Grist For The Mill

Mahesh Manjrekar’s newest film about Mumbai mill workers proves that blockbuster Marathi cinema is here to stay, says Aastha Atray Banan

Photo: George Kurien

FILMMAKER MAHESH Manjrekar regards himself as a straight-talking man, one not afraid of telling the blatant truth. Better known for his slick Bollywood productions, the director has been leading a renaissance in the Marathi film industry. So when allegations of him adding too much violence and sex to his latest Marathi movie, Lalbaug Parel (City Of Gold in Hindi), crop up, the 57-year-old says calmly, “It’s a democracy, and everyone sees a particular event differently. Why do we run away from sex and violence? Why is it only okay if Quentin Tarantino does it?”
Lalbaug Parel, which deals with Mumbai’s once prosperous mill district, now dotted with malls, aims to gather some sympathy for mill workers and their families. Mumbai’s textile mills date back to the 19th century, when they were developed to produce cheap cotton textiles for Britain. But by the 1970s and 1980s, most of the mills shut down amid stiff competition and prolonged lockouts. And in 2006, India’s Supreme Court gave the go ahead that 285 acres of land occupied by defunct textile mills could be sold to private builders.
The film follows one such family struggling to make ends meet. The family head, Anna — portrayed brilliantly by Shashank Shende — lives with his wife (Seema Biswas) and works as a mill worker. The eldest son, Baba (Ankush Choudhary), is a struggling writer, the second son Mohan (Vinit Kumar), is more interested in cricket and the youngest, Naru (Karan Patel), is regarded as the local bhai, while daughter Manju, played by Veena Jamkar, works in a beauty parlour. In their effort to survive, the women sleep with strangers and men turn to crime. The movie also sheds light on the nexus between the mill owners and politicians that sealed many mill workers’ fates.
One of the directors responsible for bringing audiences back to Marathi cinema, Manjrekar heralded an era where Marathi films began raking in the moolah. After critically acclaimed Bollywood movies like Vaastav, Astitva and Viruddh, Manjrekar directed the Marathi De Dhakka in 2008 — one of the highest-grossing movies in the Marathi film industry. His next venture, Mi Shivaji Raje Bhosale Boltoy, where he played Shivaji, broke records by grossing over Rs 35 crore. “We now have an audience and Marathi filmmakers just have to not get complacent,” he says.
But Mangesh Kadam, who directed Adhantar, the play that Lalbaug Parel is based on, is critical of the film: “The struggle of the mill worker has not been portrayed with the right intensity. Their emotional turmoil doesn’t come through.” Manjrekar is unfazed: “I have the right to show what I want to show. A director will never think another version of his product is better than his.
The director is aware of Bollywood’s cruel reality: you only exist till your film is a hit. But he is optimistic. “I remember when I had no money and had to sell my wife’s jewellery. But I kept the faith. My only aim is to make movies about people I know and have met, otherwise you just become a DVD filmmaker. When I feel self-pity, I tell myself there are people worse off. It’s time to just be grateful.”