Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of a Marathi movie called Sairat which has broken all records for Marathi films. Aamir Khan has tweeted praising it, Irrfan Khan held a special screening for it, claiming that cinema like this will help us compete with Hollywood and Madhuri Dixit has danced to the tune of its hit song, ‘zingat’ in a televised film awards event. Sairat seems to be the climax of a resurgence of Marathi cinema which has been going on for the last few years.
Regional cinema has always been the poorer cousin of Bollywood. More is the pity, because the regional cinema dishes out much superior fare. I remember when I was a child, and Doordarshan was the only channel on television, we used to look forward to the Bollywood film that was played every Sunday evening and seldom missed it. However, we never watched the regional language film that was played on Sunday afternoons. If ever we happened to turn on the television during the afternoons, we would observe that the regional film was often black and white, appeared very slow, seemed to be rustic and set in countryside and looked suspiciously like an art film. Off went the television only to be turned on during the more appealing fare in the evening.
It would be accurate to say that the only Marathi film I had seen in my childhood was ‘Shyamchi aai’, not that I liked it very much. This was a Marathi classic and everyone had seen it on the telly. And one had heard of a southern film called ‘Nayakan’ which had Kamal Hassan and had gone to the Oscars, but one had never seen it- probably there was no theatrical release in the interior Maharashtra, where I lived as a child.
As I grew older, I became more interested in Hollywood fare, even started looking down a bit on standard Bollywood fare. Regional cinema first piqued my interest in 1992 with ‘Roja’. Now ofcourse, I saw the Hindi version, but the fact that it was originally a Southern film, got my attention. That was when I first heard people discussing that technical skills of South Indian film industry and their aesthetic and production values were actually better than Bollywood. Who knew?
From Hollywood one graduated to world cinema and ironically that was what got one interested in Indian regional cinema. For, if I could watch a Hungarian or a Chinese film with subtitles, what was stopping me from watching regional cinema likewise? Certainly I could relate far more to the context than I could to that of foreign cinema. The problem still remained- how to access good regional cinema? One no longer watched Doordarshan and certainly Doordarshan was not playing contemprory regional cinema, and these were seldom released in theatres , in fact even their DVDs were hard to come by. So one read of films like ‘Unishe April’ but never got to see them. Very occassionally a regional film with a big star/director would get a theatrical release, like ‘Chokher Bali’ (starring Aishwarya Rai) or a Mani Ratnam film ‘Kannathil muthumalai’ with Nandita Das and that was only time I got to see regional cinema.
Fast forward to 2015 and this scenario has changed dramatically. I have watched four Marathi films since mid 2015 and all of them in theatres. Thanks to the resurgence of Marathi cinema.
But to go back a little, for much of my youth, I never saw Marathi films, which would have been fairly easy for me to access through theatres (although not the kind I was used to) or through video tapes or later, DVDs. My sister told me of a friend, a Punjabi guy, who used to watch them. I expressed surprise, thinking that the language barrier would have discouraged him. She said, ‘no, he says there’s nothing to understand- it’s like watching cartoon films. It’s brainless and relaxing!’. I guess you can understand now why I never watched Marathi films? For years I carried the impression that they were low-IQ comedies and they all had Laxmikant Berde (not to disrespect him, I am sure he was a very talented comedian).
This impression was dented when a Marathi movie called ‘Shwaas’ came along in 2004. It was critically acclaimed, got a theatrical release but I didn’t see it, deliberately, because the storyline was so sad. My loss. Then five years after this, in 2009, I heard of another Marathi film which was critically acclaimed called ‘Harishchandrachi factory’, which I did want to see, a lot, but somehow missed. Incidentally, both were sent by India to the Oscars, though they did not get nominated.
In 2014, I heard of movies like Qilla and Fandry. Qilla was the first Marathi film that I read the review of, in a column which always did mainstream Bollywood film reviews. Qilla also got a theatrical release, in a multiplex no less. For me, both of these were signs that times-were-a-changing. I somehow missed Qilla too and Fandry did not get released anywhere near me. Then came Court in mid 2015. It was released in a multiplex. And this time I went and saw it. And was bowled over. And hooked. Court was an astonishingly good film, well made, relevant. I was not bored even for a second. It was for me an eye-opener. I realized now that Marathi cinema was no longer something to be sneezed at. And no longer something I could afford to ignore, if I wanted to see good screen fare.
I love films. I try to see them often. But most of them are so forgettable, I can’t for the life of me remember their names after I have seen them- this applies equally to Bollywood and Hollywood. Not so with the Marathi films I have seen over the last year. In fact, most of the memorable ones- have been Marathi. Call me biased. I am a Marathi girl. But ‘Maharashtrian’ has not been a very strong part of my identity. ‘Mumbaiite’-maybe. But I often even forget to raise my hand when people ask in a group, ‘who all are Maharashtrians’? I have often been called a ‘fake Maharashtrian’ and been ridiculed for my broken Marathi. So I don’t think I am particularly biased. These films have just been pretty darn good. And I am so proud.
Court, Katyar kalijyat ghusli, Natsamrat and now, Sairat. Sairat is a phenomenon by itself. I can not even begin to describe what a fantastic achievement it is. It has given us the most memorable female character to be seen on celluloid in a long time! Move over, Vidya Balan and Dirty picture. Archi is here.
Forget about the awards at the film festival. Forget the numbers of the box office collections. Forget the endorsement by Bollywood fraternity. The real indicator of a film’s success is when the audience is involved in watching it, when it is an active audience, when it laughs and whistles and even dances during the songs. That is what is happening in Sairat. In fact, I was so impressed, I saw Fandry (made by the director of Sairat, Nagraj Manjule, earlier on) on Netflix. It was so powerful, so moving- much better than Sairat but lacking its popular appeal. I think I am getting a crush on Nagraj Manjule.
Now when I look to see what is playing on my Bookmyshow app on my phone, I don’t skip by ANY regional film (well, except for Bhojpuri. Again, no offence meant, I am sure that they good films, but, open as I am to regional cinema, I’m not quite there yet). I read the descriptions and look at the audience ratings of the regional cinema as well as others, and then choose what to watch. And I am heartened to note, that it is not just Marathi films, but other regional films too, that are being screened at multiplexes, that are getting not just critical reviews, but good ratings from the audience too. Bengali films, Kananada films.
Its like a whole new world has opened up. And for a cineaste like me, this can only be good news.