Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was born in a Marathi speaking Deshastha Brahmin family on 30 April 1870 at Tryambakeshwar, 30 km from Nashik, Maharashtra, India, where his father was an accomplished scholar.
He joined Sir J. J. School of Art, Mumbai in 1885. After passing from J.J. School in 1890, Phalke went to the Kala Bhavan, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, where he studied sculpture, engineering, drawing, painting and photography.
Following a dispute with his partners about the running of the press, he gave up printing and turned his attention to moving pictures, after watching a silent film, The Life of Christ and envisioning Indian gods on the screen. Phalke made his first film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1912; it was first shown publicly on 3 May 1913 at Mumbai's Coronation Cinema, effectively marking the beginning of the Indian film industry. About one year before, Ramchandra Gopal (known as Dadasaheb Torne) had recorded on stage a film drama called Pundalik and had shown the recording at the same theatre. However, the credit for making the first indigenous Indian feature film is attributed to Dadasaheb Phalke as it is said that "Pundalik" had British cinematographers.
Phalke formed a film company, Hindustan Films in partnership with five businessmen from Mumbai, in the hope that by having the financial aspect of his profession handled by experts in the field, he would be free to pursue the creative aspect. He set up a model studio and trained technicians and actors but, very soon, he ran into insurmountable problems with his partners. In 1920, Phalke resigned from Hindustan Films, made his first announcement of retirement from cinema, and he wrote Rangbhoomi, an acclaimed play. Lacking his extremely imaginative genius, Hindustan Films ran into deep financial losses, and he was finally persuaded to return. However, Phalke felt constrained by the Business and, after directing a few films for the company, he withdrew from it.
The times changed and Phalke fell victim to the emerging Technology of sound film. Unable to cope with the talkies, the man who had fathered the Indian film industry became obsolete. His last silent movie Setubandhan was released in 1932 and later released with dubbing. During 1936–38, he produced his last film Gangavataran (1937), before retiring to Nashik, where he died on 16 February 1944.
The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for lifetime contribution to cinema, was instituted in his honour by the Government of India in 1969. The award is one of the most prestigious awards in Indian cinema and is the highest official recognition for film personalities in the country. A postage stamp bearing his likeness was released by India Post to honour him in 1971. An honorary award from the Dadasaheb Phalke Academy Mumbai was introduced in the year 2001, for lifetime achievement in Indian cinema.
In 2009, the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, which was directed by theatre veteran Paresh Mokashi and depicts Dadasaheb Phalke's struggle in making Raja Harishchandra in 1913, was selected as India's official entry to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.