14 May, 2011

Bal Gandharva: Two Reviews


Word of mouth got us into the theater to watch the latest hot offering from the Marathi Cinema world- Bal Gandharva.

What’s it about?
The stage performer who got butchered by progress in the entertainment field called cinema, the stubborn showman who refused to give up his own perceived purity of the art form for commercial compulsions, the one who performed seamlessly on stage in the face of personal tragedy, the one who blindly trusted his friends for everything despite it being detrimental, the man who left a devoted household for the arms of a beautiful artiste who worshiped his art, the man for whom the stage was a reality and reality was a stage, was the man popularly known as Bal Gandharva and this is his story.

Bal Gandharva the movie, is about Narayan Shripad Rajhans; a singing child prodigy. The title was bestowed upon him by Lokmanya Tilak. The growth of the man, into a ready natya sangeet ( musical plays) performer is the graph of this movie.  He belonged to an era in which women did not act on stage & male performers had to play the parts of female characters. This was the place where the singer gained his fame. By far the artist to have played the most number of female characters on stage he was synonymous for playing Draupadi, Shakuntala, Bhamini and making each performance memorable for his viewers. He is also responsible for popularizing classical music (shastriya sangeet) through the medium of the stage. His progress from a child prodigy to an artist working in Kirloskar Music Company, to breaking away to form his own theater group, his lavish stylish magnum opuses on stage that led to fame as well as personal bankruptcy is the thread of this story.

No sooner than I reached home and got my first call from a friend who asked me why was the phone shut, to be told that I had gone to see “Bal Gandharva”. How was it? This question sparked off a chain of thought and told him read my review. Now I find myself in a quandary…Did I like the film or Did I not like the film? And I had a Yes as an answer to both the questions. How is that possible? One cant like a movie and not like it equally at the same time can one? Apparently going by this film one can. Here is a movie I shall grandly sit on the fence and agree with both who passionately liked it and those who dismissed it. Read On.

Heads…I Liked it

The fact that somebody chose a topic like this one to make a film is an act of ultimate bravery. Bio-pic’s of famous personalities are typically controversy generating subjects and any attempt in this direction is an effort definitely worth lauding. 

Subodh Bhave, the lead actor who discovered the Gandharva Gatha and thought that it had the potential for a film and took it to Nitin Chandrakant Desai to produce. Ravi Jadhav who had earlier directed Natrang was chosen to captain the ship. Subodh Bhave the prime mover was charged up to play the most challenging role of his career. Subodh Bhave plays the lead actor and has lived the role. His entry is dramatic and beautiful. The support cast is large and numerous faces flit in and off the frames and few do make a mark. Vibhavari Deshpande as his wife is competent and so is Suhas joshi as the mother and Anand Abhyankar as his uncle. There are three cameos that are memorable. First one is by Avinash Narkar as the scheming friend with an agenda, Kishore Kadam as the friend and partner who doesn’t scheme and finally the most polished one comes from Manoj  Joshi who plays the role of patron merchant from Karachi. His is the one act that lingers on.

In a movie on a musician theater artist it would have been a real challenge to choose the right Music Director and this is the one stroke of pure genius in the choice of Kaushal Inaamdar. Thankfully they did not choose the flavour of the season the duo of Ajay Atul, though talented their heavy leaning on folk would have hampered the measured pace of this movie. This required a music director who would also have an academic researching bent of mind and one who would seamlessly replay and recreate the sounds of the era of Bal Gandharva on pure musical instruments. The songs would be Bal Gandharvas song and there would be very little scope for original music. One sufi sant vani at the end is all he gets. But the background score that Inamdar scores makes him the unsung hero of the film.
With Nitin Chandrakant Desai as the producer all expectations on making the period setting perfect was a given and he does not disappoint. Neeta Lulla at the helm of costumes does a superb job saving a small and minor blip that can be overlooked. The jewelery looks neither Maharashtrian nor period. The story has pace and moves on through the life of the artist mapping history religiously and accurately.

Is the movie worth a watch? Definitely it is & for Marathi Cinema to have come up with a production value of this kind is commendable and immensely pleasing. Subodh Bhave looks the part and is focused in his essaying and one can with a definite measure of satisfaction say that he raises the benchmark of his own ability for this role. Would this find a way into the running for the National award? Yes it will, because it has the right names associated with it and with a teeny weeny ministerial support might even see itself as one of the winners.

Tails…Something was off

There are bio-pics and then there are bio-pics. Harishchandrachi Factory and the comparisons are inevitable ( what with the period being similar, and similar kind of passionate individuals on whom the stories are based ) here was a bio-pic that got it just right. Bal Gandharva overdoes it in certain departments and doesn’t quite reach there.

There are times when one feels that there is far too much attention to form over substance. The disclaimer that it is difficult to do justice to a life of an individual in a 3 hour format sounds to me too much like an apology which makes me revert with did I ask you to make the film? I know it is difficult, am an engaged mature viewer so don’t take me for granted. 

The production value of the movie is excellent and the musical score by Kaushal Inamdar is authentic and these are the areas which the director has got right. Many actors who come in a scene and go are wasted, either they got edited on the table but I felt Manoj Joshi was underutilized and even spotted Lokesh Gupte in a scene and the movie does not give him a single line. Maybe he just wanted a presence in his best friends film, who knows, one can only speculate. Vibhavari Deshpande who also plays the wife is in danger of being typecast as the number one wife choice for early 20th Century characters. She is the wife in Harsihchandrachi factory too and there while she smiled and laughed here she has cried. but who wouldn’t when the Hero of the film goes about wearing far more spectacular sarees than his wife. 

My one grouse with the film is that it skims the surface. There is a very sensual possibility in a scene where Narayan enters the nuptial chamber to have his waiting wife eagerly express that she would like to see him in his female ensemble. He is furious and walks out, she is petrified with what she has asked for only to have him return as per her wish. Their embrace truly walks the line for a Marathi film and this is the characterization that is missing from the whole film. Subodh Bhave looks good but as an actor who flits from being a male to a female back to interacting as a male there is a whole chapter lost. The gender fluctuation has serious psychological depths and it is this act left unexplored which disappoints as it remains in the safe genre of staged performances and music. There is a darker shade to the performance of a willful character who is a cross dressing musician par excellence which has not entered the cognitive zone of either the director or the lead actor, or perhaps deliberately skipped to preserve the sensibilities of the explosive Marathi audience. 

In a case where the packaging tries to compete with the substance and in parts even overshadows it there is a serious danger of the film not connecting? At some levels the film did not connect with me and this is the kind of cinema which deeply disappoints. The one where no effort is spared to get it right, everyone in the cast and crew gives it their all and only had the captain got the emotional depth right then I am sure they may not have had to write the particular disclaimer at the beginning of the film.

20 comments:

Soul Images said...

Well written, as usual.... :)

My take on the film is similar not same. I am impressed and disappointed at the same time. Subodh Bhave remains etched in my memory and I continue see his face when I close my eyes.... Mesmerizing act for sure. It may have to do with his original good looks, superb make-up and excellent costumes. Whatever the reason, fact is that he leaves a mark in my memory. So far as his act is concerned I think he has risen much above his own benchmark and given it his all. Kudos there!

So also for the music and art direction of the film. Excellent music and brilliant Set-up. Make-up and costumes ditto.... The packaging is all absolutely right. The film lacks in its script, I feel. It is unnecessarily dramatic and leaves no mark.

I am confused why you say that he was a trans-gender musician... Not true! If I am not wrong this was a cross-dressing male who acted the female parts when women were not yet out of the kitchens. Trans-gender is altogether different.

Yes, the part that I agree with you is the psychological battles that the man may have to fight, considering that for greater part of his life he may have been living female sensibilities, given the amount of time spent rehearsing and on stage. I am sure that is worth exploring. However, that data may not be documented and hence difficult to deal with ---- would be controversial, I mean! It is almost always one's interpretation when depicting the state of mind of a character.

I guess, the director and producer have decided to stay safe, given the fact that Bal Gandharva as a topic is potential bomb if not handled safely. There would be many making a hulla about the interpretation. So the movie sticks to facts that cannot be challenged. Safe!

I am glad that I watched the movie. Money and time well-spent. It is a brave effort like you have said. Great docu-drama! And full marks to Subodh Bhave. I am wondering, if the imitation can be so mesmerizing, what would the original act be like?! ;)

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thank you...have made the correction...missed the word writing this piece...Cross Dresser is correct...

Anonymous said...

Terrific review Kaustubh. The hero of the film IS the MUSIC. It is the MOST perfect part of the movie, I felt. The casting of Kaushal Inamdar by the director, and then the casting of Anand Bhate by Kaushal was the Ace!
It came to me as a surprise that the bhajan CHINMAYA SAKAL HRIDAYA (shot exquisitely by Mahesh Limaye) was composed by Kaushal Inamdar himself and is not a BALGANDHARVA original. If that is the case... Kaushal is really nothing short of a genius. Because it is simply great to compose a tune that will APPEAR to be a Balgandharva original.
All said and done, Balgandharva has been a great experience for me. (Also the audio CD - which has 21 songs, some not in the film) is a real treat.
Note: I have forwarded your link to Kaushal Inamdar (on FB... I don't know him personally).

Uday

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thank you Uday,glad you liked it, the movie was a thoroughly satisfying experience.

The talent that was Bal Gandharva was 2 generations before my time but the connect is through my grandmother who was a huge fan and would sing his songs.

Thank you for forwarding the link to Kaushal Inamdar, his has been a sterling effort without a doubt

Anonymous said...

Hi...
Well written review...

The gender fluctuations which you were expecting were never a case with Balgandharva....
Because he was never too much feminine on stage... Whenever he used to perform on stage he always sang in his own male voice with a bit of feminine expressions ....

mrin said...

very well said.
i had heard many different views on this film before i watched it. went with 2 friends to a multiplex in north mumbai and it was almost housefull. i loved the music, anand bhate is the only singer who could have done justice to the music just as subodh was the only choice to play the lead. when i left the theatre, i was filled with a sadness, `vishannata' for a long time. what a great life, wasted a bit, and what an end to the life was all i was thinking. so in a way, it was a good film. but there are patches that are very mediocre. tilak saying ha tar balgandharva is one example.
but, yes, everyone should watch it to know more about this great man.

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

:-)Thank you...

The character "Bal Gandharva" like all legends of our time and past evoke very strong reactions when anything out of the ordinary may be thought or spoken of them.Gandhi, Shivaji are other examples...we have people willing to fight over any opinion expressed even today...

Leave it to an academic musing...any person who dons a Sari almost everyday for a performance...the switching in and off may not have been easy...why was he chosen to play a female in the first place and how did he end up playing his parts so well may not all have been histrionics...the hangover of the part into the life is a natural progression...it is a possibility and that may have been worthwhile exploring...
I think about the character as is seen on screen...to those who may have known him and very few would be around today...another dimension could have emerged...a topical time bomb as Gauri rightly says above in her comment

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

@mrin :

You are spot on when u say " Vishannata"...what a waste...it is explained though in his mothers lament...one feel sad for the families ...especially their mates who are hardly given any choice, and in their life & lot comes a huge suffering...Again I give the Gandhi, Shivaji example...Soyra or the other five wives of Shivaji or Kasturba's life is not a life to be envied...those closest to such people consumed by the fire and fervor of their perceived mission invariably end up being burntby the same fire...history is littered with such examples

Anonymous said...

I really like your review. I saw the film at a film festival and had a similar reaction, I liked it and was disappointed by it too. I loved the art direction. You've helped me think it through.
.
Though I did have a sense of a character, I didn't have enough of a sense of themes. Except the theme of his purity/integrity, which was there for sure.
.
I also would have wished the gender-crossing be addressed -- in whatever interpretation the writer/director felt was true: if director believes that to this man it was really just an acting job, and didn't impinge on his real-life male identity, he could make that clear. Or -- show us a lot of these guys talking about playing women -- make them all the same or make them different (some could be feminine-identified, some not, for example).
.
Isn't there an early moment when a very rich man of some kind evinces something like a crush on our Bal G, and a producer says "oh, it's always good to have guys like that around"? I liked that, for its sharpness and layeredness.

Virginia Kelley, New York

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thank you Virginia...

Your observation is astute...the lines from the movie in the mouths of the support cast is what makes it more penetrating. Some depth to the movie is seen only here...

Topping my wish list was the cross-gender portrayal on stage and its effect on the persona of the man in his life.

Good to have you here and very interesting to get a fresh perspective from a mind not exposed to the "natya sangeet" culture of music and its finest exponent Bal Gandharva.( I have assumed this...do correct me if its otherwise )

Kaustubh Nigudkar

Anonymous said...

Dear Kaustabh,

so glad you replied!

You are right, I don't know the Marathi musical theater at all, except from having read that it existed.

I have watched a decent number of Hindi movies and one other Marathi one, done some reading about them, and found people to discuss them with (less easily said than done!).

All along I've been hugely interested in the history of these musical entertainment forms in India. This movie partly feeds that hunger, mostly in showing this theatre world.

A question if you are willing to bother: I have to put this very vaguely - was one of the songs in the movie also used in Umrao Jaan (the Aishwarya one), or in another well-known courtesan movie like Pakeezah or something?

Finally in case you are interested, the director told us at the film festival that for the movie he chose the most well-known songs of the artist to include in the movie, and then organized his telling of the story around the themes of the songs.

The songs were translated in the subtitles but I'd have to watch it more times to really get something like that.

And one more question - do people in Bombay in general know these songs, apart form the people who grew up going to Marathi theatre?

Anyhow thanks!! Virginia

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Oh boy now u have put me on the spot...
It could be likely...the song that is sung by the character "Gauhar Jaan" that B G first listens to on the radio or when she is practicing...could be the one.
Hindustani Classical a slightly different form of music uses the same couplets to build up a raga...here it is the raga and not the song that is important...so though the words may be similar its not actually a song...just a verse used to build up the tempo of the raga and take it to another level and yet connecting with an audience.

But you have to ask a better exponent of classical music than yours truly :-) Thank you for sharing what the director told you at the festival...your viewing of the movie is all the more richer on its account than mine.

There is a generation around who have seen him on stage live...yes this generation is of folks in their 70's and 80's. as to the second part of your question, Are people in Mumbai familiar with this music....no not at all...definitely not...its a dying art form "classical musical plays" plus he was not greatly known outside a community and state...this movie actually revived interest in him again.

sonu said...

congratulations kaushal,have been hearing praises and just praises for u reg this film and believe me,it makes me and chinoo only feel proud of u...its time ppl sit up and take notice of the true genius called kaushal inaamdar..

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thank you Sonu for visiting here...your refrain is heartfelt.

I am presuming that you must be the belief and the strength behind this eclectic talent called Kaushal Inamdar...a talent that needs no endorsement but a wider recognition & spread such that his work reaches far and wide giving pleasure to many like me...

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Akshay Iyer said...

Hi there, I think it was a very nice review. There was just one instance where you spoke commending to pick Kaushal over Ajay-Atul which I vaguely recalled reading in another portal while looking up for Balgandharva reviews. I personally liked the movie because it presented a new side of natyasangeet. As for original tracks in the album, there was Aaj Mhare Ghare Pavana (which Gohar Jaan sings for Balgandharva) which was also an original composition along with Chinmaya Sakal Hridaya.

I am glad to see that Marathi movies are reaching a commendable level with good production values. Summing up, the review was very well-written and given a choice, I wouldn't mind watching the movie again.

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thank you Akshaye...

If one is a keen follower of contemporary Marathi Cinema the choice of a music director was the headline decision in a movie on music. Kaushal is a unique talent and the perfect fit for this one.