Shwaas (2004) was a landmark film in the history of Marathi cinema. It became the first Marathi film in 50 years to have won a National Award, after Shyamchi Aai. Shwaas was also India’s official entry to the Oscars in the foreign film category that year. Three of the past 10-12 Indian films submitted to Oscars were Marathi and several Marathi actors, directors and composers have won national acclaim.
Today, the industry is a force to reckon with. Unlike Bollywood, Marathi cinema places meaning over money and is leaps ahead in terms of content.
Their rich, content-driven films, rooted in the Marathi culture, lend it a universal appeal.
Here’s a look at the gems and geniuses behind the renaissance of Marathi cinema and the progressive aspects of these films.
1. Deool (2011) | Director: Umesh Kulkarni
Deool is a story of a village simpleton (Keshya) who, as an effect of a heat stroke, hallucinates Dutta (God), atop a hill. The news soon spreads across the village. This culminates into a series of events where believers as well as non-believers take advantage of the situation, commercializing god and religion. From the newspaper guy to the village sarpanch, everyone recognizes a business opportunity in it. The village becomes a famous center of a large temple.
How a small, insignificant incident snowballs into a series of events blown out of proportion, is so masterfully executed. It all becomes so ridiculous in the end that Dutta (God) becomes a mere spectator, trapped in his own temple.
This film, so subtly, dealt with a rampant social issue. Writer and director Girish and Umesh Kulkarni received several angry calls from right wing political pawns for its bold depiction of rural politics with god and godmen.
Deool came way before Bollywood’s similar satirical takes on commercialization of religion — Oh My God, PK.
Exceptional performances from the cast — Nana Patekar, Mohan Agashe, Sonali Kulkarni, Girish Kulkarni, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Usha Nadkarni make it worth a watch. Umesh Kulkarni is in complete control as the pace never drops and the music lends a perfect rustic feel.
A guy from a neighboring village talking on the phone carves random markings on a tree trunk with a key. Co-incidentally, this happens on the hill Kesha claims to have seen Dutta. Four guys deduce, from the random markings, that it’s a picture of Dutta (god). It’s a hilarious scene and the ridiculous notion of finding God and enlightenment is dealt in a subtle, witty way.
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2. Shala (2011) | Director: Sujay Dahake
Several Marathi and Bollywood filmmakers have tried their hand at school-themed films. Their treatment is either amateurish or flat out rehashes of High School Musical (I am looking at you, Karan Johar!)
Shala is a rare film in the genre, that takes school life seriously. Its protagonists are regular middle class school children who are grappling with the all-important board year. School-time romance never seems escapist. We’ve all been through it and felt it. School trips, first pangs of love, hangouts, classrooms pranks. Shala makes you relive it all through a realistic depiction. A hush-hush professor-student romance. Bet you’d remember at least one from school, possibly with only half knowledge of what really transpired.
It’s these doubts about the characters’ actions and intentions that make this film beautiful. We see the school world from a kid’s perspective. A lot is hidden and protected from a Class 10 student, who feels frustrated because he thinks he is ready to be an adult at that age. Admit it, we’ve all been there.
It’s one of the most fabulously cinematographed Marathi films I’ve seen. All the child actors bring earnestness and natural naivety to their parts, while the adults are perfect representations of our parents, teachers and relatives.
It has a Kubrickesque feel to it in the sense that it explores the duality of life. The cool Mama (uncle), for instance, who promises he’d find an American girlfriend in the first half, turns up married to a regular Marathi girl, as per his father’s wish, in the second half. It’s this contradiction and realism that elevates the film from a run-of-the-mill school drama. It’s kind of depressing but reminds you of the good old, beautiful days. No escapism here.
Our protagonist’s best friend, who’s failed a class several times, proposes to a girl, right outside the school. It’s a bittersweet scene where we kind of root for the friend but realize how ridiculously foolish these kids are. It’s funny but sweet how they manage to gather the courage to propose the girl.
3. Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) | Director: Paresh Mokashi
From a movie that took school life seriously we turn to a film that takes a serious event and turns it on its head to deliver tender laughs. This film captures the journey of the making of the first Indian film (by Dadasaheb Phalke) in the early 20th century.
Dadasaheb Phalke is an eccentric but highly enterprising Marathi gentleman who falls in love with the art of movie-making when he first sees moving pictures. In British-ruled India where poverty was rampant, Dadasaheb, with meager wage, ventures with a dream to create an Indian film Raja Harishchandra.
The ridiculousness of the dream of a common Indian man is dealt with equal lack of seriousness. Absurd supporting characters abound, it deals with themes like superstition, societal pressure, inequality, regressive mindset about women in a way that never feels like a moral science lecture. The 1913 India is portrayed as it was — regressive, naïve, poor but human nonetheless. The film asks you to accept that the people associated with Raja Harishchandra were a bunch of imbeciles but that is how they needed to be to pull off such a mighty feat.
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The art and cinematography is commendable, given that it pulled off the period aspect on a shoestring budget. We constantly feel and root for our protagonist, who tries to get a camera from Britain and ventures to go there by selling all the household items and nearly goes broke. He tries to coax and convince his wife to act in the film which she flatly refuses. Eventually men played women’s part in the film. But the makers don’t shove the enormity of all these situations in the audience’s face. You enjoy the journey of making Raja Harishchandra.
I wish I could claim a Marathi film was the first ever Indian film. Alas, it was a silent film. But I take solace in the fact that it was a Marathi who made the first Indian film (Raja Harishchandra (1913)).
Dadasaheb Phalke’s friends drug him inconspicuously and take him to the hospital when he almost loses his eyesight obsessively studying the film material in darkness. It’s a hilarious scene since Phalke’s wife part takes in the conspiracy.
By Shridhar Kulkarni
PS: This is an ongoing series where we’ll bring you the best of Marathi films post the release of Shwaas. Look out for fresh recommendations every week.