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A commercial force

Friday, April 27, 2018

After years of being a losing proposition, Marathi cinema has seen a remarkable revival in terms of content, finesse and  backing from satellite television  conglomerates, says K Raj

In 2016, the Shah Rukh Khan starrer, Fan, recorded revenues of about Rs 84 crore at the box office. The same year, Sairaat, a Marathi film, boasted box office collections of over  Rs 110 crore.

Now Telugu and Tamil films often beat the collections of Hindi films. And if a Tamil film involves megastar Rajnikanth, such performance at the box office is considered routine. But for a Marathi film to beat the Badshah of Bollywood was unheard of.

Sairat’s success was even more remarkable because the movie starred two debutants. For almost six months after the film’s release, Jing Jing Jingaat, the catchy number from the film, was the number one choice in various pubs and discos around the country and even the tree around which the lead couple romanced, became a tourist attraction.

Sairat’s success was soon followed by that of movies like Natsamrat and Katyar Kaljat Ghusali, each of which grossed around Rs 50 crore and Ventilator, which collected around Rs 30 crore. Though these movies didn’t cross the Rs 100 crore mark and their collections sound modest when compared to most Bollywood hits, what one has to factor in is the production cost. Most Marathi movies have budgets of about Rs 3-4 crore so a collection of Rs 30 crore is an eye-popping return on investment.

It seems clear that after years of being a losing proposition, Marathi cinema is emerging as a commercial force to reckon with.

Marathi cinema shares its origins with the mainstream Hindi cinema. The father of India cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, who made India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was Marathi and so was most of the star cast. (The film was silent and as such did not have a language, though the sub-titles were in Hindi). With the advent of the talkies, for several years, Prabhat Film Company, of India’s early iconic production houses, made bilingual films – in Marathi and Hindi.

But the shared origins and proximity to Hindi cinema has also proved to be Marathi cinema’s biggest challenge. Since the centre of production for both has been Mumbai, Hindi cinema, given its nationwide reach, has always had bigger budgets, in turn attracting the best talent and also preference from exhibitors. It also gets preference from exhibitors from within Mumbai. Marathi cinema, on the other hand, has often struggled to find talent, financial backers and exhibitors.

As a result, for decades, Marathi films were stuck in the rut of telling stories about feudal landlords and dancing girls. Made on small budgets, mostly for semi-rural, low brow audiences, it gave Marathi cinema a reputation for mediocre content. This in turn resulted in finding financial backers more difficult.

Just consider the struggle of Paresh Mokashi, who in 2009 made the award-winning Harishchandrachi Factory, a biopic on Dadasaheb Phalke. During the making of Raja Harishchandra, Phalke at one point had to pawn his wife’s gold ornaments. In making a biopic on Phalke, almost 100 years later, Mokashi had to mortgage his home to fund the film.

Despite these adversities, Marathi cinema has seen a remarkable revival–in terms of content and finesse in the last decade. Young film-makers like Sachin Kundalkar, Umesh Kulkarni, Chaitanya Tamhane, Ravi Jadhav, Girish Kulkarni and Mahesh Limaye are making a mark with a different kind of cinema. One key reason behind this change is the fact that production houses, which are part of Satellite TV conglomerates, have started backing Marathi cinema. For these producers, the new-age Marathi cinema is good content that helps fill their 24x7 slots.

This backing has ensured that technically too, Marathi cinema has graduated to a different level. For example, A Rainy Day, a film by Rajendra Talak, was shot in sync sound and had Oscar winner Resul Pookutty as its sound designer–something that a Marathi producer wouldn’t have even dreamed of a few years ago.

Concerted efforts like those by film-maker Mahesh Manjrekar, who came to Marathi cinema after producing several successful Hindi potboilers, in launching Marathi International Film and Theater Awards (MIFTA) have also helped change the perception of Marathi cinema within India and beyond.

Innovative use of social media to publicise and market films has also ensured greater visibility that has brought a different kind of audience to theatres. The Maharashtra government’s decision to make it mandatory upon multiplexes to show Marathi films in peak times has also been a very helpful step.

All this, of course, doesn’t mean that every Marathi film makes money. For every success story like Sairat, Natsamrat or Ventilator, there are ten examples of films that have made losses. But overall, the industry is in much better shape financially than it was even five years ago.

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