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The Alphonso renaissance

The Alphonso renaissance

Enterprise versus traditional farming—this debate among members of a Konkan mango-growing family has caught the imagination of Maharashtrian cine-goers, who are themselves at the threshold of a similar change in popular culture. Hapus, the movie that takes its name from the variety of mango that rules the fruit basket, is ruling the box office for the fourth week and inching towards hit status.

Marathi cinema today is like the adolescent who has come of age and suddenly discovered there is a whole world out there to conquer—making some rash decisions, but also showing occasional flashes of brilliance.

Gone are the years when Marathi cinema was all about madcap comedies that put off educated urban audiences. Today, cinephiles find it difficult to believe that the Marathi film Shyamchi Aai won the Swarnakamal, the highest national honour in 1954. Exactly five decades later, Shwaas breathed life into the film scene when it won the National Award for best film in 2004. The market for Marathi cinema has changed completely in the six years since.

This year Natrang, a film that explores the Lavni and Tamasha art forms, exploded on the Marathi movie scene. Tickets to a Marathi film were being sold in black. A bold and unsettling story of gender identity, it had great production values and marked the revival of folk music in contemporary Marathi cinema. The buzz around the movie rubbed off on other releases that followed: Shikshanachya Aaicha Gho, Zhenda, Lalbaug Parel, Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai and now Hapus. Will the Marathi film industry head the southern way, where regional cinema is bigger than Bollywood?

That may be a far cry, at least commercially. Nitin Datar, vice-president of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India, is frank about the situation: “Of the 35-odd films that have released since January 2010, only three have actually made profit." He says it does not matter how long the film runs on screens; a film that is made with a smaller budget can make profit even if it does just average business. By that calculation, very few films qualify as hits. A Marathi film costs Rs60 lakh-1 crore on an average to produce, and another Rs50 lakh is worked in for publicity. But it is not just ticket sales that decide the monetary fate of a film. Close to 50% of the revenue comes from sale of home-viewing and satellite rights.

Sanjay Chhabria, the producer of Hapus, says Marathi cinema lacks star value. Unlike the south, where superstars such as Rajinikanth, Chiranjeevi or Mammootty pull crowds, irrespective of the film’s quality, there are no stars in Marathi cinema. Actors such as Bharat Jadhav are now realizing that they should do fewer films, choosing quality over quantity to build their brand value. “It will take another four or five years for actors to slowly become stars," says Chhabria. There is promise in actors such as Sachin Pilgaonkar, Sachin Khedekar and Atul Kulkarni, who do not “over-expose" themselves. But the lack of a loyal fan base means every film has to stand on its own.

Production values have to meet Bollywood standards. Marathi cinema cannot be compared with the Tamil or Telugu film industries; it competes directly with Hindi cinema for eyeballs. Hindi is understood and spoken on a par with Marathi in most of Maharashtra, so the audience has a choice between Marathi and Hindi films.

Abhijeet Satam was in advertising until the idea of Hapus ripened after some brainstorming with friends. After tasting success with his first feature film, Satam is now ready to make his next in Hindi. “Marathi audience is conservative. They will not accept an item song or semi-nude babes dancing. I know of grandparents going to watch Hapus with their children and grandchildren," he says. Satam says simple ideas work best with Marathi.

Marathi literature also offers a rich base for films. Satam believes the audience for Marathi films is growing, with the youth showing interest and non-Maharashtrians also turning to Marathi films for a different genre of cinema.

Chhabria’s first Marathi film Me Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy became the highest grosser in the history of Marathi films. It grossed Rs20 crore at the box office. Cashing in on the insider-outsider debate, the film reflected the identity politics of the middle-class Mumbaikar. Mahesh Manjrekar played Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who guides the protagonist, played by Khedekar, like Munna Bhai’s Bapu. Watching the film meant asserting one’s identity, and not just an evening well spent. Chhabria hit the right button and the cash registers began ringing.

This year, he made Shikshanachya Aaicha Gho, on an education system that binds the middle class in its conformist values. The film did average business. Chhabria believes the central theme is the key. “This is an educated audience we are catering to. A film with a message that is not preachy will do well."

Commercially, Marathi films may be just about gaining a foothold, but when it comes to the art house genre, they seem to be leading. The list of award-winning Marathi films is growing year after year. Shwaas, which received an Oscar nomination in 2005, changed the way people looked at Marathi films. The film, in fact, drew audiences to halls only after it received the National Award, and then made a comeback with the Oscar nomination. However, what worked for Shwaas did not work for Harishchandrachi Factory, India’s entry to the Oscars in 2010. “It’s a tricky business. What’s the point of putting in your life’s savings into making a film that will win awards but not do well at the box office? I feel bad for such producers. There are more and more people who want to invest in Marathi films, but there are many who lose all their money," says Chhabria. He is clear that he would not invest more than Rs50-55 lakh in an art house film, and not over a crore and a half in a commercial venture.

But, as Harini Calamur of Cogito Entertainment (India) Pvt. Ltd—which made its debut Marathi film Jhing Chik Jhing last month—puts it, if a story needs to be told and Marathi is the language in which it can be told most compellingly, then she will make the film. Money cannot dictate creative decisions; it is the passion for good cinema that matters.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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