Breath of hope

Print edition : October 22, 2004

Shwaas, a Marathi film that has been nominated as India's entry for the Oscar awards, takes the film world by storm, winning a number of State and national awards.

IN the last couple of decades, Marathi cinema really seemed to have lost it. An outsider in its own linguistic heartland, and a suffering stepchild in comparison with the opulent, affluent Hindi cinema, it churned out mostly meaningless fare, which largely consisted of family melodramas and mindless comedies. Some melodramas, like Maherchi Saadi, and some comedies, aided by vulgarity and sexual innuendo - as in the case of Dada Kondke's films - made a killing at the box office. They had no pretensions whatsoever to art and did not care two hoots for creativity.

Sandeep Sawant, Director of Shwaas.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

This in a land where filmmakers like Dadasaheb Phalke, Baburao Painter, Balaji Pendharkar and V. Shantaram and his colleagues at Prabhat Films had unspooled the first reels of celluloid; where Prabhat's Sant Tukaram was the first Indian film to win the Best Film award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1937; and where, in 1954, at the first National Awards, the winner of the President's Gold Medal was Shyamchi Aai, Acharya P.K. Atre's film version of a novel of the same title by Sane Guruji.

Of course, there were the odd bright spots, films that ensured that the Marathi film industry kept its head above the swirling waters, but they were mere drops in the sea of mediocrity. Marathi film industry watchers, especially those who had been witness to the golden years of the 1950s and the 1960s, were wondering whether this situation would ever change. They continued to hope for the best, buoyed by the occasional Amol Palekar, Jabbar Patel or Sumitra Bhave-Sunil Sukhtankar offering, and also by the emergence of younger filmmakers who were willing to have a stab at themes that were unconventional compared to the general run of Marathi cinema.

Scenes from the movie.

In February this year, there was a buzz of expectation. A few industry watchers had just judged a film called Shwaas (breath) for various awards, and had come away quite excited by it. Prabhat Chitra Mandal, Mumbai's premier film society, organised a screening of the film just ahead of its release in March and a couple of hundred faithfuls headed for the Yeshwantrao Chavan Centre in downtown Mumbai to check out this new hope of Marathi cinema.

This writer was one of them. And at the end of an hour and three quarters, the viewers emerged from the theatre, if not quite mesmerised, at least fairly sure that despite the warts here was a film that heralded a significant turn for Marathi cinema.

FOR those who have come in late, Shwaas is a simple, linear tale about a very young boy, barely seven or eight, who is diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye. The surgeon guarantees that an operation will save his life and halt recurrence of the tumour. But the child will lose his sight.

The boy, Parshuram or Parshya, accompanied by his grandfather and his maternal uncle, comes to a hospital in Pune, a big city whose sights and sounds are alien to a soul bred in a picturesque Konkan village. The sympathetic surgeon and a young medical social worker help the grandfather to break to Parshya the tragic news of his approaching blindness.

For some reason, the surgery has to be postponed by a day. That afternoon, grandfather and grandson disappear from the hospital ward. A mad search follows. Confronted by an angry surgeon on their return, the grandfather states quite simply that he wanted to show Parshya the sights of the city for one last time.

First, the warts. There are minor glitches in the script, for instance, the boy's father's character has not been fleshed out too well. The music could have been more evocative and the over-the-top act by Amruta Subhash as the social worker could have been considerably toned down.

But then, look at the plus points. Excellent technical values - fluid camerawork (Sanjay Memane) and cutting-edge editing (Neeraj Voralia), outstanding performances by Ashwin Chitale as Parshya, Arun Nalawade as his grandfather and Sandeep Kulkarni as the surgeon. And above all, restrained handling of the script by director Sandeep Sawant, giving full rein to the emotional turmoil without playing to the gallery. The last shot where Parshya returns home wearing dark glasses, waving to his family and friends from the boat, is quite a gem.

Since its release in March, Shwaas has had a dream run, doing well at the box office, coming up trumps at various award nights, including the Maharashtra State Film Awards and then topping it all by bagging top honours at the National Awards, bringing the coveted Golden Lotus to Marathi cinema for the first time since 1954, as well as a shared award for Ashwin Chitale for best child artist.

Sandeep Sawant, who has also written the script for the film, is basically a theatre man from Mumbai's Vile Parle suburb. A psychology graduate, he has also made a number of documentaries, some of them dealing with children. That is probably where he learnt the knack of handling child artistes like Ashwin.

A couple of years ago, Sawant moved to television. It was then that he read a short story by Madhavi Gharpure based on an oncological surgeon's real-life experience of a little boy with a rare eye cancer. "The crux of the story for me," he says, "was the boy's grandfather showing him the sights of the city, knowing that this was the last chance for his grandson to see them."

Sawant was hoping to make a telefilm of the story for a Marathi channel but the slot was taken off the air. The subject continued to haunt him and finally he got together with half-a-dozen others such as actor Arun Nalawade. Together, they raised the finance (some Rs.60 lakhs) to produce the film. There were no compromises with the budget or the research of the medical milieu of the film. The Shwaas team eschewed the short cuts, and concentrated on doing the simple things well, creating a product that, despite its very Maharashtrian ethos, has universal appeal. In fact, it was this quality that moved the jury members who selected Shwaas as India's entry to the Oscars. They felt that the film showcased the human element in a simple and sensitive manner.

Shwaas was not meant to be just a telefilm. It was destined for greater glory. With its triumph, it has raised the bar for Marathi films. One hopes that it inspires other filmmakers to follow suit and Marathi cinema does not have to wait another 50 years for its next Golden Lotus, or its next Oscar selection.

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