When Madhuri Dixit-starrer Bucket List releases on May 25 this year, the actor would have ticked off one entry off her bucket list. The film, which revolves around the unfulfilled wishes of a woman, is the Bollywood superstar’s first Marathi movie and is being produced by filmmaker Karan Johar. Interestingly, Bucket List is not going to be Dixit’s sole venture in Marathi. She is also reportedly producing another upcoming Marathi film, titled 15 August.
“It’s wonderful that I am directing Madhuri Dixit’s first Marathi film. She brings with her enormous expectations from the public. I hope I will be able to deliver,” says Tejas Prabha Vijay Deoskar, the director of Bucket List. The teaser, which was released last month, shows Dixit’s character change from a traditional daughter-in-law to a feisty woman, who sets out to tick off items on her bucket list, including learning to ride a motorbike and drinking alcohol.
Big aspirations seem to be synonymous with the Marathi film industry too. The films are getting bigger and better. Big studios are pumping in more money, new awards are being launched and even Bollywood stars are eyeing the industry with renewed interest. At the 65th National Film Awards announced last week, Marathi film Dhappa won the award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. Also, of the 26 films screened under the Indian Panorama section last year at the International Film Festival of India, seven were Marathi. “Great cinema is being produced and people are appreciating what’s on offer. Regional cinema is no longer confined to a region,” says Nikhil Sane, business head, Marathi division, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures.
Till about a decade ago, the Marathi film industry struggled to produce even 20 films a year. Today, it releases close to 125 films. And many of these are mega hits. Some even star big Bollywood actors and make mega bucks in the overseas market. Applause for Marathi cinema isn’t something new. After all, India’s first full-length feature film was a Marathi film—Raja Harishchandra—directed by Dadasahab Phalke. The 1960s and 70s was the golden period, but then came a period of decline, which started in the late 80s and continued till the early 2000s due to poor scripts, lack of funding and a direct threat from Bollywood, as Marathi cinema was competing in the same Hindi-medium domain.
But all that changed when Shwaas, which released in 2004, won the National Award for Best Feature Film, a recognition that came for Marathi cinema after a gap of 50 years (Acharya Atre’s Shyamchi Aai had won the National Award in 1954). Shwaas, a melodrama about an old man’s struggle to get his grandson treated for a rare retinal cancer, was also India’s entry to the 2004 Oscars under the Best Foreign Film category. Then, in 2009, another Marathi film, Harishchandrachi Factory (a biopic about Dadasaheb Phalke’s pioneering efforts to make India’s first feature film Raja Harishchandra), was selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars. In 2015, Filmfare Awards, the oldest Hindi film awards in India, launched new awards for Marathi cinema.
However, one of the biggest Marathi cinema successes till date remains the 2016 blockbuster Sairat, which was made with a budget of Rs 4 crore and went on to become the highest-grossing Marathi film till date, with box-office collections of close to Rs 110 crore. Many in the industry term Sairat as the turning point for Marathi cinema, one which reposed faith in distributors that regional cinema, too, can aspire for the Rs 100-crore club.
“I can’t comment on whether my film was a turning point. It’s for others to say,” says Sairat director Nagraj Manjule, whose earlier film Fandry (2013) had won the National Award for Best Child Artiste and was also selected for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and London Film Festival. “After Sairat, more doors opened up for me in terms of wider distribution,” he says.
Until 2012, a business of Rs 8-Rs 9 crore was considered exceptional for a Marathi film. A two-digit figure was unheard of. Manjule’s love story about a rich girl and a poor boy caught in the clutches of caste and class changed everything. Sairat is now being remade in Kannada, Telugu, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and even Hindi. Its Bollywood remake Dhadak is being produced by Karan Johar and will mark the debut of Sridevi’s daughter Jhanvi Kapoor.
Clearly, Marathi cinema is on a revival mode. “The past four-five years can be called the era of resurgence of Marathi cinema. Strong scripts, new-age filmmakers, big studios backing projects have all helped in the revival,” Sane of Viacom 18 says.
Industry insiders believe that the secret of this success lies in Marathi cinema’s strong scripts, great actors and relatively small budgets as compared to the big brother, Bollywood. Marathi films are also known for their minimalistic approach. “Unlike the Hindi or south Indian film industry, we are till date not star-driven. Our script is the hero,” says Satish Rajwade, director, Aapla Manus, which clocked in `20 crore in the first 50 days of its release this year. “Our audience gives us the freedom to explore myriad subjects. We don’t have to stick to any formula for success,” he says. Aapla Manus, starring Nana Patekar, is actor Ajay Devgn’s first foray into Marathi cinema as a producer.
What also helps is that a new generation of Marathi filmmakers have been exploring unusual and hard-hitting subjects through films like Fandry, an exploration of the caste system, and Dombivali Fast (2005), a realistic take on a common man’s fight against the system. Then there was the critically-acclaimed Killa. The 2014 movie was a coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old boy, struggling to cope with his father’s death, while trying to make friends in an unfamiliar place after his mother gets transferred. This year’s Gulabjaam, on the other hand, is the story of a man who travels to Pune, where a short-tempered woman teaches him how to cook.
There is a lot of experimentation happening content-wise. Zee Studios is working on a variety of genres. “Our next up is Nude, the story of a mother, who chooses to become a nude model at the Sir JJ School of Arts to support her child’s education. It’s directed by National Award-winning director Ravi Jadhav. One of the key attractions of the year is Anandigopal, a biopic on India’s first woman doctor, set in the 1880s,” says Mangesh Kulkarni, business head, Marathi Film Division, Zee Studios.
These new filmmakers and producers are also bringing with them big budgets and extensive marketing campaigns. And their films, which are targeted at millennials, are being shot in foreign locations such as London, Dubai, Malaysia, Bangkok, Mauritius, etc. “Earlier, the budgets were under Rs 1 crore—top Marathi actors charge anywhere between Rs 25 and Rs 40 lakh, and the rest of the movie could be wrapped up in an equal amount. But today, a Marathi movie with decent production values will cost anywhere between Rs 1 and Rs 1.5 crore, and the same amount will be required for the film’s marketing and publicity,” says Sameer Dixit, managing director, Pickle Entertainment, a distributor of Marathi films.
Not just budgets, the returns are expanding too. Take, for instance, Lai Bhaari (2014). Produced by actor Riteish Deshmukh, it was made with a whooping budget of Rs 7 crore—a significant part of the film was shot in Dubai. Starring Deshmukh himself, Lai Bhaari was an action film that earned box-office collections upwards of Rs 40 crore, a great feat, considering that most shows run in single-screen theatres where ticket prices are between Rs 40 and Rs 125. Another film, Timepass (2014), enjoyed a Rs 5-crore opening weekend, a first for Marathi cinema at that time. Made with a budget of Rs 2 crore, it went on to do business of Rs 33 crore. It was so successful that even a sequel was made, which also was a roaring success.
With the involvement of big studios, films that earlier enjoyed just a Maharashtra release, are now also travelling to newer territories. Zee Studios International, the international distribution arm of Zee Studios, has released Gulabjaam in unconventional markets such as Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, the UAE and US. “We release our films in the US, Singapore and Dubai. They also travel to Europe, the UK, Australia and Canada. Within India, the films are released in Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Indore, Gwalior and a host of other cities,” says Kulkarni of Zee Studios.
These movies are released with subtitles, making them accessible for even non-Marathi-speaking people. “For the past four years, we have been distributing Marathi cinema pan-India. In international markets, wherever there is a strong Marathi-speaking population, we take the films to those places,” says Sane of Viacom 18.
With Marathi cinema garnering eyeballs, stars who earlier focused only on Bollywood are now looking at its regional cousin with great interest. Director Rohit Shetty of Chennai Express, Golmaal and Singham fame is now producing a Marathi film, School College Aani Life, which will go on the floors soon. One of Bollywood’s most versatile actors, Kay Kay Menon, will act in Ek Sangaychay… Unsaid Harmony. Actors Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Rekha, Farah Khan and Jaya Bachchan, too, have appeared in cameo roles in this regional medium. Others such as Tanuja, Sharmila Tagore, Huma Qureshi, Farhan Akhtar, Tisca Chopra, Milind Soman and Ashutosh Rana have essayed significant roles. Then there is Akshay Kumar, who co-produced 72 Miles: Ek Pravas, which won several Maharashtra State Awards. In 2016, Vidya Balan, too, acted in Ekk Albela.
Actor Priyanka Chopra, under her company Purple Pebble Pictures, produced Ventilator (2016), which was invited to the 55th New York Film Festival. Made with a budget of Rs 3.5 crore, the film, which is a funny yet sensitive take on relationships, earned over `25 crore at the box office. Chopra’s production house is now working on another Marathi film, Firebrand, which went on the floors in January this year.
One of the biggest success stories, however, remains that of Riteish Deshmukh, who is continuing to produce and star in Marathi films after the success of Lai Bhaari. Cinematographer-director Mahesh Limaye believes that the new breed of actors and producers from Bollywood will further help in taking Marathi cinema to uncharted territories. “A Bollywood name attached to a Marathi film garners more eyeballs. It creates the right kind of buzz to get more audience into the theatres,” says Limaye, whose directorial debut Yellow won the National Award under the Special Jury Award category in 2014.
“Many small-budget films fall flat… they are out of multiplexes within a week, as there is no promotion. Big names from Bollywood can give us a strong backing,” he says. But there are apprehensions as well. “Every new direction has its challenges. Marathi cinema works because it’s made in a very indie-like space and spirit, which is its biggest strength. And I hope that never changes,” says Vidhi Kasliwal, founder, Landmarc Films, which produced Ringan, a 2015 National Award-winning tale of a father and son’s pursuit of love and happiness. “But having said that, I feel the interest that the bigger names are taking in the Marathi space is helping us spread our work to a larger and more diverse number of people. It is improving the potential for a Marathi film, which is much larger today than it ever was,” she says.
On an average, 120-125 Marathi films are released every year, of which about 10% are successful at the box office. “However, since the total investment in a Marathi film is small, about 30% films over and above the 10% recover their costs from other sources of income such as satellite, digital sales, etc. Government subsidy also encourages and supports producers,” Kasliwal of Landmarc Films says.
She is right. The business is not just restricted to theatres today. There’s a clutch of Marathi channels that buy and telecast regional cinema. In January this year, DTH service Tata Sky announced the launch of Tata Sky Marathi Cinema, a video-on-demand, ad-free service that claims to offer the finest in Marathi movies, songs and plays.
Besides selling films to Marathi television channels, producers can also look to players such as Netflix and Amazon, which have opened up newer avenues of income. “Producers don’t have to rely on box-office collections alone any more. Satellite rights and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon not just provide us with a global audience, but also extra income sources,” says director Rajwade. The satellite rights of a moderately successful Marathi film cost around Rs 40-Rs 60 lakh. This figure is upwards of `75 lakh for a box-office hit.
What has also helped the cause of Marathi cinema is the state government’s subsidy plan, which has been in effect for the past few years. Under this, a Marathi film is entitled to receive Rs 40 lakh as subsidy, provided it stays true to its regional identity. Moreover, all Marathi films are tax-free in Maharashtra. While all’s well on the table, there’s a word of caution too. “If we have to sustain and grow, we must not give up on our USP, which is frugally—and intelligently—producing, promoting and releasing films without compromising on any artistic aspect. We need to spend money on the right things,” Kasliwal of Landmarc Films says.