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Let them entertain you
Much has been written about the alternate films coming out of Mumbai. But there is life beyond Bollywood. TOI-Crest looks at new wave cinema from across the country - intelligent, polished and increasingly popular. Regional is on a roll.
MOVIES FOR THE NEW MANOOS
Flush with off-beat ideas and prodigious talent, Marathi cinema is pushing the envelope like never before
Khalti Doka Varti Paay (Upside Down), which went to Cannes this year, is the story of Nandu, a little shepherd boy, whose only dream is to see a circus. Directed by Ajay Singh, the film journeys into the maddening whirl that is Mumbai, a bigger circus than any the boy could have hoped to see. Ten years ago when Marathi cinema was swamped with melodramatic stories about tamasha dancers, weepy housewives and lascivious landlords, Khalti. . . would not have been possible. What made the leap of faith possible was a small film made with a Rs 30-lakh budget, Shwaas, also about a little village boy who makes a life-changing journey to Mumbai. Shwaas gave Marathi cinema the kick it needed to go back to its strong creative roots. Today, it is no longer in Bollywood's shadow. In fact, Bollywood is now keen to back Marathi cinema. Khalti. . . , for instance, is part-produced by lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya. And Amitabh Bachchan's ABCL has backed the brilliant Marathi director Umesh Kulkarni and writer-actor Girish Kulkarni. This year, a feast of exciting projects is lined up. There is Madhuri Ashirgade's biopic on Baba Amte, who will most likely be played by Nana Patekar. Young filmmaker Dhananjay Kulkarni will be looking at the frail relationship between an NRI son and his parents in Sanjparva. And there is Satish Rajwade's next film Badam Rani Gulam Raja based on the controversial Marathi play Makadachya Hati Champaign about manipulative politicians.
Actor Upendra Limaye has an interesting story that sums up the interest that Marathi cinema is generating at national - and even international - fora. The actor who won the national award for Jogwa says that when he went to Delhi to receive the award, the jury told him that it is now a treat to watch movies in the Marathi movie section.
"Producers and directors now show the courage to handle different and sensitive issues, " says Chandrashekhar Joshi, film research officer at the Film and Television Institute of India.
Hearteningly, Marathi films which could be broadly classified as parallel cinema, such as Maaibaap, Thaang, Maatimai and Shevari, do good business. The last time alternate Marathi cinema experienced such a high was when Jabbar Patel had made movies such as Jait re Jait, Umbartha and Sinhasan in the 90s. Or when Amol Palekar made thought-provoking films on social issues.
Those days are back again. In recent years there have been films such as Jogwa, Valu, Deool, Shala, Babu Band Baja and Kaksparsha, which handled a range of social issues. Many of them were songless movies but they still drew crowds. Shala, 26-year-old Sujay Dahake's directorial debut, which tackled the problems of adolescence, managed a good response despite releasing with Agneepath and Ek Main Aur Ek Tu.
The picture was pretty dismal in the 1970s when the yearly output of the Marathi film industry was barely four or five movies. The number rose to 15 in 1980s and settled down to an average of 35 till 2001. However, post-Shwaas and its Oscar nomination and national award, the number increased. It has soared to the 100 mark in recent years, and another 50 are usually in the making.
Virendra Chitrav, secretary Ashay film club and former member of the Maharashtra state film advisory board that drafted the government policy for Marathi films, says that the process of change actually began in 1996-97.
"When we sat down to select films for the state awards in 1997 we found that there were only five films made that year. It was the lowest point for Marathi films, " recalls Chitrav. The government then decided to give grants to encourage film makers. The grants were generous - of upto Rs 20-25 lakh, with an additional Rs 10 lakh if the film is made in 35 mm and Dolby sound.
Prasad Surve, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Chitrapat Mahamandal which is the apex Marathi film body, points out that Marathi filmmakers are slowly outgrowing their dependence on government grants. "We no longer have shoe-string budgets. Mahesh Manjarekar's Mee Shivajiraje Boltoy, which was a huge box office success, was made with a budget of Rs 2. 5 crore. Nitin Desai's Balgandharv and Ajintha cost Rs 5 crore while the recently released Tukaram, directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni, was made at a cost of Rs 2 crore, " says Surve.
In fact, Marathi cinema is now so prolific that new releases have begun eating into each others' business. Marathi films are also making it to the national award list every year. "Of course, young directors like Umesh Kulkarni (Valu, Vihir, Deool), Nishikant Kamat (Dombivli Fast), Gajendra Ahire (who has made 25 films in last six years including Not Only Mrs Raut, Sarivar Sari and Divsendivas), Sachin Kundalkar (Gandh) and Satish Rajwade (Mrugjal, Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai ) have immense talent but they also have fresh, bold ideas and a global vision. They have proved that it is possible to have a successful career in Marathi film making, " says Chitrav.
So strong is this new wave of Marathi cinema that it is attracting investors and producers from Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan's AB Corp produced Vihir and Subhash Ghai's Mukta Arts is now producing and distributing Marathi films.
Umesh Kulkarni, who was handpicked by Jaya Bachchan to direct AB Corp's Vihir, agrees that these are good times for Marathi cinema. "Filmmakers are telling their own stories and experiences through films, without making compromises. They are breaking barriers and experimenting to create quality cinema, " he points out.
Star-less, gritty Tamil flicks set in rural mileaus have brought a new energy to Kollywood
Hero meets the girl under a tree and slowly unbuttons his shirt to reveal a tattoo on the chest. The heroine is rapturous to see a heart with their names inked on him. Love blooms and they embrace.
The searing intensity of the love story in Tamil movie Paruthiveeran (2007) by director Ameer Sultan is rooted in its locale. The language is the dialect spoken by folks living in rural Madurai;so are the excesses of caste violence that separate the lovers. But the film drew audiences like many other neo-realistic movies that have been coming out of Tamil Nadu since 2000.
The best of these did well at international film festivals, won national awards and inspired filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap to mine the Hindi hinterland for films like Gangs of Wasseypur. He admitted that his two-part rural saga was inspired by the work of the Madurai trio, directors Ameer Sultan, Vetrimaran and Bala. Kashyap's love for Tamil movies is no secret. He is reported to have seen the 2008 crime cult movie Subramaniapuram at least thrice and has religiously watched all films made by Bala and Ameer.
Tamil cinema might be getting new fans, but the wave of gritty rural stories began more than a decade ago. Bala's Sethu, a romantic tragedy revolving around a small town college student, is considered one of the earliest examples of this genre. Tamil cinema has always been rooted in the state's cultural milieu. But what brought in an extra dose of gritty realism and sometimes, gore and morbidity, was the departure from obsessive Tamil-ness of the 80s and 90s.
"In the 80s, everyone was in the masala film mode with big budget productions and lavish settings being the order of the day. When new filmmakers like Mani Ratnam and Shankar entered the scene in the 90s, they brought in urban and Hollywood sensibilities, " says Uma Vangal, filmmaker and head of media and entertainment at LV Prasad Film Academy, Chennai.
There was a parade of glossy family dramas, mostly urban in outlook. When Shankar and Mani tackled issues, the canvas was huge, whether it was corruption in Mudhalvan (remade as Nayak in Hindi) or terrorism in Roja.
While audiences appreciated the realism of the films, they also found themselves somewhat disconnected from the themes. Vangal believes that globalisation, in fact, created the demand for more Tamil-centric films. There was also a disenchantment with Dravidian politics accentuated by the decline of megastars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, says Vangal.
Suddenly, there were no role models. Filmmakers who were willing to experiment found the field just right for sowing new ideas. They chose scripts for heroes, says Ameer. They also picked ordinary looking men and women to play the various parts in their films.
Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar may all belong to the temple town but their films are not necessarily set in Madurai. "Kalavani is about rice thieving in the paddy belt of Thanjavur while Vamsam and Pasanga are based in Pudukkottai, " says director Pandiraj. (One film that captured Madurai and its famous cock fight sub-culture was the national award-winning film, Aadukalam directed by Vetriraman, who is not from Madurai. )
Over the years, the storylines of these films have become richer and more nuanced. Tamil's indie directors, including the Madurai trio, work to a specific list of priorities. "People like Bala are willing to forgo stars and what they save by doing that, they put into the films, " says film historian Mohan Raman. For instance, these directors don't scrimp on technology;only the best in the market will do.
The style does have its critics, especially its use of violence and the kind of roles assigned to women. "Though I like the way Bala's Naan Kadavul was shot, I disagree with the subject matter. There are other movies that show violence in the name of realism, " he says. Portrayal of women in films like Subramaniapuram and Paruthiveeran continues to be a reflection of the patriarchal society.
While audiences do reject tripe served up as edgy cinema, some directors are scrambling to shake off the "serious" label. "There is a lot of expectation (from my films). Plus, I have a beard and all three movies of mine had serious themes, " mock-laments Ameer. So he is readying a formula film, Aadhi Bhagawan, styled along the lines of superhit MGR movies. "At the end of the day, cinema is entertainment. I am just putting my brand on it, " he says.
Some say the new wave is coming to an end in Tamil Nadu. But now a new crop of auteurs is ready to walk on the path paved by filmmakers like Bala. So whether it is the nuanced portrayal of education in the 80s in Vaagai Sooda Va or the gripping depiction of acid attack victims in Vazhakku En 18/9, the noir scene continues to thrive. It could be because like Ameer, others also want to make movies that are of award-winning quality and have the potential to take Tamil cinema to the global level.
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