Marathi Cinema

Reclaiming the box office

Print edition : July 07, 2017

From Paresh Mokashi's "Harishchandrachi Factory".

From Sandeep Sawant's "Shwaas".

A still from "Sairat".

Director Nagraj Manjule. Photo: ANNIE PHILIP

After decades of lull, Marathi films are attracting audiences once again.

FROM being a pioneer in the early days of film-making, Marathi cinema slowly faded away until it was almost out of sight for the larger viewing public, relegated to the zone of regional cinema with all its negative connotations. But the past few years have seen a spectacular resurgence, with directors making films that are thought–provoking and relevant and with an ethos that appeals to a far wider public than most regional language films manage to achieve.

It was in 2004 with the release of Shwaas that hope surged for the Marathi film industry. Shwaas was based on the true story of a grandfather who, at the expense of his own eyesight, tried to save his grandson who was diagnosed with retinal cancer. Not only was the film a box-office success, it was rated highly by critics. It won the Golden Lotus Award and the President’s medal for best film (the first Marathi film to win this was Shyamchi Aai in 1950). Shwaas went on to be nominated as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards and was ranked sixth in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

The jinx broken, the industry went into an upswing. There was a surge of interest and big media players started financing Marathi films and Marathi television channels fuelled public interest by replaying old classics. In 2009, Paresh Mokashi’s Harishchandrachi Factory, which was about Dadasaheb Phalke’s struggle to make his 1913 film Raja Harishchandra, was India’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.

The following year saw the release of debutant Ravi Jadhav’s Natarang, the fictional story of a labourer who realises his dream of setting up his own theatre company. The film fired the public’s imagination and was a blockbuster. After this, the films rolled out fast— Vihir, Deool, Fandry, Court, Kaksparsh, Yellow, Dr Prakash Baba Amte… some award-winning and all lapped up by audiences nationwide; Marathi had moved beyond the traditional Marathi-speaking audience.

Then, in 2016, two films rocked the industry. Sairat and Natsamrat did not just wow audiences, they were the highest grossing Marathi films of all time. Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat saw box-office takings cross the Rs.100-crore mark, while Mahesh Manjrekar’s Natsamrat raked in Rs.50 crore.

Apart from being the highest grosser among Marathi films, Sairat, which means wild, follows certain traditions established by Marathi film-makers over the decades. A romantic musical drama, it plunges into the debate on inter-caste marriages. The young couple in the film are very much in love and, of course, defiant of social norms. To that extent the story could be considered similar to any Bollywood theme, but where it veers off drastically is in the treatment. In Marathi cinema today, storylines do not follow formulas. Issues are dealt with seriously and often with penetrating intellect. Similarly, in the choice of casting, unlike Bollywood which is in the grip of the star system and gigantic budgets, Sairat cast completely unknown faces in the lead roles.

As always, the budget is the biggest hurdle. The budget for making a Marathi film would probably be what Bollywood would spend on the pre-movie publicity of a single film, but this is changing. About five years ago, Mahesh Manjrekar made Kaksparsh, a hauntingly beautiful period drama that dealt with events and their outcomes in the family of a Chitpavan Brahmin living in the Konkan region. Visually stunning and with strong production values, the film reportedly cost Rs.1.4 crore, but its strong storyline paid off and it earned about Rs.14 crore.

In 2012, Lai Bhaar was made for Rs.7 crore, a huge figure in the Marathi film world, and its returns, at about Rs.40 crore, were also impressive. Producer Riteish Deshmukh’s risk-taking paid off. The film was different from the usual in that it was an action-packed one and seemed to appeal to a larger and younger audience. Around the same time, Timepass was made with a budget of Rs.2 crore and brought its producer upwards of Rs.30 crore. Dr Prakash Baba Amte was made with Rs.2.5 crore and returned Rs.12 crore to its producers.

The Maharashtra government offers considerable assistance to Marathi cinema. The films are tax-free in the State and are also offered a Rs.40 lakh subsidy if the proposed film retains its regional identity. Additionally, says writer, journalist and critic Shanta Gokhale, the State “partially funds the second film of a director. The first serves as a track record that warrants State funding. It has made a rule that every cinema house must screen a Marathi film for a minimum of four weeks a year.”

Besides, tickets for Marathi films are much cheaper, averaging at about Rs.100. And multiplexes have given an added boost to Marathi films because of their profit-sharing business model. Shanta Gokhale says, “Multiplexes make screening Marathi films more viable because the seating capacity is small.”

Subtitles are now frequently used, thereby widening the audience base. But Shanta Gokhale holds another viewpoint here: “Marathi films still don’t get seen so much by non-Marathi audiences despite their being subtitled. It is only when the English language press wakes up to the merit of a film here and there that non-Marathis go to see it. This happened with Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat. The amazing thing is that even the Mumbai editions of newspapers don’t carry reviews of Marathi films.”

The Marathi film industry has been energised and film-makers who were so far operating in very confined circumstances have got some breathing space now. Enthused by the response of filmgoers, directors are exploring never-before ideas like shooting in foreign locations. The new generation of films have been shot in London, Dubai, Malaysia, Bangkok and Mauritius. But, as Shanta Gokhale says, the tradition of a good storyline continues. “Strong stories are important. Today they are also slickly made. The younger film-makers, many of them trained in FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] (like Umesh Kulkarni) and many who have been making television serials (like Ravi Jadhav, who made the hit films Natarang and Balgandharva), bring high production values and technical sophistication to their work. This appeals to the new audience.”

Pointing out the slickness of Sairat, she says: “Its music was recorded at Sony Scoring Studios in Hollywood with the composers Ajay-Atul conducting the orchestra. Natarang and Balgandharva were also very slick and that was half the reason for their wild success. But if the budget is small, film-makers are willing to tailor their expenses to it. And if the film is really good, it doesn’t make a difference. But the same can be said about the new Hindi films like Masaan which are made on small budgets.”

Bollywood remains the uncontested leader with its humongous budgets and superstar cult, but fortunately it is not the benchmark. Authenticity of milieu, challenging stereotypes, questioning, empathising with the underdog, casting aside preconceived notions and exploring—these are some of the factors that magnetically draw audiences to this new wave of Marathi cinema.

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