Beyond applause

Print edition : January 28, 2005

Contributions, both big and small, pour in to finance the promotion campaign of Shwaas, India's official entry for the Oscar Awards.

in New Delhi

SWAYING palms, happy waves, lush greenery, beautiful sunsets, cattle, dogs, birds, then pitch darkness if he wants to live. This is the journey of little Parashuram's blurring vision, as depicted in Shwaas (Breath). There are tough choices to make, to digest and still to cling on to life with a smile. This is what Shwaas is all about.

Arun Nalawade (left) and Ashwin Chitale in Shwaas.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Now a success story and the official Indian entry for the Academy Awards, Shwaas started as a small-budget Marathi film and faced many financial problems. The film is based on a short story by Madhavi Gharpure, which is in turn based on a medical case of Dr. Shailesh Puntambekar. However, the film received many awards and enormous mass support. Through a series of ups and downs it has finally geared up for Oscar promotions and nominations at the end of January.

In Shwaas, an old man, Parule, (Arun Nalawade) from a remote village, brings his seven-year-old grandson Parashuram (Ashwin Chitale) to the city to consult Dr. Sane (Sandeep Kulkarni). Parashuram is having trouble with his eyes. After a series of investigations the child is diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, an eye cancer. The doctor suggests a course of treatment that will result in the cure of the cancer, but in lifelong darkness for the boy. The grandfather is shaken. He refuses to acknowledge the truth and tries to avoid the situation, but he is finally convinced of the treatment. A medico-legal social worker (Amruta Subhash) helps them with information and moral support. When the operation gets postponed for a day, he takes the child around, showing him the sights of the city, which he will never be able to see again. It was a big effort for the team of eight producers to have the movie completed and released. Raising the money for the Oscar promotion was simply out of the question. But the way people from all walks of life have come together to make it happen is simply overwhelming. There have been sizable contributions from Amitabh Bachhan, the Nargis Dutt Foundation, Sudesh Bhosle and Sachin Tendulkar. More important, there have been small and big amounts pouring into the Kathi Arts office for the Shwaas Foundation from the most unexpected sources.

Gearing up for the last few days before the nominations are announced, the Shwaas team has lined up many screenings in the United States so that most of the jury members get to see the film. Arun Nalawade, who produced the film, remembers how the film took off: "We tried to make a tele film but at the last minute even that got shelved because the channel dropped it. We had the story for a long time. So when a friend of mine, Vishwanath Nayak, a chartered accountant, once asked me why I was not doing films and offered to put in money if I had a story, we thought about this. The same evening, we, that is, our group of friends, met and discussed things. Sandeep is my relative and I knew he is a talented, hardworking person. I asked him to direct the film. He said he would if I played the grandfather."

Vishwanath Nayak said: "Arun has been in theatre for 25 years. Marathi stage is very good. I am from Udupi, but I like it very much, since childhood. They are very talented but there is very little money in Marathi theatre. Naresh, Deepak and I suggested that Arun get into movies. He brought Sandeep and narrated the story. We liked the story and we gave the green signal." Naresh Chandra Jain, Deepak Choudhary and others formed a team of eight producers and all of them completely believed in Sandeep Sawant's directorial ability and gave him a free hand. The film bagged most of the State awards and the Golden Lotus Award for the best film of the year, a first for a Marathi film. Sandeep Kulkarni speaks of all the research and groundwork that was done for his role by observing Dr. Shailesh Puntambekar. "I saw that as a prominent and busy surgeon, he had acquired techniques of inspiring confidence in patients in precisely ten minutes. I observed him during rounds and consultations for hours. All this added to the character," he said.

Deepak Choudhary says: "It is something that we believed in from the heart and not just for finances. When we were waiting at the exit during the Goa film festival [International Film Festival of India] the response was tremendous. A Japanese couple was in tears. The relationship between the grandfather and the grandchild is universal."

No doubt the universal appeal of a real-life incident was the soul of the film, but the team did not ignore the technical aspect. "We wanted to make it in the best possible way. We shot on cinemascope and used technologies like sync sound. Money was a problem, but we did not compromise on the quality of the film at any point. The film got good reviews and people did appreciate it, but we still had not broken even after a few weeks. Then the National Award came and then it was houseful for days," said Arun Nalawade. Soon after, it was declared India's official entry to the Oscars. Although pleased with the honour and achievement it meant, the team knew that it was in no position to travel abroad for promotions or to organise screenings. Its members appealed for help and said that without funds the movie would not be able to go. After this call for help the team did not have to look back. The governments of Maharashtra and Goa and the Shiv Sena helped.

That was only the beginning. Anjali Nalawade, who is handling the Shwaas Foundation's work, says there were pleasant surprises every day. "There has been such a heartwarming response from so many different people. A school in Jogeshwrai organised its children to make lamps and sell them and made a contribution of Rs.30,000. Another group of students wiped and cleaned cars to collect some money. So many of them have given their pocket money or lunch money. Many people have contributed money, like a schoolteacher who contributed the best teacher award money," she said. A division of standard X students in Nasik collected Rs.10 each and their teacher added some more, and donated Rs.1001. There have been donations from tribal women, housewives and artists. A theatre group that performs the Marathi play "Yada Kadachit" collected around Rs.65,000. The actors would go to the audiences in their costumes and collect funds. Bharat Sawle, who is part of the theatre group says: "Arun Nalawade is my guru when it comes to theatre and when I saw his appeal I asked my group if we could do something. If a Marathi film is getting a national award and an Oscar nomination for the first time, then we should help. The play is doing very well and audiences responded well to our effort. We collected this money in a month's time." Even a barber managed to send Rs.150, a day's income, as his bit for the cause.

A scene from the film-

Though help has come from many unexpected people, the Shwaas team hopes for some help from the Centre. Sandeep Kulkarni says the Centre should do some funding for films like Shwaas. "There are funds for the Olympics, for cricket. Going to the Oscars is a major thing. The Central government must create funds. The vision has to be there. What is the point if a film like this cannot fund itself for promotions, which is so important for the Oscars," said Kulkarni. However, now that most of the amount has been collected, the Shwaas team will not pursue its efforts. Moreover, because of the tsunami disaster, the team feels it would not be appropriate to seek funds from the Centre. Instead it has decided to donate the collections from the U.S. to the relief operations. Anjali Nalawade said the team had collected around Rs.1.3 crores. The required amount is Rs.1.5 crores.

It is astonishing to see so many people reaching out to Shwaas wholeheartedly in these challenging times. As Nandini Rane, one of the viewers of Shwaas and a contributor to the fund says: "When you see the film, you feel like doing something for them. The movie is so realistic and it touches you instantly." That was the most important objective of the director. "While doing this movie my basic aim was to tell the story in a way that even a layman would understand and appreciate the film. In this film there was a little boy, his grandfather and an Onco surgeon. But the subject is not limited to these three characters. The film touches the human spirit from any corner of the world. That is where the beauty of the subject lies," writes Sandeep Sawant in his notes on the film.

There have been some criticism but on the whole the movie leaves people with a lump in the throat. Add to that the beauty of the Konkan region. The strategy of concentrating on the visual language to tell the story has proved tremendously effective. Audiences identify with everything: glimpses of life in the Konkan, the struggle in the city, the clinics, the hospitals or the restless tantrums of the little boy who knows he is going to be operated on and will become permanently blind.

The film is looked upon as hope for better days to Marathi cinema. While the Golden Lotus for the best film in 54 years is great, Sandeep Kulkarni warns against ignorance and lethargy when it comes to research: "Shwaas is a good film because of the efforts. That awareness should be spread. Quality differences should come in Marathi cinema, and not just an increase in numbers."

Amol Palekar, noted filmmaker, says: "Good Marathi films have always done well. But it is after Shwaas that the media have started writing about Marathi cinema. As I look at Shwaas as the official entry, it is a very important step taken by IMPPA (Indian Motion Picture Producers Association). IMPPA has been selecting any and every kind of films. If we take that yardstick, then this is a sane, wise decision. It is an important decision because a small, low-budget regional film is given its due, from a cluster of mega nonsense films." However, he does not understand "why we go gaga about the Oscars. Unfortunately for us Hollywoood is the beginning and end of the world. We are never ever interested even in the National Award. We should be much more concerned about the National Award." A strong critic of films, attitudes and policies, Palekar is all praise for Shwaas. "I am extremely proud of Shwaas, particularly because it is a debut film. It is a film that has universal appeal, it goes beyond languages and cultures." It must be this universal appeal that has inspired so many people to come together and breathe life into the struggles of Shwaas.

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