Bollywood is easily the most well-known arm of Indian cinema, so much so that Indian cinema has become all but synonymous to Bollywood—at least in the Western world. Considering the dramatic storylines, the focus on emotions accentuated by intense sound effects and entertaining dance numbers, it’s no surprise that Bollywood has made it big, overshadowing the other facets of Indian cinema.
However, what most people are not aware of is the fact that the first full-length Indian film ever made—Raja Harishchandra, produced and directed by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1913—was part of the Marathi film industry rather than Bollywood. This makes the Marathi film industry the oldest in India.
Marathi is one of the more than two hundred languages in India and represents a unique cultural perspective. While Bollywood films achieve their success due in large part to filming in Hindi (the national language of India), they also, like big Hollywood blockbusters, tend to be designed to be fail-proof. They skew over-the-top (sometimes even into self-parody). They’re given large budgets and put focus on making everyone happy in order to guarantee solid box office returns.
Bollywood films have long focused on easy-to-swallow messages—traditional family dynamics, love and betrayal—standard fare for moviegoers. However, back in the 1960s and 70s, Marathi filmmakers began focusing on creating movies with social and political undertones, a risky proposition for Indian cinema.
Despite being located in Maharashtraas, the same sub-national state where Bollywood comes from, so-called “M-town” is more representative of Indian culture than the colorful but often empty offerings of their mainstream counterpart. The Marathi/Bollywood divide is perhaps similar to the Hollywood/indie film divide here in America, where one tends to prioritize profits while the other offers something more unique and smaller scale.
Marathi filmmakers are known for delivering politicized messages through their work. This makes these movies a great lens into social and cultural concerns. This particular trend grew in part out of the Tamasha tradition. Tamasha is a subgenre within Marathi cinema, but since the 60s, it has become an inseparable part of this style of filmmaking.
Historically, tamasha is a traditional theatre form in Maharashtra; it involves traveling troops of singers and dancers who put on a skit or play. The word tamasha itself means “fun” or “excitement” in both Marathi and Hindi. And as is the case for many traditional theatre forms, it was seen as debased by the government and higher classes in India due to its rebellious narratives on caste and gender hierarchies, traditions of power and individual agency.
Propagating these themes often led to a heightened social awareness which did not benefit or resonate with the elite. Moreover, tamasha came to be associated mostly with the rural folk, and aspects of their life that were considered beneath higher classes. This meant Marathi films were conveniently swept aside, their more radical ideas along with them.
Yet that stigma also begat freedom as the mainstream and upper class rejected this form of entertainment. A narrow audience and lower financial expectations were a boon to artistry.
Creative freedom comes at a cost, however. Marathi films have historically received less exposure and funding than Bollywood films. To combat this issue, some Marathi filmmakers have moved towards more generic Westernized themes in an attempt to generate more revenue and build a broader audience, an effort that has yielded some success.
Critically acclaimed Marathi director, Dr. Jabbar Patel, has suggested that part of this current Marathi revival has evolved from the blending of cultural ideas. “The kind of Marathi cinema that is being made today is very fresh and different,” he said in an interview with the Times of India. “This is thanks to directors and writers getting exposed to world cinema via television, film festivals etc. They are coming up with new storylines and innovative concepts.”
This shift from traditional Marathi filmmaking to more modern storylines and soundtracks has been a slow process. Recently, Marathi films have even begun including kissing scenes (though certain theaters in India still censor these moments). Kissing has become more mainstream since 90s, now only a minor taboo in Bollywood (though initially, Bollywood too did not involve much kissing) and Marathi films have followed suit in the past four years or so.
This isn’t to say that Marathi cinema has lost the elements that make it unique. Even though Marathi film has slowly started moving away from its old-school heritage, adapting to the evolving cosmopolitan culture in Maharashtra, modern M-town films still retain the central messages and political lenses as well as traditional jargon, idiosyncrasies and specific references to Maharashtrian culture. Embracing some of the tropes of Bollywood fare in no way takes away from the elements that make Marathi its own distinct entity in Indian cinema. Rather, recent films are simply easier to relate to for a wider audience.
If you’re looking to learn more about this side of Indian culture, then I would highly recommend checking out some Marathi movies. I’ve put together a list of movies that would be good to start with. Each film will give you a chance to experience the traditional folk elements of Marathi cinema paired with drama, social satire and entertaining soundtracks:
This title translates to “Lokmanya: The man of an era” and tells the inspiring tale of one of India’s foremost leaders during its struggle for independence, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. This is a great opportunity to learn about the India’s challenging times during colonial rule, while also being exposed to Marathi cinema that values social and political commentary.
Classmates is actually a remake of the 2006 Malayalam film of the same name, with some tweaks and changes. This movie follows the journey of third year Bachelor of Arts students as they deal with friendship, love, secrets and betrayal. It is the perfect movie to watch in a social setting with good friends, and it will surely get you reminiscing about your own college days. Full of excitement, this movie takes traditional tamasha elements and puts a modern spin on them.
Fandry literally translates as “Pig.” This film won awards at the Bangalore International Film Festival, and for good reason. Fandry is a story about a Dalit (Untouchable) boy who falls in love with a higher caste Maharashtrian girl. The narrative is really a social commentary on the Indian caste system, which is, unfortunately, still taken seriously in some Indian villages. Through a touching love story, this film bring out aspects of folklore and superstitious beliefs, providing a poignant examination of some of the truths that exist in rural India.
The English name for this film is “The Temple”. Like Fandry, Deool won many awards including “Best Feature Film” at the 59th National Film Awards of India. This movie features Naseeruddin Shah, one of the most renowned Bollywood actors around, marking his debut in Marathi cinema.
Deool shows the effects of commercialization in India, particularly on the smaller villages and rural areas. It follows the journey of a simpleton who believes God has arrived in his village (due to a vision) and the corrupt politics that ensue afterwards. Unlike many films about religion, Deool isn’t pedantic; it comes across as enlightening about the state of local affairs across India.
I hope these movies help open you up to the beautiful culture of Marathi cinema. I truly believe that cinema is one of the best ways to explore a new culture. Hopefully, after exploring Marathi films a little further, you’ll feel the same!