Marathi film history is now reviving its legacy that was dislocated towards the latter stages of the last century
last year cinematographer-director Sanjay Jadhav’s Duniyadari was released three weeks before Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express. Made on a modest budget of `2.5 crore as opposed to Chennai Express’s reported one of `75 crore, Duniyadari was running to packed houses even as the SRK juggernaut tried to steamroll it. Ironically, not only did it outlive the superstar vehicle at the box-office by several weeks, it was a bigger hit in terms of cost-versus-revenue analysis, grossing over `30 crore.
Ravi Jadhav’s Time Pass, a teen love story with relatively unknown actors which opened on January 3, 2014, is still running successfully across the State, while Aamir Khan-starrer Dhoom 3 released just a week earlier is already out on DVD. Time Pass also claims to have enjoyed a `5 crore opening weekend (unheard of for Marathi cinema) and challenged Duniyadari’s box-office record within just six months. But collections apart, the resurgence of the Marathi industry that started exactly a decade ago with Sandeep Sawant’s Shwaas (2004) — it won the National Award for Best Feature Film becoming only the second Marathi film to do so after Acharya Atre’s Shyamchi Aai (1954) — has literally opened the floodgates for talented young filmmakers, writers and actors to take centre-stage.
The two decades before Shwaas were the darkest period in Marathi film history when, at times, barely a dozen films were made in a year and risqué comedies and tamasha-driven rural potboilers ruled the roost. living in the shadow of glamorous big brother Hindi cinema and vying for the same audience base was proving cataclysmic despite state subsidies because the distribution and exhibition systems weren’t geared for smaller films.
To the credit of filmmakers like Amol Palekar, Sumitra Bhave, Sunil Sukhtankar, Sachin Pilgaonkar and Smita Talwalkar, they tried to keep the boat afloat with progressive socials, gentle comedies and middle-class stories based in Mumbai and Pune. But Shwaas, a melodrama about an old man’s struggle to get his grandson treated for a rare retinal cancer, literally breathed a new life into the floundering industry. Its success corresponded with the multiplex revolution and proliferation of Marathi movie channels requiring round-the-clock content.
Soon television houses and Hindi producers started financing small-budget, low-risk films. Time Pass, for instance, has been produced by Zee Talkies, and UTV bankrolled Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), a biopic about Dadasaheb Phalke’s pioneering efforts in making India’s first feature film Raja Harishchandra (1913). From the very beginning, men like Phalke, HS Bhatavdekar (who shot a wrestling match at Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens in 1899), Dadasaheb Torne (he directed Pundalik a year before Raja Harishchandra, but it isn’t credited a first because it was a recording of a Marathi play) were at the forefront of innovation.
In the early years of the industry, apart from Bombay where the first Indian film was produced and exhibited, Kolhapur was a major production centre. V Shantaram, who started the Prabhat Film Company along with four other partners in 1929, first set up the studio there before moving to Pune where the FTII now stands. An exceptional talent, he continuously experimented with form and technique while exploring diverse themes.
like many of the leading studios of the time, Prabhat initially produced mythologicals and historicals. Early Marathi cinema drew inspiration from the sangeet natak, a popular form of entertainment in the pre-cinema era. Ravi Jadhav’s Balgandharva (2011) celebrated the life of one of the greatest singer-actors of the Marathi stage of the time who, with his boyish face and divine voice, made his mark playing female parts on stage.
Shantaram directed the first Marathi talkie Ayodhyecha Raja (1932) while Sant Tukaram, helmed by his partners — Vishnupant Damle and Saheb Mama Fatehlal and based on the life of the 17th century poet-saint — travelled to the Venice Film Festival in 1937. It was chosen among the three best films of the year at the prestigious event, thus becoming the first Indian film to win an international honour. Interestingly, Prabhat, like Calcutta’s New Theatres, had the foresight and funds to produce bilinguals. Soon they switched tracks to making ‘socials’. One of Shantaram’s finest works Kunku (1937), also produced in Hindi as Duniya Na Mane, is a tremendously moving portrait of female resilience and an astute psychological study of guilt. The heroine, Neera, defying the authority of her much older husband and forcing him to acknowledge his mistake in marrying her and ruining her life, may be considered among the few genuine feminists of the Indian screen.
Its continued relevance is testimony to Shantaram’s and actress Shanta Apte’s modernity. The director made two other progressive bilinguals soon after — Manoos/Aadmi (1939) on the rehabilitation of a prostitute and Shejari/Padosi (1941) on the issue of communal harmony, before he split from Prabhat to set up his own Rajkamal Kalamandir in 1942.
The Phalke biopic chronicles the difficulty of trying to find a woman to play Taramati — even professional sex-workers turned down his offer and finally a man was given the part in keeping with the sangeet natak tradition. However, by the 1930s, there was a crop of feisty young heroines from ‘respectable’ families who’d stormed the cinema. Kamlabai Gokhale, Durga Khote, Shobhana Samarth and Shanta Apte were the frontrunners, but Meenakshi Shirodkar (grandmother of former actress Shilpa Shirodkar) pushed the envelope further by getting into a swimsuit to woo the shy hero with a seductive song in Master Vinayak’s Brahmachari (1938).
The decline of Prabhat resulted in two distinct strands spearheaded by dramatically different filmmakers. Bhalji Pendharkar’s historicals and rural socials such as Chhatrapati Shivaji (1952), Maratha Tituka Melvava (1964) and Sadhi Manse (1965) contrasted with the urbane style of Raja Paranjape echoing Bimal Roy’s humanist-realism. It was the golden age of Marathi film music when lata Mangeshkar composed for Pendharkar under the pseudonym Anand Ghan while lyricist-composer duo, GD Madgulkar and Sudhir Phadke, created immortal melodies for Paranjape’s lakhachi Goshta (1952), Jagachya Pathivar (1960) and Suvasini (1961). Perhaps the Marathi star who most influenced the Hindi industry — apart from Bhagwan Dada whose dance moves Amitabh Bachchan emulated — was another mill worker’s son called Dada Kondke. Born in Central Mumbai, he travelled all over the State as a part of a theatre troupe and understood the pulse of the rural mass. He ruled the marquee through the 1970s in hits like Songadya (1971), Andhala Marto Dola (1973) Pandu Hawaldar (1975) and Ram Ram Gangaram (1977) as a simpleton hero regaling frontbenchers with bawdry humour and popular music. Govinda would later imitate this persona, particularly in his David Dhawan films notably Hero No 1 (1997) where he even dressed like Kondke in khaki shorts, white shirt and a Nehru cap.
Around the same time playwright Vijay Tendulkar was making a strong impression on the New Wave cinema with his angry anti-establishment screenplays like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Aakrosh (1980). He joined forces with a young paediatrician from Pune, Jabbar Patel, for a subversive musical called Ghashiram Kotwal that caused a stir among the upper-caste Brahmins. Patel made scathing political films like Saamna, (1975), Sinhasan (1979) (both scripted by Tendulkar), and directed Smita Patil in Umbartha/ Subah (1982) and Jait Re Jait (1977), a terrific musical set in a small Adivasi community.
The current New Wave of Marathi cinema has originated in the land of Prabhat, and sometimes borrows from Iran’s cinema of resistance. In that, it uses children’s stories to make dark social comment palatable for audiences. For instance, Tingya (2008) articulated the hardships of debt-ridden farmers through the tale of friendship between a boy and his bull, while Taryanche Bait (2011) derided the corrupting influence of the big city on rural folk with a touching father-son story.
Of course, a bulk of the output is still mediocre in imitation of Hindi trends, but at least there exists a small space for alternate voices. So that Nishikant Kamat’s Dombivali Fast (2005) and Santosh Manjrekar’s Mee Shivaji Raje Bhosle Boltoy (2009) could portray urban middle-class angst to rousing effect; Umesh Kulkarni made the contemplative Vihir (2009), bankrolled by none other than ABCl; Sujay Dahake’s Shaala (2012) was a touching coming-of-age story; and Satish Manwar’s Gabhricha Paus (2009) was a heart-rending tale of rural deprivation.
Interestingly, at a time when Hindi cinema has virtually abandoned the countryside in favour of glitzy urban/global fare, Marathi films are routinely set in the villages — exploiting the relatively unspoilt Konkan coast and the rough terrain of the hinterland to tell indigenous stories, occasionally tapping into its rich literary tradition. Also, unlike in the past when many good scripts were marred by poor production values, the healthy influx of money has infused the cinema with sophistication so that several films now travel to international festivals. last year Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry won the Grand Jury Prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival and was screened at the london and Göteborg Film Festivals.
There is, however, a niggling fear among a section of the industry that the ready availability of funds and burgeoning demand for new films may compromise the quality of output. But for now it’s time to rejoice in the revival of a cinema that’s closely linked with the evolution of the medium in India.