In February last year, Laxmi Shinde, a 19-year-old Commerce student from Akola, moved to Mumbai. In her tattered purse was Rs 7,500 — her entire fee for her debut role in a Marathi film.
The daughter of a signboard painter, her dreams of a career in entertainment began as a child, watching films and Marathi TV serials on Doordarshan.
“I was so nervous at my first audition,” she says, speaking in Marathi. “Luckily, I got a small role, of a thief, in the film, Meoni Aali Pavali [Sister-in-law Comes to My Doorstep].”
Unable to afford a professional photo shoot, her brother had got a friend to take a few pictures of her at a small studio in Akola for the mandatory portfolio.
Then, with just Rs 100 in her purse, Shinde travelled 450 km on a State Transport bus from Akola to Wai for the audition.
In December 2010, the film was released in single-screen theatres in Aurangabad, Akola and Jalna, and Shinde decided to take her earnings and move to the heart of the Marathi film industry — Mumbai.
Here, a friend of her father helped her find a one-room flat in Ulhasnagar, a far-flung satellite town three hours away from the city.
Now, she spends her days chasing down producers and waiting for her big break.
“I want to become a famous Marathi heroine,” she says. “And I know that can only happen in Mumbai.”
Shinde is not alone.
Across Mumbai, youngsters from towns and villages across Maharashtra are moving to cramped accommodations and daily strife as they struggle for a foothold in Mumbai’s growing Marathi entertainment industry.
While Marathi theatre has long attracted artists from Pune and Aurangabad to Mumbai, now, a growing TV and film industry is attracting a new set of migrants from regions such as Akola, Marathwada, Yavatmal and Nagpur.
As with their north Indian counterparts, who flock to Mumbai with Bollywood dreams, most of these youngsters are seeking acting breaks. Some, however, are also looking for off-camera jobs in fields such as direction, scriptwriting and cinematography. The number of aspiring Marathi artists has certainly shot up, says Marathi filmmaker Chandrakant Kulkarni.
“I get at least 50 calls from struggling Marathi artists every week, up from five to 10 until 2005,” he says.
Suvarna Mantri, executive producer and casting director for a Marathi TV soap on Zee Marathi, says she too has four or five struggling Maharashtrian actors dropping into her office every day, up from two or three a month four years ago.
“The small town audience is glued to Marathi TV shows and films and, because of the rising number of shows, they are drawn to this city because they sense that there is also more scope in the industry now,” she says.
This is especially true of Marathi films, with recent releases receiving critical acclaim and commercial success — and winning seven National awards on Wednesday.
The trend can be traced back to 2005, when Shwas, directed by Sandeep Sawant, became India’s official entry at the Oscars in the foreign language category. In 2009, Me Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy made Rs 25 crore at the box office and earned critical acclaim.
“The industry is being talked about,” says Ganesh Gargote, head of Media 1, a Marathi movie-marketing firm. “It may not be on a par with Bollywood, but its glamour quotient has definitely risen.”
With multiplexes in Tier II cities such as Nashik and Kolhapur also screening Marathi movies alongside Bollywood films, drama graduates and film buffs alike are beginning increasingly to dream of being on the screen or behind the camera rather than just in the audience, and are heading to Mumbai to try and make that dream a reality.
“And it’s not just drama graduates or those with an acting background coming to Mumbai,” says actor Sayaji Shinde. “I meet so many fans and wannabe Marathi stars who think they can act in Marathi films just because they can speak the language. Everybody wants a shortcut. But they don’t seem to realise that Marathi cinema is intelligent cinema. One has to know the craft.”