Aapla Manus to Gulabjaam: How Marathi cinema widened its appeal with stories from cities, hinterland

Aparna Pednekar

Feb 24, 2018 13:00:08 IST

At a 4 pm multiplex show, Aapla Manus experiences a pretty lively attendance in the recliner section; decidedly more impressive than watching The Post in the same theatre with 10 people.  A large NRI Gujarati family and a chic gaggle of SoBo couples in their 30s and 40s show up on a weekday afternoon, along with all-male ‘kitty groups’. 

Never mind that the film turns out to be a disappointing, didactic bore but the titular aapla manus (our man) Nana Patekar’s done his bit; drawing in viewers across the spectrum.

Nana Patekar in a still from Aapla Manus. YouTube

Nana Patekar in a still from Aapla Manus. YouTube

Whether he is playing a one-liner-flinging crime branch inspector (a very poor version of his Ab Tak Chhapan cop) here or an ageing Shakespearan actor in Mahesh Manjrekar’s Natsamrat (2016) or further back, a wily, rustic politician in Umesh Kulkarni’s  whip-sharp satire, Deool (2011),  the 67-year old actor is that rare Marathi marquee star who can boast of a pan-community appeal that runs from Prabhadevi to Parbhani; Dadar to Detroit.

His co-star in Natsamrat, the 77-year old handsome and light-eyed Vikram Gokhale was once part of the suave Marathi cinema ecosystem of the 60s and 70s that thrived in cosmopolitan Bombay and Pune-Satara’s modest, cerebral theatre atmosphere.

City slickers

The resurgence of the Marathi films on the national and international platforms was led by phenomenal stories that spring out from hitherto unexplored pockets of Maharashtra. From Shwaas — India's official entry to the 2004 Oscars — Natrang, Shaala and Fandry to the mother of all blockbusters Sairaat, the hits kept rolling out. In between, period biopics like the delightful Harishchandrachi Factory and sublime Balgandharv (deservedly) hogged the public consciousness and accolades.

Of course, there will be exceptions to the rule. Mumbai’s seamy and seething urban-scape played muse in Nishikant Kamat’s cult hit Dombivli Fast and Avadhoot Gupte’s Zhenda which took a well-layered mainstream approach to exploring city politics. The more experimental and atypically urbane films slipped under the radar, unnoticed. A brave neo-noir experiment, Pune52 missed the mark but Abhijit Panse’s Rege — the story of a medical student embroiled in the underworld-police nexus and last year’s psychological thriller Manjha bravely strayed off the beaten path successfully. While telling stories competently, the casts spoke a hybrid of Marathi, English and Hindi; relating to an audience that Marathi cinema’s big guns ignore.

The next-gen Marathi stars

Rege and Manjha’s 20-something and teenage protagonists are just the sort of fresh blood the industry needs to breakout from the glut of very talented but somewhat one-note, theatre-trained actor-stars, populating films that are just slightly glamorous versions of television serials. Like Swwapnil Joshi and Mukta Barve, the lead pair of Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai, the superhit romedy that exhausted its silly intercity premise within 30 minutes but has dragged on to a sequel and a third one in the pipeline.  

The male actors still manage to throw up surprises – Amey Wagh is energetic and boyish, Gashmeer Mahajani has a macho, intense appeal and Siddharth Chandekar is charming, minus Joshi’s tiresome mannerisms — but the young female actors are all uninspiring. The mighty talented Sonali Kulkarni, Mukta Barve and Amruta Subhash could not be expected to slip into younger, cooler roles. We definitely need more of the likes of curly haired Mithila Palkar who was easy breezy in last year’s equally chilled out Muramba.

Of the filmmakers that we can look at to infuse suavity into Marathi films, Avinash Arun and Sachin Kundalkar are safe bets. Their films may be tethered to their homeland and awash in nostalgia but the their filmmaking language is not bound by a stilted Marathi-ness. Arun, who shot Masaan, brought a gossamer lightness of being to his directorial debut Killa (a quality it shared with Umesh Kulkarni’s 2010 film Vihir which was more cerebral). Though Killa was based in a dreamily shot milieu, it had a sophisticated sensibility that lesser films with superficial trappings of cool, strive to achieve. Killa’s mother-son leads could be plucked out of Konkan and replanted into a Russian village or Tuscan hamlet and they would still stab the audience with a painfully sweet nostalgia of childhood and growing up.

Kundalkar’s deeply personal films are mostly set in his hometown Pune, and big kudos go out to him for straying away from chawl, peth and ‘middle-class’ concerns to portray a tony business family with its relationship tangles in Rajwade & Sons. Along with reliable usual suspects (Atul Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar), it starred a bunch of young actors (Siddharth Menon and Alok Rajwade upstaged the girls) doing all the sneaky scene-stealing. Clearly, that film did not register with all sections of the audience, which is why Kundalkar’s next, Gulabjaam (released this week), scuttles back to the comforting world of vahini, kaku and varan bhaat. But even while he kowtows to mass audiences, Kundalkar’s sensibilities remain refined. One look at the star of the film — stylishly shot Maharashtrian food — can set Instagram accounts aflutter and mouths drooling from here to London.

Audience in Flux

Arun and Kundalkar’s aesthetic is ideal for evolving and osmotic Marathi-speaking audiences across the state and the world. Who is to say that the next standout urban film will not come from Nasik or Aurangabad! Sairaat’s success showcased the clout of Marathi-speaking audiences — who have long been known for a stoic approach to anything new — filmmakers do not want to be limited to urban pockets anymore. Someone as young and experimental as Sujay Dahake (Shaala, Ajoba, Phuntroo) has cast his net wide with his next Kesari, based on state wrestlers. Kundalkar is working on adapting his award-winning novella Cobalt Blue into his screenplay; the tightly structured story of a brother and sister in Pune who fall in love with the same man could be a winner in waiting.

That it will be set in Pune’s notoriously insular Sadashiv Peth will probably be just incidental.

Updated Date: Feb 24, 2018 13:00:08 IST