'Mi Vasantrao' captures the making of maverick classical vocalist Vasantrao Deshpande

The Marathi film Mi Vasantrao on famed classical singer Vasantrao Deshpande takes us into the very essence of his life.

Published : May 17, 2022 06:00 IST

Vasantrao Deshpande. He is played by his grandson in the biopic.

Vasantrao Deshpande. He is played by his grandson in the biopic.

B in Marathi have not been one of my favourite genres—they tend to be mostly simpering, breathless hagiographies, lurching from high point to high point of a well-known person’s already well-documented public achievements. There is virtually no access given to the audience to the inner life and dilemmas of the person portrayed. And some go a step further by getting completely caught up with make-up, prosthetics and costumes, to the point of turning the characters into caricatures of the original stalwarts that they wish to recreate on screen. This could be why I did not go rushing to see the Marathi film on the maverick, in-a-class-of-his-own singer Vasantrao Deshpande. However, I knew I would, sooner or later. iopicsMi VasantraoWithout giving away too much of what transpires and unfolds in this film, I can say that three developments early in the film reassured me that this was not going to be a film only about the externals of an artist’s life, and certainly not about just the high points. The first of those developments or plot points is played out within the initial few minutes of the film and centres around a strong young woman character who simply takes life by its horns when she is let down by her family. The second is the early encouragement to the protagonist to choose the path of plurality and cultural syncretism in his journey. And the third is the heart-rending struggle that we see between a man’s inner calling, his passion, and the exigencies of daily living that he must honour too.None of these incidents and phases of Vasantrao Deshpande’s life has been well documented in history, and many were a surprise, a revelation even to us here in Maharashtra who have had the opportunity to listen to and watch this singer (turned sangeet-natak actor later in life). In that sense the film breaks new ground in what the scriptwriters unearth and choose to tell us.

Through the film, we see the women in his life—wife, mother, daughter, his friend Begum Akhtar, a down-and-out once-famous lavani artist, a young patron who invites him to sing at a wedding—all holding their own. They support him and are yet not lost or subsumed in his journey. Each in her own very different way provides point and counterpoint to his existence, to his struggles. From playing vociferous devil’s advocate, to silent supporter, to providing the wind under his wings, to making him comfortable in far-away Lucknow, to accepting his ban on in the family during the time that he is embittered by his struggles for recognition, to acknowledging that he has more than done his duty and should now find himself… all the women come through as equals and partners in his life and not as long-suffering sacrificing sorts. And this is surely one of the most heartening aspects of the story and his life. naach-gaana

That the mother lives alone with her child, works outside the home, feels free to declare that she is an atheist, and does not have to face any unsavoury male attentions in the early part of the 20th century is as much testimony to her own grit as to the refreshingly forward-looking neighbourhood and community of Maharashtra in which she resides. The ease and affection between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law (including sharing a round of tobacco after the housework is done) is a refreshing change from the tropes that we see on our television screens every day. saas-bahu

Also read: Musical genius

The second theme runs through the film from the beginning. Both protagonist and film emphasise that exposure to art across regional, religious, caste, class and community lines is what makes the man. Learning about and from cultures widely different from one’s own, making friends across boundaries, is a running leitmotif. One character actually spells it out: Vasantrao’s uncle who urges him to venture out to Lahore, learn music from whoever will teach him there. In a hard-hitting piece of advice, he lists a string of same-caste Marathi names, advising him against clumping with them, but to go mingle and learn from the world at large — be it s, maulanas, fakirs or ustads. tawaif

The young Vasantrao’s willingness to jump into a new life in far-away Lahore is as much about the enablers at this end of his existence as it is about those at the other end, who welcome the young boy and give of themselves and their art freely. The tacit, unstated understanding that this is a boy without a father to support him emerges from a beautifully layered conversation about raag Marwa that he has with one of his gurus in Lahore. Later, the benign and sensitive person who comes to bless the ailing Vasantrao for his last performance is a poetic device that also brings out the Yin-Yang relationship between actor-character, Hindu-Muslim, between this gharana and that. Amid the ongoing otherisation of castes and communities and the current trend to become aggressive frogs in little ponds, this aspect of the film is heartening — not just because Vasantrao lived it, but that this thought is being showcased today: that you can remain deeply rooted and yet open and secular.

The third aspect of the film that takes the audience into the heart of Vasantrao’s life is his struggle for acceptance and recognition. Here, he is boxed in by two walls: his desk-bound, prosaic job that puts food on the table, and the attitude of many hidebound listeners who question and reject him almost as some kind of outcast with no lineage. Even though his friend and literary giant (at that time an upcoming young man) Pu La Deshpande repeatedly urges him to follow his passion, at one point Vasantrao bitterly disowns music and declares that he is simply done with it, banning his children from music too.

It is only later that opportunities open up, with the masterstroke of his being cast in a play about two competing musicians, which became a runaway success. Vasantrao’s grandson, singer and actor Rahul Deshpande, who plays the stalwart in the film, speaks of how the push and pull between (domestic life) and art came up in his life too a couple of decades ago. And it was none other than Pu La again, this time older and even more of a father figure to so many artists, who strongly advised him to drop his pursuit of an accountancy degree and follow his passion. Katiyar Kaljaat Ghusli,ghar-grihasti

Rahul mentions some of Vasantrao’s important relationships that were consciously kept out of the film—because this would involve depicting the lives of musical legends such as Kumar Gandharva, Jitendra Abhisheki and Bhimsen Joshi. And if the interiority of the main character’s life was to be brought out, the exterior relationships would simply take up too much film time. Only Dinanath Mangeshkar appears briefly as an inspiration as well as someone who commiserates with the young Vasantrao about audiences not willing to listen to what you really have to offer. The character of Pu La is almost a device in the film, to bring out the passion vs duty dilemma in the singer’s life.

Also read: Pursuit of perfection

Interestingly, while the background score of the film subtly evokes some of the popular Vasantrao thumris, natyasangeet, and raga renditions, the film’s music, composed by Rahul, avoids merely replicating these. He has written original scores. The only place where this simply did not work for me is in the choice of Durga Jasraj as the actor and singer playing Begum Akhtar and the song that she renders, just about passably. To my mind, it came across as a bit of an anachronism, sounding like a Chitra Singh number from the late 1970s rather than something from the much earlier decades in which Akhtaribai and Vasantrao interacted. One missed Begum’s ‘ ’ at this juncture—which would have been a fitting tribute to both her and Vasantrao, as also a window into that special something that existed between the two. Woh jo hum mey tum mey karaar thaa

The English subtitling of the film is adequate, but that of the lyrics of songs is particularly poor. The final rolling credits at the end are worth waiting for, with a great soundtrack and treasured old photos running alongside. Look out for two particularly arresting moments in which Rahul Deshpande shines: His meeting in the most unlikely of places with the old almost destitute lavani artiste of yore, Parubai Jejurikar; and his body language and expression filled with the proverbial ‘pity, terror, and catharsis’ when he meets his father years later.

Gouri Dange is a columnist and the author of nine books of fiction and non-fiction. She recently subtitled the award-winning Marathi film The Disciple.


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