Then give me this other herb.

Dhundiraj:

But suppose you eat me?

Panditji:

Son, you have a gun in your hands. And after I turn into a tiger, how will I know that it’s a photogun? It’s an experiment, a service to science. Here, don’t be afraid.

Panditji gives one packet to Dhundiraj and swallows the other.

He begins to turn into a tiger at the end of Dhundiraj’s gun.

He roars and jumps onto Dhundiraj.

Dhundiraj clutches his gun and flees for his life.

While he is developing the pictures in the dark room, someone opens the door by mistake, and the pictures evaporate from the paper.

The large numbers of rats that are dying around them frightens Phalke’s wife.

Kamal Swaroop

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