Three seemingly separate events, but the connection is obvious… First, Sudheer Palsane wins the award for best cinematography against formidable competition — a Chinese blockbuster and a Turkish art house film that was Berlin winner, among others — at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA, called the Oscars of the East) announced in early December. Palsane won it for “Vihir”, a quiet, sensitive film that explores a troubled adolescent's search for meaning.

Second, “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal”, a biopic on an inspirational, living character not known outside Maharashtra, was chosen to open the prestigious Indian Panorama at IFFI, Goa, even though bigger names were participating.

Third, Atul Kulkarni (for “Natarang”) and Tejaswini Pandit (for “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal”) were among the five nominees as best actor and best actress at APSA.

All three are part of a resurgent Marathi cinema. The fact that two Marathi films were chosen in the recent past as Indian entries for the Oscars, underlines the achievements of a film industry struggling for its place in the sun under the shadow of Bollywood. True, Bollywood swamps our many cinemas at home and abroad in the popular perception, but the problem is more acute for Marathi films because they operate in the behemoth's backyard. Marathi cinema's many triumphs against overwhelming odds signify a trend largely ignored by mainstream media.

Nothing new in that. Except that internationally, there is curiosity coupled with avenues of screening — even if it's on the limited festival circuit — that is lacking at home.

Both “Natarang” — European festival directors reportedly fell in love with this dramatic tour de force and Atul Kulkarni's brilliant performance when they saw it in Pune last year and invited it to Goteborg and Munich — and “Sindhutai” have broken through the invisible barrier of being confined to South Asian festivals with its world premier at the London film festival. Despite the odds of not getting prime screening time at Mumbai's multiplexes and thus shutting out non-Marathi filmgoers, Marathi films have carved out a diverse, growing audience.

Interestingly, Anant Narayan Mahadevan is a recent convert to the creative satisfaction of making films grounded in local reality, after years of flirting with Bollywood rom coms and thrillers, when he came across Sindhutai who has built three orphanages after she was cast out by her in-laws for suspected infidelity. Married at 12 to a man of 30 at her mother's insistence, she kept alive her passion for words in an inhospitable environment, where she was thrashed for showing off her “learning” when she avidly read the scraps of newspaper in which groceries were wrapped. Rejected by her widowed mother and nowhere else to go, after failed suicide attempts, she ekes out a living begging in trains – and sharing her food with orphans at railway stations. Her passion for justice and compassion for the abandoned lead her to an extraordinary path: she barges into a public meeting and gives her first impassioned speech. Public speaking becomes more than a way of life: it earns her money to feed the growing tribe of children and a means to rouse collective conscience.

More to come

Despite a stilted beginning and narrative stumbles, the searing sincerity of the protagonist and her exceptional courage and commitment make converts of us all. Anant Mahadevan is now engaged in scripting yet another inspiring biography based on the Sahitya Akademi winning book about a boy condemned at birth as a thief for being into a tribe dubbed criminal during the British period.

Ravi Jadhav's “Natarang” skilfully reinvents the ingredients of the Tamasha genre that had touched the nadir over the years. Atul Kulkarni plays a peasant who is a passionate devotee of folk theatre, dreams of forming his own troupe and writing his own plays where he would play the king. His search leads him to a dilemma: he has to recast himself as the effete nachya, adopting feminine wiles and emasculating his muscular masculinity. The emotional and social price he pays for his commitment is a saga of tragedy and triumph. Atul Kulkarni, one of the best actors of his generation, is vibrant, poignant and intense in the role of a lifetime.

“Vihir” is a quiet meditation on the inexplicable melancholy of Sameer, a Pune high school boy who is cast into an existential sea of uncertainty after his older cousin dies mysteriously in the well of the ancestral grandparents' home. Kulkarni is perhaps the first filmmaker after Satyajit Ray's “Aparajito” to delve so deeply into the vulnerability of adolescence. From the unalloyed joys and subterranean tensions of an extended family's reunion at a family wedding (Palsane's camera captures the interiors of the wada's shadows and the sunlit expanse of the countryside with poetic exactitude) to the protagonist's wanderings over varied terrain, director Umesh Kulkarni handles his cast with aplomb. Kulkarni is an auteur in the making with an enviable grasp of the storyteller's art. His diploma film “Girni” won a national award for its sensitive portrayal of a child exposed to the increasing noise levels of urbanisation.

Kulkarni's forte is evocation of rural life — not as pastoral, uncritical nostalgia — but as a rambunctious satire with an amazing control over a large cast of characters, with their foibles and eccentricities, petty rivalries and personal ambitions. His feature debut “Valu” is a roaring farce at one level, where a holy bull wreaks havoc in a largish village having been let loose by religiously minded people. But freedom is a problematic thing, especially for an animal alternately teased and pampered by the village folk. So too for a society locked unwillingly into the beckoning embrace of modernity. So many stories told with such panache and individuality by different filmmakers is the exhilarating feature of this creative ferment that has also touched Marathi mainstream films in passing.

Shwaas' entry at the Oscars in 2004 seems to have acted as a catalyst. Sandeep Sawant's Shwaas, with its affecting simplicity, brought home the poignant truth of hope amid despair, the wisdom of the loving grandfather to imprint on the young boy's visual memory the beauty of the world, before an operation to cure his cancer will leave him blind. It was truly a breath of fresh air in the fetid atmosphere shrouding formulaic Marathi cinema: cringe-inducing comedy, tear-jerking family melodrama and tired retelling of rural sagas centred round a seductive Tamasha dancer and a strutting landlord.

It was a gritty urban tale that impinged the new Marathi film on the general audience.

Nishikant Kamath's “Dombivali Fast” (2006) captured the soul-killing alienation of the middleclass man trapped in Bombay's rat race experienced by a bank clerk as he endures the long commute from a water-starved suburb, petty humiliations and rampant corruption around him. Something snaps in the hitherto meekly submissive man and he goes on the rampage to shake the city out of its apathy — at least temporarily. “Dombivali Fast” touched a resonant chord and word of mouth publicity had Mumbaikars take the unheard of trouble of catching up with a film about their city at morning shows in small theatres. The film generated a Tamil remake. Angst is the same whether expressed in Marathi or Tamil.

The linked story is an ambitious narrative that Sachin Kundalkar attempted in Gandha. Not in the familiar format of many characters whose lives intersect around an event but through the sensory perception of smell which is evoked by the ambience of each story.

This triptych is unique. Each individual story inhabits a particular social milieu, with its own mood and stylistic detail. Kundalkar pays tribute to Pedro Almodvar, his favourite filmmaker, with an Alomodvar film playing on the TV in the second story of a HIV+ fashion photographer living in solitude when his ex-wife visits him to delve into their troubled past. This angst-ridden middle story, with its upper class sophisticated setting, casts one of India's top male models Milind Soman as the recluse. It bridges – rather self- consciously – the other two segments that are lively recreations of traditional families.

Kundalkar's avante garde work in theatre was followed by Bath, a brave short with an overt gay theme starring Rajat Kapoor. He is a director to watch for, with an urban sensibility that is unafraid to venture into new territory.

Farmers' suicide

The other film showcased abroad is “Ghabricha Paus”. Satish Manwar takes up the simmering issue of farmers' suicide, an issue that erupts at election time to score polemical points before subsiding under the accumulated apathy of statistics. The central character Kisna is a farmer who is not the sort to give up under the burden of debt, even when a friend commits suicide. Kisna is withdrawn, almost surly at times, preoccupied with the nitty gritty of a farmer's hard existence while his wife and mother are afraid that he too may be contemplating suicide. They depute the little son Dinu to follow his father everywhere and this makes Kisna wonder if his wife harbours doubts about his fidelity. This light touch, coupled with realistic details and grounded performances, highlights the issue far more persuasively than the usual railing and ranting at unsympathetic administration and rule bound bureaucracy.

Gender-bending Jogwa exposes an inhuman superstition that brands girls with matted hair and boys with penile problems jogtis and jogtas. They are claimed as her own devotees by the local deity Yellamma, condemned to live in closed communities and denied permission to live normal lives. Upendra Limaye won the national award for best actor in 2008 as a jogta who is branded a eunuch and has to be content with being the best friend of a girl he loves. Rajiv Patil's direction is sensitive; the rather spectacular cinematography that highlights both the lovely landscape and the architectural details of the place limns the tragedy.

This new confidence has encouraged the production of films of many genres in the mainstream too: thrillers like “Checkmate”, political drama like “Zenda” that describes the fall-out of the split in the fascist Shiv Sena through the lives of confused foot soldiers.

“Harishchandrachi Factory”, a quirkily charming bio-pic about the father of Indian cinema, was last year's Oscar entry. Paresh Mokashi has braved the ire of purists in his non-reverential approach to the life and times of Phalke, opting for a Chaplinesque style infused with the Brahminical comedy of a popular television series of the 80s.

This deliberate naiveté works for the most part, thanks to Nandu Madhav's central performance of the man with an obsessive mission, to create India's first moving image.

Though there is plentiful biographical material on Phalke, Mokashi chooses the narrative style of vignettes knitted together by his protagonist's passion, each charming on its own but failing to add up to a significant whole. The emphasis on Phalke's early career as the magician Kelpa (his name phonetically spelt backwards) underlines the symbiotic relationship between cinema and magic, at least in the work of pioneers like Lumiere Brothers and our own Phalke.

Will the magic continue? More importantly, reap commercial success in an era of niche audiences for niche films.

Keywords: Marathi cinema