‘Focus is on good, strong story’

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Shanta Gokhale.

Interview with film critic Shanta Gokhale.

WRITER, journalist and critic Shanta Gokhale spoke to Frontline on the decline and revival of Marathi cinema, how strong story content is its backbone and how Marathi films “promoted reformist values” while Hindi films were “largely escapist”. Excerpts:

After being a pioneer in cinema, when and why did the Marathi cinema industry go into decline?

The first decline came during the Second World War. Raw film stock had to be imported. It was felt that the Hindi cinema had a wider reach, so it got a major share of the stock that was available. The wider reach of Hindi films was not only because Hindi was more widely spoken. Prabhat Films had already been catering to this larger audience by making Hindi versions of their Marathi films like Kunku ( Duniya Na Mane), Manus ( Aadmi) and Shejari ( Padosi). An equally important reason was that Marathi films promoted reformist values while Hindi films were largely escapist and, for that reason, more appreciated.

Another reason was that Hindi films were often financed by black money, to which middle-class Marathi film writers and directors had no access.

Despite this, good films continued to be made in Marathi with writers like G.D. Madgulkar and G.R. Kamat, who later wrote hit films for Raj Khosla. These catered to the educated, urban middle class. However, as more and more industrial labour poured in from the coastal areas and the interior regions of the State, they brought with them tastes that could not be satisfied with middle-class fare. The content of Marathi films was adapted to the new audience’s tastes, with most films being about poor farmers and cruel moneylenders, the spice being provided by lavani, the erotic song-and-dance form of Maharashtra.

The reason for the decline in the 1980s was because of the preference of the Marathi youth for the glamorous Hindi film which overshadowed its regional poor relation.

Soon, only elderly people were watching Marathi films. But a pair of directors, Mahesh Kothare and Sachin Pilgaonkar, invested in advanced technology and made glamorous films that aped Hindi films. These films entertained the young urban middle-class person but not the labour class. This class got a film director who came from the same background as them. Dada Kondke churned out films and raked in the money, even entering the Guinness Book of World Records. So, the small audience for Marathi films got divided age-wise and class-wise. This could not be economically viable for too long.

This was the story of Marathi cinema’s gradual decline until the 1990s.

Is there a certain snobbery among Marathi directors that made them shun commercial cinema with all its associations of being mindless and pure entertainment?

It wasn’t so much snobbery as knowing what the audience they were catering to would appreciate. Marathi people understand Hindi, so Hindi films were always there to give them that kind of entertainment. And Marathi people did see those films too. But seeing a Marathi film about subjects and stories that they would never see on the Hindi screen was a special pleasure. The strong story content that this audience wanted came because very often film directors adapted well-known novels to the screen. This trend continues even today.

Some of the most successful Marathi films like Natarang and Shala are based on short stories or novels or at least real-life stories like Shwaas, which was the second Marathi film to be sent for the Oscars. The first had gone 50 years before. That film, Shyamchi Aai, was also based on a set of stories written by the socialist leader Sane Guruji [Pandurang Sadashiv Sane]. Even Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, which became such a hit, was based on a Marathi short story.

How difficult is it to find financiers for a Marathi film?

It has become easier these days. People from different walks of life who have money to spare put it into a film after their heart. Satish Manwar’s fine film Gabhricha Paus was financed by an Indian from the Merchant Navy. Films have been financed even by doctors. And now Zee TV finances them, so do Mukta Arts, Ravi Rai and other non-Marathi producers.

Is there a mindset among Marathi film-makers about what their cinema should portray? Most Hindi film directors go for the standard formulas, but that is not so in Marathi cinema, where issues seem to matter.

Marathi film-makers go for a good, strong story. Entertainment for its own sake doesn’t interest them. And yes, the tradition to focus on issues in films is very old.

For the last 20 years or more Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar have been making issue-based films.

Their latest, Kaasav, is about how to deal with depression. It won the national award this year for best feature film, beating Dangal. It hasn’t been released yet.

It is fascinating that the actors and directors are [by usual standards] “small” actors, serious actors, actors from the stage, and yet it is they who make Marathi cinema so exciting. And they are making money. It is almost as if they are defying the whole Bollywood model.

The money they make is not in the same class as that of the stars of Hindi films. But they do take forward the tradition of Marathi theatre and cinema of total commitment to the art. Money is never a big issue if the story is good and the role is challenging.

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