Standing tall

Marathi cinema, as old as Indian cinema itself, has not only arrived but is thriving.

Published : Oct 02, 2013 12:30 IST

From Prabhat Films Co's first talkie bilingual "Ayodhya ka Raja/Ayodhyecha Raja" (Hindi/Marathi, 1932).

From Prabhat Films Co's first talkie bilingual "Ayodhya ka Raja/Ayodhyecha Raja" (Hindi/Marathi, 1932).

AROUND 1910, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke, saw a film called Life of Christ in Bombay. Bowled over by the magic of images moving on the screen, he was simultaneously imagining “the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya” in place of Jesus Christ. He saw the film a second time and “felt that what I had imagined was actually taking place on the screen”. He went away that day obsessed by a single question: “Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?” Two years later he answered the question with a thundering affirmative by making Raja Harishchandra, his and India’s first feature film, a silent one.

Raja Harishchandra introduced “the mythological” to Indian cinema, a genre that was to remain one of the staples of the industry for decades to come.

The next trendsetting Marathi film was Savkari Pash ( 1926 ) , directed by Baburao Painter for Maharashtra Film, Kolhapur. Based on a novel by the eminent contemporary novelist Hari Narayan Apte, it introduced another genre to cinema, “the social”. Shot on location, the film dealt with the exploitation of a peasant by a land-grabbing moneylender. Some claim that it was the first modern, realistic film in India. Others give this credit to Pather Panchali, made 30 years later. Be that as it may, Baburao Painter turned out to be not a dedicated film-maker, and his lackadaisical ways of running the company soon prompted his colleagues V. Shantaram, V.G. Damle, K.R. Dhaibar and S. Fatelal to break away and form Prabhat Film Company. Launched in Kolhapur in 1929, Prabhat Films, as it came to be known, moved in 1933 to a sprawling campus in Pune. The same campus was acquired by the government in 1960 for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

Some critics argue that, strictly speaking, Raja Harishchandra cannot be called the first Marathi film. Although made by a Marathi director with a cast of Marathi actors, it was subtitled in Hindi and English. If language is to be seen as the defining feature of cinema, then the first Marathi film was Ayodhyecha Raja , directed by Shantaram for Prabhat Films in 1932. Phalke’s cinematic language was perpetuated in this film, with its “trick” shots and its frontal compositions inspired by Raja Ravi Varma’s mythological oleographs. Durga Khote, who played Queen Taramati, was the first woman from “a good family” to act in a film. When she debuted, she was completely untrained, and she gives full credit in her autobiography to the multi-talented, highly skilled, committed owners of Prabhat Films who “got that performance of Taramati out of me”. Her future career in films was founded firmly on the rock of this training.

Prabhat made some of Marathi cinema’s most outstanding films. Its Tukaram delivers a powerful cinematic experience even today. The picturisation of Adhi beej ekale (First there was the seed), the devotional song that Vishnupant Pagnis as Tukaram sings while guarding a field against birds, stays with us as a deeply moving expression of bhakti. With Tukaram , a third genre was introduced to Marathi cinema, “the devotional”, depicting the lives of saints. This too remained an extremely popular genre for many years after.

A fourth genre, “the historical”, made its appearance in the Prabhat film Ramshastri . Although this film, like the historical plays of that and earlier times, was based on historical events, its purpose was not so much to record history as to make it subservient to the nationalist cause because glorifying the country’s historical past kindled the patriotic fervour in people. After Independence there was no place for this genre of films, but in Maharashtra, Shivaji continued to be a popular subject for historicals.

The Second World War delivered a major blow to this thriving industry. Many production companies and studios folded up in the wake of the economic changes that took place after the War. Most equipment for films had to be imported, including, crucially, raw stock. The distribution of raw stock was severely restricted and governed by priorities that were inimical to regional films. Regional films were seen to have a limited reach when compared with Hindi films with their pan-Indian reach. Hindi films were therefore favoured in the rationing of raw stock. Although Marathi film companies had made bilingual films in the regional language and in Hindi, films such as Kunku ( Duniya Na Mane ) in 1937, Manus ( Aadmi ) in 1939 and Shejari ( Padosi ) in 1941 were all socials, propagating reformist values, while the post-War Hindi films were largely escapist, financed by black money.

The audience profile for Marathi films underwent a sea change in the post-War years. The middle class was no longer their sole patron. It was now matched by a growing number of industrial workers who lived in the cities but whose roots were still in their villages. Catering to this new audience now became a critical balancing act for film-makers. Under the new circumstances, as many films were made on rural as on middle-class subjects. Many of them were scripted by the prolific and popular writer G.D. Madgulkar, whose name more or less guaranteed success at the box office. It is not surprising that a writer, rather than a director, held sway over the industry since dialogue, not visual language, had become its mainstay.

Words give quick and easy access to sentiment, and sentiment was what sold films. Whether it was the rural film or the urban comedy like Pedgaonche Shahane (The Shahanes of Pedgaon) and Lakhachi Gosht (A Million Rupee Tale) of the 1950s, sentiment reigned supreme. It still does. If the extravaganza of Hindi films was one form of escape, the script-enforced suffering of women and the poor that made the audience shed copious tears was another. The great achievement of the 1950s was P.K. Atre’s Shyamchi Ai (1953), an adaptation of the social activist and eminent writer Sane Guruji’s tribute of the same name to a mother’s love. This sentimental tale won the President’s Gold Medal for best feature film in the country’s very first National Awards.

Films with the rural theme of the 1950s introduced a fifth genre to Marathi cinema, the tamasha (humour) film. The 1959 film Sangtye Aika ( Hear What I Say ), directed by Anant Mane and scripted by Vyankatesh Madgulkar, brother of G.D. Madgulkar, was the first big hit of the genre. Hansa Wadkar’s outstanding performance in it literally carried the film. So significant was the film in this actor-dancer’s career that she even named her explosive autobiography after it. Shyam Benegal’s Bhoomika, in which Smita Patil gave a powerful performance as Hansa Wadkar, was based on this autobiography. After Sangtye Aika , tamasha and lavani s (a form of music and dance) became de rigueur in the Marathi rural film. Soon, film lavanis invaded the repertoire of professional lavani dancers. Even Saamna (1975), scripted by Vijay Tendulkar and directed by Jabbar Patel, featured a lavani, although it appeared like a gratuitous imposition on the film.

Socio-political ferment The 1970s were a time of great socio-political upheaval. Society was again questioning itself and its rulers as it had done in the pre-Independence reformist age. Shyam Benegal and later Govind Nihalani made films that created a space between the avant-garde of Kumar Shahani’s and Mani Kaul’s films and the commercial formulae of mainstream Hindi films. The lone representative of this new consciousness in Marathi was Jabbar Patel, whose 1979 film Sinhasan (Throne) was based on journalist Arun Sadhu’s political novel Aaj Dinank (Dateline today) and his 1981 film Umbartha (Threshold) was based on Shanta Nisal’s autobiographical novel, which made a statement about women’s rights. It is to be remembered that the women’s movement was part of the socio-political ferment of the 1970s.

Films like Jabbar Patel’s, of which there were not even a handful, were exclusively for the liberal middle-class. They were not the popular films of the time. The popular films belonged, almost exclusively, to Dada Kondke. With his background in loknatya, the urban form of the rural tamasha , he brought to the screen both its bawdiness and its double entendre dialogue. His films were about and for the industrial worker. He himself came from a mill-worker’s family and knew how to tailor his films to their tastes. After the 1971 blockbuster Songadya , he delivered a hit every year, entering the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest number of films, nine, to run for 25 weeks. He was in the middle of a film when he died of a heart attack in 1998, at the age of 65.

During the 1980s, producer-directors Mahesh Kothare and Sachin Pilgaonkar made films that matched the advanced technology and glamour of Hindi films. Kothare’s 1985 film Dhumdhadaka (Fun and Games) was a box-office hit. He managed to straddle the tastes of the rural audience and urban youth in all his films. He produced the first cinemascope film in Marathi and later also introduced digital dolby sound. Kothare’s films did well in the 1980s, but fizzled out by the 1990s.

In 1991, Maherchi Sadi (Sari from the Maternal Home) hit the screen. Directed by Dada Kondke’s nephew Vijay Kondke, it raked in money. If the uncle had entertained male workers, the nephew entertained their women. They saw the film multiple times to weep over the terrible sufferings of the heroine, played by Alka Kubal, the tragedy queen of Marathi cinema. Unlike his uncle, however, Vijay Kondke remained a one-film wonder.

Socially committed films The 1990s saw the emergence of the low-budget, socially committed films of Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar. Working with unknown actors who gave strong, realistic performances, they made films on themes like water, schizophrenia, AIDS and vitiligo and won several State and National Awards. At least two of the present generation of fine film-makers, Umesh Kulkarni and Sachin Kundalkar, have worked with or been inspired by them. Both are alumni of the FTII.

In the late 1990s, three factors emerged that gave Marathi films a much-needed filip. With liberalisation, there was more money around, and corporates, television channels and established Hindi film production houses began to invest in them. Single screens gave way to multiplexes which allowed small-budget, non-star films to be exhibited. And the State began to enforce a 1969 Act that made it compulsory for cinema houses to screen Marathi films for at least four weeks in the year. Theatres violating this were liable to have their licences revoked or suffer a week’s closure.

Shwaas (Breath), which released in 2004, thus surfaced out of a film industry that had been overcome by torpor. It won the National Award exactly half a century after Shyamchi Ai , and, to top that, became India’s official entry to the Oscars. Based on a real-life story about a grandfather who gives his grandson a day out on the town before an operation that is to cost the child his eyesight, it pitched itself accurately in the sentimental, non-star, socially committed, powerfully enacted tradition that had always been the stamp of Marathi cinema. This was director Sandeep Sawant’s first film (he has not made another) and was financed by three individuals, including Arun Nalawade, the actor who played the grandfather.

In 2005 came another critically acclaimed film, Dombivali Fast , directed by Nishikant Kamat, featuring an intense performance by Sandeep Kulkarni. The story revolves around the life of a middle-class, law-abiding bank employee who single-handedly takes on the injustice and corruption rampant in society.

Over the last eight years, the Marathi film industry has grown in a way that would have been inconceivable until the turn of the century. With more money available and some possibility of films being released/telecast, Marathi films have become a viable, if still not a wildly profitable, proposition. The number of films produced increased from 23 in 2003 to 57 in 2005, 72 in 2006, 90 in 2007 and 100 in 2008. The numbers have since been fluctuating around that figure.

The year 2008 saw the release of two unusual films, both about bulls. Umesh Kulkarni’s comedy Valu (Wild Bull), distributed internationally by Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts, and Mangesh Hadawale’s Tingya , supported by Ravi Rai’s production company. The film, based on the relationship between a village boy and the family bull, Tingya, won Sharad Goekar, who played the boy, the national award for the best child actor.

In 2009, Paresh Mokashi’s Harishchandrachi Factory took the film world and audiences by storm. Five years in the making, the film, in a sense, brought the story of Marathi cinema back to where it started. A brave and quirky film about Dadasaheb Phalke’s struggle against odds to make his first film, Raja Harishchandra, it became the second Marathi film after Shwaas to be selected as India’s official entry for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Today, Marathi cinema stands tall on the national film scene. Directors like Umesh Kulkarni, Sachin Kundalkar ( Restaurant ), Chandrakant Kulkarni ( Tukaram ), Ravi Jadhav ( Natarang, Balgandharva ) and many others continue to make films driven by strong stories and excellent performances. Marathi cinema has not only arrived but is thriving.

Shanta Gokhale is a novelist, playwright, theatre critic and translator based in Mumbai.

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