Page last updated at 00:33 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2010

Out of the shadow of Bollywood

By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai

A scene from Harishchandrachi Factory
Harishchandrachi Factory was India's official entry for the Oscars

At the first Indian National Film Awards in 1954 it was a film in the Marathi language which won the president's gold medal - the highest honour in Indian filmmaking.

Fifty years later, in 2004, another Marathi film won the accolade - Shwaas (Breath).

But in the intervening decades Marathi-language films suffered as the Hindi film industry of Bollywood went from strength to strength on Marathi home turf: Mumbai (Bombay), the capital of Maharashtra state.

Shwaas marked a new beginning for Marathi language cinema. Last year more than 10 films were released; some competed in international film festivals and many did good business at home.

It is a remarkable comeback for an industry which has had to live in the shadow of Bollywood.

Creating the buzz

The Marathi language film Harishchandrachi Factory even turned out to be India's official entry to the Oscars in 2010.

Based on the life of Dadasaheb Phalke, who made India's first silent movie, Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra), the film received critical acclaim as well as a wide audience.

Director Paresh Mokashi, a first-time filmmaker, said that after reading Dadasaheb Phalke's biography he had to bring this story alive on screen.

"I researched for two months and got every department ready. The film was ready in December 2008 and was sent to festivals last year. It was noticed and now big producers and distributors have come on board."

Paresh Mokashi
Director Paresh Mokash was inspired by India's first silent film-maker

There are several reasons for the recent success of Marathi cinema.

Many young filmmakers now send their films to prestigious film festivals as soon as they are ready - creating the buzz these films need in the absence of a big marketing machine.

Vihir (Water-well) is participating in Berlin, Gaabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain) recently won at a French festival, and Marathi films were also submitted to the Rotterdam film festival.

Films are being made about urban angst, relationships, farmers' suicides, old age. There are children's stories, political dramas and comedies.

Analysts say the growth of Marathi entertainment channels has also helped what was recently an ailing film industry.

"A decade back the industry had literally died. There was no dearth of talent but the missing link was promotion and distribution. It was not working," says Nitin Vaidya of Zee Networks .

'Ready audience'

"When Marathi entertainment channels were launched in 1999, an audience base developed. There was a huge viewership for these shows so we thought why can't we join hands and fill in the gap?

"The formula is to convert this television audience to go to the theatres to watch these movies," he says.

A scene from Natarang (Copyright: Natarang)
Natarang has been doing well commercially

"Zee Marathi TV is a case in point as to how a Marathi audience has been created by way of entertainment channels," says Siddharth Roy Kapoor of UTV productions, the official distributor for Harishchandrachi Factory.

He says producing a Marathi film is not difficult as their budgets are lower than Hindi films and audiences are now returning to theatres - thus guaranteeing some returns.

The growth of multiplexes has also helped the spread of regional cinema. Earlier, single screen cinemas would show only Hindi films, but now Marathi films are regularly released in multiplexes.

And the audiences are certainly queuing up.

Natarang, a film about a folk dance of Maharashtra, is proving to be a path breaker on many counts. Three weeks after its release, the critically-acclaimed film was still filling cinemas.

The story focuses on Guna, who turns to folk dance after he loses his job as a landless labourer on a farm.

There is music and dance and the film deals with complex issues like the influence of politics in the arts, the angst of an artist who is judged by the part he plays, poverty and the price society extracts from an artist.

Money matters

Natarang's director, Ravi Jadhav, works in the advertising industry.

Pedestrians walks in front of a multiplex cinema in Mumbai on April 4, 2009
Multiplexes have helped regional cinema

"Though the movie deals with several serious issues, we have to engage the audience," he says.

Trade analysts say the current crop of filmmakers have technical training, they understand the corporate working style and at the same time are willing to take risks with their subjects.

But Marathi cinema is still not financially viable on its own and that's why many directors and actors have television shows, Hindi film contracts and theatre assignments as a back-up.

"After Shwaas, I had to struggle for two to three years to find a producer for my next project. Even now I feel the economic situation is not comfortable," says Arun Nalawade, who co-produced Shwaas.

"Marathi film producers still do not have money for promoting their films and the audience has to rely on DVDs. It is important to pull the viewers to cinema halls."

Now that the talent has come forth and is making meaningful cinema, industry watchers say they have to move on to making successful cinema.

As Mr Jadhav puts it: "It is only because of commercial cinema that the industry - including technicians, artists, editors, actors - survives.

"No common man 'needs' to go out of his way, go to a theatre, buy a ticket and give his three hours to us. You as a filmmaker have to convince the audience that it is worth their time."

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