The once flourishing Marathi film industry, which boasted of hit films like Kunkoo, Manus, Pinjra and Shejari and left an indelible mark on Indian cinema with its original storyline, screenplay, and direction, is now gasping for breath.
Once heralded as cinematically wealthy -- it boasted of icons like V Shantaram, Baburao Painter, Bhalji Pendharkar, Acharya P K Atre and Master Vinayak -- the industry is, in an ironic twist of fate, now begging for recognition from its own 'Marathi manse (people)'. Queues in front of the advance booking counters of cinema houses screening Marathi films are a rarity as middle-class audiences switch from 'amchi' [our] Marathi' to Hindi films.
The industry has reached an all-time low with only 22 films produced in recent times.
"The deteriorating conditions can largely be attributed to the lack of original scripts and good directors," says a film analyst. "Most of the films are either based on Hindi blockbusters or are copies of formula films. A weak story concealed under the flamboyance of glamorous sets, Western dresses and jarring music can do little to resuscitate the dying Marathi film industry."
Also missing are haunting melodies like Latpat latpat tuzhe chalane, Tya tithe palikade, Dhagaala lagli kal, Nach nachuni ata mi damle, Tu hriday preet jagate jagate, Aaj kunitari yaave olkhiche vhave or Kevhatari pahate ultuun ratra geli.
"The current trend of parodies and remixes has killed the industry. The otherwise hardcore Marathi movie buff is turned off by the cheap music," say sources in the industry.
The lack of able directors, with few exceptions, is another pivotal factor. "Gone is the sensitive handling of topics, the interpretation of an event, or the iconoclastic way of presenting an issue," says film critic A Joshi.
Among the new releases, Chimani Pakhare, Dahavi-fa, Vastu Purush and Reshim Gathi are among the few films to have broken even at the box office.
The Maharashtra government cannot be counted on to rescue the industry from its current abyss. Besides declaring films tax-free and offering Rs 15,00,000 (approximately US $32,000) to those who have produced three films, it has done little to save the industry. "In fact, out of the Rs 15,00,000, some producers produce films for a paltry Rs 6,00,000 (approximately $12,800) and pocket the rest," says a source.
The Marathi film industry also appears to be suffering from a talent drain, with gifted actors like Nana Patekar, Laxmikant Berde and Ashok Saraf turning to Hindi films or television owing to a lack of opportunities on the home front.
Film producer Kiran Shantaram, however, does not agree with this talent drain theory. The Marathi film industry, he says, has limited viewership and every actor craves a bigger audience. "The solution to rescuing the industry lies in offering incentives to new directors and promoting them in a big way," he argues.
He attributes the decline to three reasons -- lack of good movies, lack of theatres to screen films, and lack of financially sound releases in Maharashtra's main cities. "Exhibitors do not offer Marathi film producers any concession. Though the government has exempted Marathi films from taxes, our films do not get a chance to release in the main cities," he says. "Though the government has made it compulsory for every cinema house to reserve a minimum of four weeks a year for Marathi films, the loophole lies in the fact that there is no control over the rent. Hence, producers cannot afford to hire theatres to release their films."
Shantaram admits that unoriginal storylines have made Marathi films less alluring to viewers. "Most of the writers are unable to go beyond a certain frame, despite the fact that Marathi literature offers a rich repertoire of stories," he says. "The success of Bindhaast, which explored an all-women theme, just goes to prove the point."
Marathi films also tend to be sidelined when compared to their technically superior sibling -- the Hindi film. But filmmaker Amol Palekar disagrees that the Marathi industry is currently in the doldrums. "Our comparison with the Hindi film industry is erroneous. The Marathi film industry is not an inferior sibling of the Hindi film industry. The Hindi film industry produced nearly 500 films last year, the majority of which flopped at the box office. So, to say the Marathi film industry is not faring well would be wrong," he argues. "Dahavi-fa ran for 35 weeks in Pune, which is not bad business."
He does, however, cite the dominance of Hindi films, the lack of a proper distribution network, and the lack of good theatres as impediments. "We also need to change the mindset and respect the Marathi film industry as much as other regional film industries and the Hindi film industry," he says. "We must initiate a visible change in the Marathi industry."
Attributing social, political and financial reasons to the decline, Palekar claims that if the focus on and over-promotion of Hindi films is curtailed, the Marathi film industry will have a fair chance. He adds that directors like Jabbar Patel and Chandrakant Kulkarni have the potential of delivering the goods if the Marathi industry receives the necessary support.