While many in the industry produce movies for commercial gains, only a few are actually passionate about filmmaking. Seven years after his maiden production venture, Desh Devi Maa Ashapura, noted art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai is embarking on his most ambitious project, Bal Gandharva. It is a biopic on the legendary icon of Marathi theatre, whom the producer has many reasons to call ‘India’s first showman.’
“What was most amazing about his performances was the fact that a man was portraying the female characters with such conviction, élan and panache that he held his audiences spellbound with his performances,” enthuses the producer. Desai met the Rajhans family and also the Khedekar family, into which Bal Gandharva’s daughter married, to source as much information as he possibly could.
Talking of the icon’s showmanship, the producer informs that Bal Gandharva spent Rs 75,000 on his production, Maan-Apmaan, when he was weighed down by a Rs 1.5 lakh debt. “Baburao, a famous painter of that era was called to design the backdrops. Real gold, costing 10 paise per 10 grams then, was also used for the sets,” exults the producer.
Even his own daughter’s demise didn’t prevent him from performing. “Everybody told him to cancel the shows, but Bal maintained that the people came to see him to escape from their own troubles in life. So how could he not perform?” Desai informs that the legend returned to stage after the funeral and performed with such intensity that the audience kept on insisting for an encore. “Just the fact that Bal repeated his performance six times continuously sends a chill down my spine. The show went on for nearly 10 hours,” he says in amazement.
To do justice to his biopic, Desai has roped in Ravi Jadhav of Natrang to direct his Rs 6 crore Marathi magnum opus. Neeta Lulla is recreating the costumes of the bygone era and cinematographer Mahesh Limaye will shoot the musical with 14 songs. Subodh Bhave, who started his career with theatre, will portray Bal Gandharva.
On November 9, Desai will hold the mahurat of the biopic at the Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir, Pune, “because Bal laid the foundation stone of the place.” He feels sad that the legend who was known for his extravagant musicals led a simple life. “Balasaheb Thackeray told me that someone who insisted on saffron in the pan for others, lived in a house where the walls were peeling off,” he says.
About Bal Gandharva
Born in 1891 in an ordinary family, Narayan Rajhans started off with singing bhajans, until Shahu Maharaj noticed him. Shahu Maharaj introduced him to Kirloskar Mandali, the group which used to promote Marathi musical shows in that era. Later, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was so impressed with the artiste’s craft that he re-christened him Bal Gandharva. The Kirloskar Mandali also rose to great heights in theatre after Bal Gandharva joined it, with his musical performances like Shakuntala and Gautami.