There is a season for every cinema. Some are brief — almost evanescent — but others have a robust life, evolving over time where trends are set and gone at a bewildering pace. Marathi cinema has been the chosen flavour for film buffs for over a decade, and it seems to renew itself with a creative energy that shows no signs of flagging. This is the post Jabbar Patel, Amol Palekar generation of filmmakers, who have outgrown the parallel cinema format. Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar are still going strong with their issue-based films, the latest being Astu starring Dr. Mohan Agashe as the Alzheimers-stricken father who wanders off from his family. This duo made its mark with the wonderfully textured Vastupurush, where a crumbling family mansion is a character in itself, besides being an evocative setting.
Another memorable film of theirs was Devrai, where the supremely talented Atul Kulkarni played a schizophrenic uprooted disturbing subtext of sexual tension struggling against religious taboos. These are the illustrious forerunners of a resurgence that started with Shwaas and is going strong — a resurgence that is visible in the auteurial works of Umesh Kulkarni and Paresh Mokashi; in the middle-of-the-road sensibilities of Ravi Jadhav and even Marathi commercial films influenced by the new adventurous spirit. The very fact that there have been three Marathi films chosen to represent India at the Oscars — Shwaas (2004) and Court (2015) with Harischandrachi Factory (2009) — is vindication of this cinema’s vibrancy and thematic breadth. That they did not make the shortlist — a lack of a well-oiled PR machinery could be one of the reasons — in no way detracts from the intrinsic merit of films that are true to their vision and exhale the scent of their patch of Indian earth.
Now to the phenomenon that is Sairat (Wild). The attention that the movie has been getting from the mainstream press is an acknowledgement of Marathi cinema’s reach. You normally don’t find the English press detailing the unprecedented success of a film with newcomers, made by a director whose first film, Fandry, was a favourite on the festival circuit but hardly rippled the placid box office waters. Now, news of its wild success is highlighted practically every other day. Shows at 12 and 3 AM have been scheduled in Maharashtra’s interiors, to accommodate a clamouring audience. It has grossed over Rs 65 crore — a first for Marathi cinema — and its young leads, 22-year old Akash Thosar and 15- year old Rinku Rajguru, who were signed up for Rs 4 lakh, have been given Rs 5 crore each. Other crew and cast have received enhanced payments too, and this kind of egalitarianism is pretty rare in an industry where the producer and distributor grab all profits. A small digression here is appropriate. I remember an Om Puri reminiscence, where he recalled telling Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the then NFDC chairman, that he, along with other actors, were paid between Rs 5 to 10,000 for the groundbreaking Jaane Bhi Don Yaaron, and nobody came forward to share the profits the evergreen cult movie made.
You have to credit Nagraj Manjule for this generosity, because he graduated from the school of hard knocks and knows the truth of what he portrays with such engaging vitality in both his films. The son of a poor farmer, Manjule’s diploma short, Pistulia, started his deep, unrelenting exploration of the caste division that continues to oppress marginalized Dalits in subtle and cruel ways in rural society. The difference is that his narratives are not all grim detailings of the many ways of oppression. He brings alive the textures and nuances of a horizontally divided society in small town rural settings. Here, Dalit boys go to school with upper-class girls. There is a coy flirtation set up between the smitten Dalit boy Jabya and pretty, coquettish classmate Shalu, who is aware of his interest and does nothing to discourage him — a kind of passive encouragement that makes Jabya hunt for the elusive black-tailed bird. Sprinkling the ashes of the bird’s feathers on the chosen object of his affections is supposed to make the girl fall in love with him.
Manjule uses the recurring bird call as a lyrical leitmotif in a story that weaves together humour, irony and dramatic build up to a dehumanizing, traumatic pig hunt, where the village gathers to enjoy the sadistic spectacle of the Dalit family’s desperate chasing of pigs. Fandry transcends the didactic naturalism of parallel cinema even as it recalls moments from iconic films of that period: Goutam Ghosh’s Paar, where a Mushar couple herd pigs across the Hooghly for survival, and the little boy throwing a stone at the end of Shyam Benegal’s Ankur. In Fandry, the stone that an impotently infuriated Jabya throws comes looming at the screen, and us in the audience. Manjule reserves the sucker punch for the finale — in Fandry and Sairat — but in totally different ways, therein showing that he may be engaged in basically the same theme, but is growing frame by frame in style and impact.
Sairat is a Romeo and Juliet story set in Sholapur, where caste is the dividing factor. Manjule spends the first half detailing the blossoming of young love between Parshya (Akash Thosar), a Dalit boy from a fishing family and Archana/Archie (Rinku Rajguru), the preening, pricey princess of the place who rides bikes and drives tractors, befitting the daughter of the rich, politically powerful Patil. The film stitches in tennis ball cricket tournaments between local teams, where Parshya is the star player, with languorous walks along sugarcane fields and segregated (by gender) swims in the dappled green waters of amazing step wells. The hero’s helpful friends are fleshed out into likeable, loyal youngsters, instead of being the usual hangers on. The director is confident enough of his craft to weave Bollywood tropes into the young couple’s ideas of romance, always puncturing the fantasy with trenchant humour. The lovers are discovered, they run for their lives, hounded by the father and his henchmen. All this takes a tad too long, but is still engaging enough.
It is in the latter half of the film, when Parshya and Archi end up in Hyderabad, their runaway status obvious to the goons patrolling the unsafe city streets, that Sairat becomes brilliant. Unable to find lodging, they sleep on city benches and seek refuge in a movie theatre, till a feisty local Marathi-speaking woman shoos off a pack of rowdies and shelters them in a slum. She too was abandoned with a child, and runs a food cart. Romance now comes down to the stinky smell of a slum and Archie’s inability to cook or clean. The role reversal is not consciously underlined. Archie finds a job in a factory, while Parshya keeps house, and works at the food cart. Where Manjule scores is in taking us through the ups and downs of a couple faced with the grim reality of daily life, Archie’s homesickness and Parshya’s insecurities to be overcome before they graduate to a settled lower middle-class life. Secure as the mother of a toddler, Archie finally contacts her teary mother. Her brother and his hangers-on land up with gifts. After what looks like an awkward reconciliation, the ending is chilling.
The violence is off screen. All we see is the bewildered toddler, who has been with a neighbour, staggering on unsteady feet, away from the bloodbath in the kitchen. It all takes place in total silence, forcing us to not look away from the inevitable tragedy after the sunny beginning and exciting middle, followed by a contented aftermath. This is where Sairat differs from the lavish Bollywood retellings of the Romeo-Juliet tale. Manjule makes graphic the many anonymous reports of young lovers killed for daring to cross the cast-in-stone caste divide.
Manjule’s film differs from other films of adolescent love that have become huge hits.Time Pass, directed by Ravi Jadhav, is the story of burgeoning adolescent love between Dagdu, a lower class Matric-failed boy whose father drives an auto, and a middle-class girl strictly watched over by a father who works at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre — even if only as a clerk — but very conscious of all the initials that follow his name on the nameplate. The film made a star of Prathamesh Parab, who has plenty of chutzpah, Marathi style, but not conventional good looks. He is cast as a disruptive force, the unconventional romantic hero in some of the trailers I have seen. Time Pass has a sequel, after the first film ends with Dagdu realizing the importance of an education to become an equal of his beloved. The sequel stars older actors, unlike Sairat, where Manjule seamlessly transforms his lead pair from awkward teenagers into young adults. Rinku Rajguru, whose Special Jury commendation at the recent National Awards was ignored by the English press, is nothing short of marvellous in the way she grows before our eyes — emotionally, physically, with assured body language for a girl who was 15 when she was cast in the film. Sairat is slated for the Berlinale.
The complexities of adolescence seem to be a favoured theme. It all started with Umesh Kulkarni’s Vihir, which explores the dynamics of an extended family meeting in the ancestral home for a wedding, where the bond between two cousins comes to the fore. The Pune- based Sameer is in high school, and desperately wants his older cousin Nachiket to come to Pune for his college education. Adolescent angst and looking for answers to inchoate existential questions can become pretentious, but under Kulkarni’s sensitive direction, it is real and allegoric, layered and keenly observed, the changing locales used to lingering, lyrical effect. It is such a huge change from the boisterous tone and high voltage pace of his first film Valu, a satire that dares to be literal in letting loose a bull in the complicated social structure of a small town and its hierarchies. His third film, Deool won the National Award for best film, actor and dialogue. Once again, in a roaring satire that makes room for subtleties with seamless ease, Kulkarni takes head on the commercialization of religion, the coming of globalization to a village and amidst it all, the centre of faith that grounds a naïve villager.
Another hot potato issue of adolescence is the sexual curiosity of pre-teens and teenagers. Balak Palak, again directed by Ravi Jadhav — who seems to be the man for all seasons and themes — exposes a quartet of kids living in a close knit chawl to sex education via blue films, preceded by adult literature. Balak Palak was a big hit, and Riteish Deshmukh was one of the producers, encouraged no doubt by the success of his Dabangg avatar (with Salman Khan playing a cameo) in Lai Bhari, which was a full-on fusion of ‘70s Madras melodrama and Bollywood masala. You have got to see Radhika Apte in her native element, though.
Balak Palak is a totally different world from Shala (2012), made by Sujay Dahake. Shala is nuanced in its exploration of a 14-year old boy’s feelings for his classmate, who has come to this small town when her father is transferred. He and his friends are all in the same situation: how to understand and express the confusing, yet stirring awareness of sexual attraction.
Marathi films have a fine sensibility, almost mirroring Iranian cinema, when it comes to children. Killa (2015) by Avinash Arun, wafts the moist breeze of a small Konkan town as it takes us into the aching void of a 11-year-old boy while he copes with the death of his father. His working mother is transferred to a new place, he has to adjust to a new environment and learn to make new friends. And just as he is settling in, the mother is transferred again. The elusive search for permanence in the midst of inevitable change is poignant, and got Killa a slew of awards, including the Crystal Bear of the Children’s Jury at Berlin. Paresh Mokashi leaves behind the whimsy and historical recreation of his much feted Harishchandrachi Factory for the spirited joie de vivre of children in the quaintly titled Elizabeth Ekadashi. Set in Pandharpur, you are charmed by the innocence and determination of the brothersister duo and their friends, to reclaim the bicycle their widowed mother had to sell. Mukta asks her brother Dnyaneshwar what Elizabeth means. It means Tikavoo, he answers with supreme confidence. The English Rani lasted a long time, and so will their beloved bicycle Elizabeth. Such is the irrefutable logic of a child, which somehow captures the best of recent Marathi cinema.