26 May 2014

Picture This: The Marathi Renaissance

My BL Ink column:
Exciting work is emerging once again from the land of Prabhat Studios: films with close ties to the social and cultural ground from which they spring.

A still from Nagraj Manjule's superb first feature, Fandry (2013)
I am no expert on Marathi cinema: I live in Delhi and have never seen a Marathi film in the theatre. I don’t even speak the language (though I love the sharply articulated sound of it). But over the last six years or so, I have seen so many interesting Marathi films at festival screenings that I have no hesitation in agreeing with pronouncements of a renaissance. What seems to me truly wonderful is the variety of films being made, and how close their ties are to the social and cultural ground from which they rise. 

Astu, which I saw last week, is named for a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘so be it’. Directed by the long-time director duo Sunil Sukhtankar and Sumitra Bhave, Astu centres on the transformation of a man’s relationship with the world as a result of Alzheimer’s. Mohan Agashe plays a retired Sanskrit professor who goes from being a sagacious old man to an overgrown child. As he loses his memory, his elder daughter Ira (Irawati Harshe) must deal with a father who no longer behaves like a father. But to find the strength to do so, she must first forgive him. Astu offers a quietly terrifying vision of ageing and life: if the growing defencelessness of the old is a regression to childhood, children’s transition to adulthood seems to make them more brutal.

The film might have worked purely as a fraught family portrait. But Bhave and Sukhtankar are interested in something more ambitious. Against the educated upper- middle-class Marathi family with its intellectualised responses and complex dynamics, they pit a poor Telugu-speaking migrant woman who seems instinctively to know what is needed. If she worries, it is only about how to feed another mouth. The veteran Agashe is great at depicting the professor’s increasingly childlike dependence on the goodness of others — and the immensely talented Amruta Subhash won a National Award as the embodiment of that goodness. The filmmakers also make evocative use of an elephant (which Agashe becomes obsessed with) to move the film into a more mythical register, charging the beast with the symbolic heft of his move from culture to nature.

Despite all these things working for it, the film is not flawless. It feels a little flabby, and its father-daughter conversations about philosophy — Zen or Mahabharat — sound pretentious rather than thought-provoking. The final irritant is harder to articulate: there is something deeply Brahminical about the milieu, the characters and their concerns. Nothing wrong with that — a Brahmin subculture is as legitimate as any other, you might say. But there’s something annoying about the film’s almost ideological equation of Sanskrit with the highest form of knowledge, with god-like-ness. And the fact that Brahmin-ness is constantly played on, but never overtly invoked.

That’s the thing about caste at the upper end of the hierarchy — it is made invisible: we’re all supposed to pretend it doesn’t matter. At the lower end of the hierarchy, no one has the luxury of that pretence. So I’m glad that Marathi cinema is beginning to make room for films that speak of — and from — that predicament, too. Baboo Band Baja, made in 2010, centred on a young boy from a community of bandwalas. The film flagged the question of whether the boy could go to school and hope to move out of the system, or be forced to continue in the family profession. Rajesh Pinjani’s decision to embody the two points of view in the mother and father was effective, if a bit ham-handed.

Nagaraj Manjule’s semi-autobiographical Fandry, released in 2013, deals much more frontally with the caste question, interestingly also via a young boy in a rural setting trying to deal with the conflicting imperatives of his home and school milieus. Sanskrit appears in this film, too, though from a very different angle: Jabya’s classmate Vedant Kulkarni, the studious good boy to whom he and his friends go for notes, has (like the adult Ira in Astu) a Sanskrit teacher for a father. Jabya’s own father, in contrast, cannot even read his son’s secret love letter when he stumbles upon it. Caste is a plain fact of life here, and Manjule doesn’t beat around the bush about it. Early in the film we hear Jabya’s mother say how he’d throw even more tantrums if he were fair-skinned — and she’s not joking. When Jabya gets besotted with his classmate Shalu, it’s apparent her fair-skinned Brahmin-ness is crucial to his desire.

Colour is important to Manjule’s film in other ways. It is beautifully shot, with a palette that echoes his theme. The desiccated landscape of rocks and spiny bushes is bleached of all colour, as drab as the lives Jabya and his family live. Jabya’s desire for bright things — and his fruitless search for a mythical bird — shows his world in aching relief.

Other recent Marathi films that have gotten noticed at the National Awards include Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain, 2009) about farmer suicides in Vidarbha; Umesh Kulkarni’s Valu, Vihir and 2012’s Deool (the latter is among the more powerful films I’ve seen about the commercialisation of faith), Sujay Dahake’s 2011 paean to school life, Shala; Paresh Mokashi’s Dadasaheb Phalke biopic Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) and Sandesh Kulkarni’s Masala (2012), inspired by the Chordias, a couple who grew from nothing to become owners of a masala empire. Masala is a Guru without the gloss: unlike that glorification of Dhirubhai Ambani’s questionable tactics, Masala makes business seem both honest and admirable.

A lot of Marathi cinema emerges out of a cross-fertilisation with theatre. One can see the difference from Bollywood in the substantial scripts, the use of actors rather than stars, and an attention to locations. Yes, sometimes the films can be verbose, and when they try to cater to the commercial side of things by adding item songs, they can be tacky as well. But on the whole, this is a world well worth trying to enter.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.

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