The Marathi Wave

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India’s oldest film industry basks in critical acclaim and newfound power

SONALI KULKARNI WALKED into the most important Marathi film of recent years with slim expectations. “I had loved the way Nagraj Manjule captured adolescence in Fandry (2013),” says the 44-year-old Marathi cinema star who has “literally grown with the industry” from its fledgling days in the 90s to today’s so-called golden age. Still, she was unprepared for the shock of Sairat (2016). “The ending was powerful.” But it was Ajay-Atul’s chartbuster music that stayed with her, Zingaat and Sairat Zaali Ji playing on loop. “I never thought I’d be a fan of the Sairat music. I don’t know how to resolve this mystery,” she says, throwing her head back in measured laughter.

Sairat, according to Sachin Kundalkar, a novelist and filmmaker behind such critically-acclaimed Marathi hits as Restaurant (2006), Gandha (2009) and Gulabjaam (2018), worked because of its honesty and raw energy. “Sairat cannot happen again. It was not planned. Nagraj went out to make a very sincere film, Ajay-Atul went out to give amazing music, and all its actors were raw. This creative energy cannot be recaptured.”

And yet, the film’s future now lies in the commercially exploitative hands of Hindi cinema. Karan Johar is remaking Marathi cinema’s biggest blockbuster into a stardom vehicle for Sridevi’s daughter Jhanvi Kapoor, hoping for a happy ending for Dhadak, as his version is called. A story of taboo love featuring a Dalit boy and an upper-class girl set in the caste- ridden interiors of Maharashtra, Sairat revolutionised contemporary Marathi cinema. Within weeks of its release, it became the highest-grossing Marathi film of all time, with box-office receipts in excess of Rs 100 crore. Until then, Rs 25-30 crore would qualify a Marathi film as a blockbuster. But this film’s success signalled that “Marathi films are not here to earn just accolades and awards and critical acclaim, but to make money”, as Kulkarni says. Its success has attracted non-Maharashtrians to invest in Marathi cinema, “something unheard of.” Hindi film personalities Priyanka Chopra and Ajay Devgn are among those who’ve made a foray into the regional language.

Today, Marathi cinema’s ascent is the story everybody’s talking about. With its ‘content is king’ mantra, it has always attracted seekers of “intellectual entertainment”, according to Kulkarni. At the recently announced 65th National Film Awards for 2018, Marathi films made headlines once again. While Dhappa bagged the Best Film on National Integration Amar Deokar’s Mhorkya picked up the Best Children’s Film as well as a Special Jury Mention for actor Yasharaj Karhade. Last year, at least four Marathi films won top honours at the National Film Awards. These include Kaasav, Ventilator (produced by Priyanka Chopra), Dashkriya and Cycle. Buoyed by awards, critical endorsements and newfound cash flow, Marathi cinema’s rise was long in the making, says the industry.

THE INDUSTRY IS AT pains to point out that before Sairat, there was Shwaas (2004) that helped put Marathi cinema in the spotlight. India’s official entry for the Oscars, Sandeep Sawant’s tearjerker about a grandfather coming to terms with his young grandson’s retinal cancer was a “definitive reboot for a struggling Marathi cinema”, says critic and writer Ganesh Matkari. “Shwaas diverted national audiences’ attention towards Marathi cinema. It showed to the outside world that we have potential,” Matkari says. Before Shwaas, Marathi cinema was in a lull. “We had switched to Sachin Pilgaonkar-Ashok Saraf style slapstick in the 1980s. Every film had more or less similar formulaic humour. So, in the 80s and 90s, nothing happened in the commercial space. Still, in this period, people like Dr Jabbar Patel, Sumitra Bhave and Amol Palekar were doing good stuff,” says Matkari. Agrees Kundalkar: “The last two decades of Marathi cinema were rotten. We were churning out horrible comedies. I’d be ashamed to show those films to anybody. If I show them to friends they will disown me.”

Riding the tide of Shwaas came a new wave of diverse filmmakers, starting from Nishikant Kamat of Dombivali Fast (2005), Ravi Jadhav of Natarang (2009), Umesh Kulkarni of Valu (2008), Paresh Mokashi of Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), Gajendra Ahire of Shevri (2006), Sachin Kundalkar of Restaurant , and Nagraj Manjule of Fandry.

“If anybody is calling this the New Wave, I am happy to swim in this wave,” says Kundalkar, with a laugh. He has built a Proustian body of work by focusing on the sense of smell, food being the basis of many of his films, including Gulabjaam, in which a London-based banker returns to his roots to learn traditional Marathi cuisine. “Cooking and serving is an act of love. It’s the only way I know to love people. I don’t pray. I am an atheist. I am gay and don’t exhibit any love in personal relationships. Also, I am not a family or communal person. Basically, I am a loner. For somebody like me who stays in a big city, home is where the kitchen is. I give out romantic greeting cards through cooking.”

There’s a denial of stardom in Maharashtra. Simplicity is an important virtue of personality for Maharashtrians” - Sonali Kulkarni Marathi actor

In Kundalkar’s Gandha, a film structured very much like a short story (he’s the author of the novel Cobalt Blue, translated into English by Jerry Pinto), a young bride-to-be is attracted to an arts student played by Girish Kulkarni who smells of incense. The sensory triggers emotional resonances in Kundalkar’s mind that find their way into his cinema. “I remember homes and buildings by their smell. We make sakhli, chewda and laadoo on Diwali, and I always have this feeling that this happiness is going to vanish and that I am going to grow old. I have this inner feeling that everything is meant for those who marry and procreate, and if I am going to be alone, the festivals are not going to last. Because nothing in this society is meant for one person and this fear has forced me to create my own memory bank through smell.”

Critics have labelled Kundalkar’s work ‘personal cinema’. The director admits that he enjoys far greater liberty than filmmakers before him. Most Marathi directors describe the industry as an open space that has room for auteur-backed cinema without the accompanying scramble to find a turnout for it. Critics and audiences alike are raving about the unusual themes and harsh reality that recent Marathi cinema has been addressing. There’s exploration of childhood and memory in Killa (2014) and Faster Fene (2017) based on the children books of BR Bhagwat on one side, and Natsamrat (2016) about a retired thespian and Lalbaugchi Rani (2016) revolving around a mentally challenged female protagonist, on the other. “Marathi audiences are definitely coming of age. People’s attitude towards caste and race is fast changing,” insists Nagraj Manjule of Sairat. “Nobody would have given a Dalit filmmaker a chance 10 years ago. It’s funny that the Dalit stories Marathi cinema was showing were being expressed by non-Dalits. It was through the upper-caste or urban point of view. Earlier, in Bollywood also, they would depict a lower-caste as Kachra in Lagaan (2001), a token character. If Lagaan was made today, maybe Kachra would play the lead.”

A COMMONLY HELD explanation for ‘why recent Marathi cinema is so good’ is that it is alive to the region’s theatre and literature. Most filmmakers and writers are rooted in grassroots reality and lived experience. “When you talk to a young Marathi filmmaker, he starts talking about the story and content of the film and not money, stars or the set-up and scale, as you might call it,” veteran film director Govind Nihalani argues. A doyen of the Hindi parallel movement and the man behind Aakrosh and Ardh Satya, Nihalani still operates out of a small room lined with books at Parel’s Rajkamal Studio premises. A bulk of the studio has long been replaced by looming towers, but the bustling chawls and quaint bylanes of the neighbourhood serve as a reminder of the time when V Shantaram, an early pioneer of Bollywood and Marathi cinema, left Kolhapur’s iconic Prabhat Films and moved to Parel.

Slumped on an office chair, Nihalani reveals that his all-time favourite film is not some obscure European work but the 1936 Marathi classic Sant Tukaram. “It’s the best film I have seen in my life. It impacted me not just in terms of the story of Tukaram but what it did to me towards the understanding of the medium itself. It’s a film where you don’t even know when the real becomes divine and when a poor human being becomes an enlightened figure. It was all happening there and it was all very real.”

Outlining a brief history of Marathi cinema, the Ardh Satya director says, “Our films have emerged in an interesting manner, in the sense that pre-Independence Marathi cinema produced some very fine films. It happened in Pune, Kolhapur and Bombay. As you know, Dadasaheb Phalke himself was from Maharashtra. So were V Shantaram, Sheikh Fatehlal, Baburao Painter and others. The cinema of Maharashtra is actually very near the early pioneers of the film medium. That link gives us a sense of history and keeps us rooted.”

Besides a strong tradition of cinema, Nihalani says theatre has always been a Marathi viewer’s first love. For the rural audience, there was always tamasha and lavani, the traditional musicals performed by local artists. Nihalani himself started his career with the 1971 Marathi film Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe. And, though it took over four decades before he could direct his first Marathi film Ti Ani Itar (2017), Marathi theatre’s influence on his work was present from the beginning. He worked regularly with Marathi stage actors even as many of his early films depicted Marathi characters, most prominently in Aakrosh (1980), Ardh Satya (1983) and Party (1984).

Citing playwright Vijay Tendulkar as a major influence on modern Marathi thought, he says, “Mr Tendulkar was a playwright of contemporary sensibilities, very politically aware, and was unique in terms of creating drama. That doesn’t mean melodrama, necessarily. It’s the technique of keeping the audience glued.” Indeed, Tendulkar’s stamp on the 1970-80s Hindi parallel cinema movement is unmistakable. For Nihalani, he wrote Aakrosh and Ardh Satya. The director, now 77, says he learnt the importance of character-building from his much-older colleague and mentor. “His films started with characters and remained with them. The plot never dominated and only supported the exploration of the character. Normally, they say content is king. But in Tendulkar’s case, character was king. I still follow that principle.”

The violence and angst of cop Anant Welankar played by Om Puri in Ardh Satya was a reflection of Tendulkar’s experience as a journalist. “Anant Welankar passed through Tendulkar’s personal filter—what he had experienced as a journalist and human being in society.” Tendulkar, who had written over 27 plays before his death in 2008, was known to be extraordinarily open-minded and receptive to new ideas. “I didn’t like the ending he wrote for Ardh Satya,” Nihalani recalls. “So, I shot two separate endings. Later, I showed the film to him and he agreed that my ending suited the story better. One of his great qualities was that he was not a fundamentalist and accepted all point of views.”

BETWEEN THE HEYDAY of Tendulkar and today, much in Marathi cinema has changed. Budgets, for one, are skyrocketing. The success of recent films has sparked interest among investors. Zee Studios, producer of the recently released Nude, is a major corporate player in the market. “This whole conversation is incomplete without Nikhil Sane of Zee,” says Kundalkar. Sane, having switched over to Viacom18 recently, was one of the earliest producers to tap the industry’s potential. Films backed by him (Time Pass, Elizabeth Ekadashi and Sairat, among others) have turned out to be gold at the box-office.

As budgets have soared, Marathi films have become slicker, with their production values now at par with Hindi cinema and southern fare. According to Nikhil Saini, producer of No Entry: Pudhe Dhoka Aahey, an average Marathi film today can cost anything between Rs 4 crore and Rs 6 crore to make. “Six years ago, when we carted the entire unit of No Entry to a five-star resort in Goa for a 35-day outdoor, that was probably a record in this industry,” says Saini. Star fees have shot up dramatically, and why shouldn’t the actors partake in the prosperity, asks Kulkarni, with impish glee.

Thankfully, she says, there’s no star system in this industry, unlike the more flamboyant Hindi equivalent. “There’s a denial of stardom in Maharashtra,” she observes, laughing. “Masses like their stars to be ‘people-next-door.’ People take pride in saying that that they met this particular actor and he was so simple. Simplicity is an overwhelmingly important virtue of personality for Maharashtrians, it seems.”

But she fears bigger budgets might create an unhealthy star system. As things stand today, while the industry is small and still regional in its mindset, actors, writers, directors and technicians share a strong sense of camaraderie. “We are a tight and well-knit group. Most people know each other and there’s mutual respect. I’d say, by and large, the Marathi industry likes to be humble and low-key,” says the Gulabjaam star. Marathi cinema and theatre may have given her cred, but she doesn’t deny that it is in Bollywood that she found fame—yet another indication of the behemoth’s wide reach. “People even today remember me for Dil Chahta Hai (2001),” she says.

Historically, Marathi cinema has been Hindi cinema’s poor cousin. While the former has sent some of its best-known talent to the latter, from Smita Patil and Nana Patekar to Laxmikant Berde and Atul Kulkarni, the smaller industry is doing its utmost to retain its vibrancy in the face of the bigger beast. “If Partition hadn’t happened and the Lahore talent migration didn’t take place, I wonder if Bollywood [would have] become this big,” says Nihalani, whose family migrated from Karachi to India. Since Mumbai is a centre for both industries, the competition that Marathi films face from Hindi fare is stiff. Usually, the battleground is a multiplex.

“So, what is Maharashtra?” Kundalkar asks, answering the question himself. “Three things mean the most to us: watching Marathi TV, reading English newspapers and Hindi films.” Ganesh Matkari jokes that the biggest enemy of Marathi films are Marathi films themselves. “Earlier, we used to have 40 films a year. Now, the annual production has gone up to about 100- 120 films, which means at least three films a week.” Kundalkar observes, “Three films a week,” adding with a chuckle, “That too, Marathi!”

In 2015, Maharashtra’s government made it mandatory for multiplexes in the state to reserve at least one Marathi show for a prime-time slot. Matkari believes it was a welcome move but “not so effective.” Of the notoriously picky Marathi audiences, Kulkarni says, “Our audience attitude is, ‘Bring me to the theatre. It’s your responsibility to excite me.’” Matkari complains that people here don’t support their commercial cinema the way Telugu or Tamil audiences do. It is ironic that Chennai’s biggest superstar, Rajnikanth, is of Maharashtrian descent, though born in Karnataka.

There are other challenges as well. “Mumbai is a hub for Marathi filmmaking,” Matkari points out. “But Punekars decide what Maharashtra will watch.” Kundalkar retorts, “Maharashtra is all about how green was my valley. We look at everything in the present tense as a problem. As a society, we are not insular, but definitely lazy. We love to linger in the past and it takes immense courage to break the daylights of the present tense. We want a safe, warm and comfortable space of nostalgia when we are in the theatre.”

Kundalkar is optimistic all the same about the future of Marathi cinema. And its chances against the big beast. “I am very happy that this old Juhu Chowpatty-Lokhandwala industry of Bollywood is becoming Jurassic Park.”