A look-back at Marathi films based on acclaimed works of literature
Ever since the first days of silent films both in Europe and America and in India, published plays were used as material for the speechless screenplays. This is simply because the makers of those silent films badly required some dramatic stuff as the core of their work. Shakespeare's Hamlet was filmed in a silent version even by the actress Asta Neilson; so there was much adherence to literature without the facility of the spoken word. The Marathi cinema, which was born with Dadasaheb Phalke's silent films here, was no exception to this.
As early as in 1923, Baburao Painter directed the silent film Sinhgad for the Maharashtra Film Company. This was base don the well-known Marathi novel, Gad Ala Pan Sinha Gela (meaning "We have recovered the fort but lost the lion") by the classic writer Hari Narayan Apte. In 1933 Prabhat Film Company made a talkie version of this film. I remember distinctly a short film being screened with this opuswhich reported a Kavi Sammelan of leading Marathi poets. They were shown reciting their poems and excerpts from their poems were visually dramatized. Acharya Atre was one of these poets and sang the satirical poem, Parita, yeshil kadhi paratun? (Meaning "Oh laundryman, when will you come back?")
By this time the novelist Narayan Hari Apte (not to be confused with Hari Narayan Apte) had been inducted into Prabhat. He wrote the screenplays for Sinhgad, Amrit Manthan and Kunku Kunku, directed by V Shantaram and featuring Keshavrao Date, was based on Apte's novel, NA Patnari Goshta. One peculiar literary feature of the film is that Shantaram had interrpolated Longfellow's poem, The Psalm of Life, in it making Shanta Apte sing (sic) it in the presence of Shakuntala Paranjpye (Sai's distinguished mother).
K. Narayan Kale, who scripted Dharmatma as a vehicle for the great Bal Gandharva, was the literary intellectual of Prabhat. He directed Maza Mulga based on a novel by the popular novelist and short story-writer Ya Go Joshi. Years later Kale directed for Sadashiv Row Kavi the Marathi classic Vahininchya Bangdya, also based on a story by Joshi. Prabhat and Shantaram made it a point to induct noted Marathi litterateurs for writing their scripts. Anant Kanekar wrote the script and dialogue for Manoos and is famous for his song Kashala udyachi baat? That legendary genius Vishram Bedekar wrote the script for Shejari. Shantaram appears to have given up this tradition after he left Prabhat and started his own Rajkamal.
During the first years of Prabhat, Master Vinayak and Baburao Pendharkar with their Hans Pictures were also paying tribute to literary quality. The popular Marathi fiction writer Vi Sa Khandekar wrote the scripts for Chhaya which starred Leela Chitnis and Baburao Pendharkar and was directed by Master Vinayak. Khandekar made a futile attempt to mould a script based on Shakespeare's Macbeth (Jwala). This featured Chandra Mohan and Ratnaprabha as the king and the queen.
In an attempt to rescue Hans Picture's fortunes after the Jwala disaster, Acharya P.K. Atre was asked to write a comedy script. This was Brahmachari, one of the most successful satirical comedies then seen on the Marathi screen. It had Master Vinayak as the young man who tries to be celebate and Meenakshi who tries to entice him. The scene in which Meenakshi appears in a bathing suit (circa 1940) and bathes in a studio tank became the rage for Marathi audiences in those (our school) years.
Brahmachari became a good box-office hit and wiped out the company's losses. It set new standards in original script-writing. Atre's Dharma veer and Premveer, similar original scripts, were also big successes. The first which satirises Tartuffe-like characters was in advance of its times. Premveer, together with a versatile Vinayak, sees a rare performance by Ashalata (wife of Anil Biswas).
The pair Khandekar and Atre kept on writing for Master Vinayak as long as he made films. But Atre did not stop at script-writing. In the 1950s he directed Shyamchi Aai based on the Sane Guruji classic. This won for him the first ever. President's Gold Medal for Best Film in the national film awards of 1954-55. It is actually a hand-made film but must have impressed the jury with its freshness, its heart of gold and its authentic portrayal of rural Maharashtrian life. Compared to Shyamchi Aai, the later product of the Marathi cinema appears glossy and phoney.
Atre also made Payachi Dasi, with Vanamala and Durga Khote in the lead roles, Vasantsena, based on the Sudraka Sanskrit play and with music by Master Krishnarao of Prabhat fame, and Mahatma Phule portraying the life of the great social reformer. All these were original screenplays and displayed a side of Atre's which was quite different from that of the satirical humorist or the fearless journalist. Most of Atre's screenplays, thankfully, have been collected and published.
The dominant figure of the 50s in the relationship between Marathi cinema and literature is that of Ga Di Madgulkar. As a young man he was an extra in Hans Pictures (he is seen in a bit role in Brahmachari). It was V. Shantaram who gave him his first boost by commissioning him to write the script of Shair Ramjoshi in 1945. Madgulkar also played the role of Ramjoshi's orthodox elder brother in the film. Shantaram later utilised Madgulkar's talents in the script-writing capacity but not necessarily for Marathi films. The script for Shantaram's Amar Bhoopali which like Ram Joshi, is also about a Peshwa-era lavni poet was written by the redoubtable Vishram Bedekar.