In 2010, Natarang, a film about the struggles of Tamasha performers, became a modern-day classic, breaking all Marathi box office records and getting a national award.
Ravi Jadhav, the debutant director of the film, is now set to release another historical work, Bal Gandharva, on May 6.
The ambitious biopic, produced by art designer Nitin Desai, tells the story of Narayan Shripad Rajhans, popularly known as Bal Gandharva (1897-1967), who revolutionised Marathi theatre in the early 20th century with his lavish musical productions and graceful portrayal of female characters.
Jadhav's film, also a musical, will be screened at festivals around the world, starting with the New York Indian Film Festival on May 8, followed by the Cannes and Venice festivals later in the year.
From a dramatic fictional account to a biopic of one of the state's biggest cultural icons, the leap is huge, admits Jadhav, 38. "But I knew people were waiting to see what I did next," he says. “Nitin gave me a great opportunity with Bal Gandharva and I gladly took it.” The film was first proposed by Subodh Bhave, who plays Gandharva in the film.
“I read a novel on Bal Gandharva last year and felt this was a story that needed to be told,” says Bhave. "This man loved theatre without reserve, never compromised on production values, despite mounting debt, and mesmerised audiences with his singing and his grace. He become a fashion icon for women, and legend has it he performed just after his daughter's funeral, such was his dedication to the audience."
Bhave has shown considerable dedication himself, losing 20 kg for the role and listening only to Bal Gandharva's music for nine months, while the film was being made.
For Jadhav, working on a project produced by Desai, one of Bollywood's most sought-after set designers, promised that the film would look like ‘a work of art’. Towards that end, the duo picked Mahesh Limaye, of Natarang and Dabangg, as cinematographer.
Limaye, also a painter, has used diffused light and muted colours to create a period feel and bring out the various aspects of Gandharva's persona in the film.
“I have tried to give the film the same look as a Raja Ravi Verma painting” says Limaye. "Old black-and-white pictures of Bal Gandharva and paintings of those times helped."
The film also relies heavily on the Natya Sangeet musical tradition, with three new songs and 14 originals sung by Bal Gandharva in his various plays.
"Composer Kaushal Inamdar has been like a scriptwriter on this project, with the story moving forward via his music and songs," says Jadhav.
A commercial arts graduate from JJ School of Arts and an ad man for more than 10 years, Jadhav says he learnt invaluable lessons about filmmaking on the job.
“Everyone changes jobs very frequently in the ad industry, but I stayed with the same company, FCB Ulka, changing departments to stay fresh and learn various aspect of ad-filmmaking,” he says.
Jadhav, who also co-produced Natarang, says that his first film also taught him to balance the commercial and artistic demands of a project.
Bal Gandharva, however, is tipped to be one of the most expensive Marathi films ever.
Jadhav, who finally left FCB Ulka to make films in 2008, now makes ad films independently and runs his own media management company, Athaansh, with wife Meghana, 34, a former finance consultant.
The father of two is optimistic about the future of Marathi cinema. “Several recent films have been critically acclaimed and each of them is important, even if they didn't do well at the box office,” he says. “It is these contemporary filmmakers who are taking Marathi cinema, Marathi language and Marathi stories to the next level, of international recognition.”