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'Marathi cinema needs crowd-pullers': Sharad Kelkar, others speak about what's ailing the industry

07:00 AM Sep 26, 2021 | Roshmila Bhattacharya

"Things were looking up, theatres were filling up. There were at least 15-20 producers who had invested Rs 6-10 crore in Marathi films. Then, the pandemic struck and the last year-and-a-half has been a really stressful time for the Indian film industry, more so for Marathi cinema whose highest revenue comes from theatres with budgets going back to Rs 2-2.50 crore and many complete films waiting in the wings,” rues actor-producer Shreyas Talpade.

Distributor-producer Sameer Dixit reiterates that the scenario is grim for the Rs 800 crore Marathi film industry, which produces over 100 films annually. “Earlier, our biggest threat was Bollywood, now our problems have been compounded with channels not offering good prices for satellite rights and OTT deals few and far between,” he points out.

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The announcement on Saturday by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray that theatres in the state will be allowed to re-open from October 22 with the requisite SOPs, has come as a silver lining in the dark clouds. Dixit asserts that it is imperative for theatres to open in Maharashtra, which contributes to 38 per cent of the total revenue of any film and for Marathi industry in particular, which is largely dependent on a theatrical release to recover investments.

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“With the state government not offering any relaxation in property tax and electricity bills despite the lockdown, around 20-25 per cent of theatres are in danger of shutting shop while many producers are contemplating moving shoots to states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttranchal, Himachal which are offering attractive incentives and subsidiaries. In this scenario, news of theatres reopening is welcome, but it’s still a month away,” says Dixit, pointing out that Karnataka has announced that theatres will be allowed to reopen there, with 100 per cent occupancy but requisite SOPs, from October 1.

Shreyas, who successfully produced Poshter Boyz in 2014 and is currently busy with a big-budget Marathi web series, is waiting till next year to roll with his next Marathi film. He is hopeful that with an accelerated vaccination drive, unless there’s a third Covid wave, theatres will start operating to full capacity in the next six-seven months. “We have a loyal audience for Marathi cinema and I’m sure they will be back. Till then, we need to come together, fight this out and plan for the future. Individually, it’s difficult,” he admits, adding that going forward, he would be happy to stream Marathi films on his out-of-the-box digital platform, Nine Rasa, which has given a new lease of life to theatre and the performing arts during the lockdown.

Suchhanda Chatterjee, who produced Bittersweet with Shubha Shetty, applauds the sustained efforts of the Maharashtra Film, Stage & Cultural Development Corporation (MFSDC) to push Marathi films for international fests. “This year, Bittersweet, the story of a village without wombs, and Mee Vasantrao, the biopic of violinist Vasantrao Deshpande, were the official selections for Marche du Film (Cannes Film Market). Unfortunately, because of the on-going pandemic, it was a virtual event, else MFSDC would have sponsored our tickets to the French Riviera. The idea is for Marathi cinema to become a part of world cinema to attract more buyers,” she explains.

Ananth Narayan Mahadevan has turned producer with a Marathi film, It’s Time To Go, featuring Rohini Hattangadi and Dilip Prabhavalkar. The National Award-winning actor-filmmaker, who has earlier directed Mee Sindhutai Sakpal, Doctor Rakhmabai and Bittersweet, plans to tour the festival circuit with his debut production first. “Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple got picked up by Netflix after it bagged the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize and Best Screenplay Award at Venice, and the Amplify Voices Award at TIFF. OTT platforms wait for this kind of international recognition,” he reasons.

He points out that the pandemic has brought on an OTT boom and a huge viewership for Malayalam films. “During the first lockdown, when there were no films releasing, Drishyam 2 opened on Amazon Prime Video to an overwhelming response. Subsequently, with smart marketing, a pan-India audience has suddenly discovered Malayalam cinema, which is mainstream yet breaks away from the formula. An uncharted movement has come out of Kerala and eclipsed other regional cinema,” points out Ananth, adding that Malayalam, Bengali and Marathi are the three strongest regional cinemas in content, with dedicated audience, but Marathi films need better promotion for more representation on OTT.

Sharad Kelkar, who played Shivaji Maharaj in Tanhaji, agrees and adds that going by just numbers, in Maharashtra alone, people saw this Hindi film revolving around an unsung Marathi warrior, twice, even thrice. “The hunger for good films is there and Marathi cinema has fantastic content and brilliant actors. But just strong word of mouth is not enough for great business. We need crowd-pullers, stars with a huge draw whom people idolise and follow, like Malayalam cinema’s Mohanlal, Mammootty and Dulquer Salmaan,” he states.

Sai Tamhankar, who played Kriti Sanon’s friend, Shama, in Mimi and was also recently seen in the Netflix anthology, Navarasa, and MX Players’ Samantar 2, opines, “If Marathi actors become popular in other languages, this will help them get a wider audience for their films and with it Marathi cinema in general. It might take time, but many of us have taken a positive step towards it.”

With a library of classics waiting to be tapped and several new films ready to be showcased, Ananth pushes for strong digital platforms for regional cinema given that Hindi films are not working for them at all.

The good news, according to Suchhanda, is that Doordarshan will soon launch its own OTT platform with a prominent Marathi section. “Sony Liv is also looking for Marathi films, the Zee-Sony merger is encouraging as is the launch of Planet M, a dedicated Marathi OTT platform,” the producer states, pointing out that with a solid infrastructure that can cut costs by 30-40 per cent, such ventures can become as profitable as the Bengali OTT platform, Hoichoi.

“Hoichoi is the brainchild of SVF, one of the biggest producers in Bengal. As a result, they not only keep actors and technicians busy, but cut down spending on everything, including post-production, which happens in-house,” Suchhanda explains, saying that learning from them, more films can be released on OTT platforms till people return to the theatres in droves, hopefully by the first quarter of 2022.

Sai, who in 2018 bagged the Maharashtra Achievers Award for ‘Entertainer of the Year’, can’t wait for people to rush back to theatres. “That’s the ultimate rush for any actor,” quips the actress, acknowledging that for a pan-India reach, Marathi cinema needs more superhits to draw the attention of non-Marathi viewers. “Of course, for that to happen, the Marathi audience needs to support our films consistently and give us many more superhits while the industry needs to churn out great content in a variety of genres that works on a regular basis,” she says, asserting that if other regional cinemas like Malayalam and Tamil have found a sustainable model on OTT, Marathi films too can easily breach the language barriers as the subjects are both local and universal.

The actress points out that films like Sairat have shown that a wider audience is there for Marathi films and a pan-India reach can be achieved. “I have a couple of films up for release which will hopefully contribute towards the cause of the Marathi industry, be it on OTT or in the theatres,” says Sai.

Sharad recalls that Dadasaheb Phalke, the pioneer of Indian cinema, was a visionary Maharashtrian and endorses Sai’s views that Marathi cinema needs hits. “Too many films are being made and too few are working. If we made lesser films on a larger scale and had stars to sell them, we will find takers because when it comes to content, we are still king,” he asserts, pointing out that in any business, to move forward, you need the courage and conviction to invest time and money. “Idak: The Goat, which I produced, was acquired by Zee5 and is among its top 20 films. We need to explore more, take a few risks and scale up production.”

Sharad and Riteish Deshmukh’s 2014 action-drama, Lai Bhaari, had broken all box office records and got the highest TV viewership for any film in Maharashtra. Riteish followed up with another big production, Mauli, and is now planning a multilingual trilogy on Shivaji Maharaj to be helmed by Sairat director Nagraj Manjule.

Sharad is also busy with a big-budget historical, Paavan Khind, and a yet-untitled, big-scale action-romance, both of which he is co-producing. “It can’t be just words, we need to act. I request my friends to bring our cinema to a standard where it can compete with the other film industries,” he urges, optimistic of bringing about a turnaround and getting Marathi films the eyeballs and footfalls it deserves. “We are just a step away and we will get there soon,” he promises.

A few films that made a difference

Sairat: The film turned director Nagraj Manjule and newbies Rinku Rajguru and Akash Thorat into overnight national sensations when it released in 2016. It is also one of the few Marathi films to be remade in multiple languages: Hindi (Dhadak, Janhvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khatter’s debut), Bengali (Noor Jahaan), Kannada (Manasu Mallige), Odia (Laila O Laila), and Punjabi (Channa Mereya). It received a standing ovation at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, where it first premiered. Rinku received a special mention at the 63rd National Film Awards.

Lai Bhaari: Directed by the late Nishikant Kamat, the film marked the Marathi debut of Bollywood actor Riteish Deshmukh’s, with a cameo by Salman Khan. Also starring Radhika Apte, Sharad Kelkar and Tanvi Azmi in pivotal roles, the film was a complete masala entertainer with Bollywood-esque action sequences and foot-tapping dance numbers. The blockbuster also brought Radhika into the limelight and was later remade in Odia as Jaga Hatare Pagha starring Anubhav Mohanty.

Poshter Boyz: This is again one of those rare Marathi films to be remade in Hindi (Poster Boys, starring Bobby Deol, Sunny Deol and Shreyas Talpade). The original stars veteran actor Dilip Prabhavalkar, Hrishikesh Joshi and Aniket Vishvasrao. Poshter Boyz, which was produced by Shreyas Talpade, was a comic take on how a poster promoting vasectomy disrupts the lives of the heroes.

Bittersweet: Director Ananth Mahadevan’s film is a poignant and heart-wrenching tale of women sugarcane cutters in Beed, Maharashtra. To earn money, many labourers throng to Beed to work in the sugar-manufacturing industry. Many women are coerced into undergoing hysterectomies if they want to keep working in the fields. It was one of the few Marathi films to make it to the Busan International Film Festival.

The Disciple: It put Marathi cinema on the world map with its appearances at varied international film festivals. Directed and written by Chaitanya Tamhane, the film garnered critical appreciation internationally. It won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at the 77th Venice Film Festival and bagged the Amplify Voice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Mexican Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron is its executive producer.

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