‘Fandry’ to ‘Raakshas’: Changing Marathi Cinema One Film at a Time
Stills from <i>Fandry</i>, <i>Raakshas</i> and <i>Chaurya</i>.
Stills from Fandry, Raakshas and Chaurya.(Photo courtesy: NABH)

‘Fandry’ to ‘Raakshas’: Changing Marathi Cinema One Film at a Time

Cinema, as producers would tell you, is a gamble. In 2017 for instance, out of the 286 Bollywood releases, 257 were declared as flops. Baahubali 2 and Tiger Zinda Hai were the only blockbusters, while the other 29 films fit in the ‘hit’, ‘semi-hit’ and ‘break-even’ categories. If that’s the scenario in Bollywood, how does regional cinema fare?

“Of the approximately 125-150 Marathi films releasing every year, only two to three per cent succeed at the box office. So as a producer, you go into it knowing that your film probably won’t make money,” chuckles producer Nilesh Navalakha of Navalakha Films, who has joined hands with Vivek Kajaria’s Holy Basil Productions (together they are NAHB) to produce some of the finest Marathi films in the last 5-6 years.

Think Anumati (which they presented), Fandry, Siddhant, Chaurya, and the upcoming Raakshas.

(From left) Nilesh Navalakha and Vivek Kajaria.
(From left) Nilesh Navalakha and Vivek Kajaria.
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)

NABH has also produced the yet-to-be-released Kannada children’s film Raju, though they insist it’s a one-time rendezvous outside Marathi cinema. Starring Prakash Raj, Raju has been screened at the Jagran Film Festival 2017 and the International Children’s Film festival of India 2017, to name a few. After Raakshas, the duo would begin shooting for Ek Number directed by Samit Kakkad.

A poster of the Kannada film <i>Raju</i>.
A poster of the Kannada film Raju.
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)
Raakshas, which is already creating a buzz and releases on 23 February, ushers in the fantasy-thriller genre in the Marathi film industry. The script of the film was chosen by the Sundance Scriptwriters Lab and supported by NFDC.

Starring Sai Tamhankar and Sharad Kelkar among others, the film revolves around a wife and daughter’s struggles after a documentary filmmaker goes missing.

"Raakshas traverses the dual planes of reality and fantasy, and Marathi cinema has not seen something like this. From music to VFX, we are pushing several envelopes here,” says Navalakha.

Off the Beaten Path

When it comes to pushing the envelope, this producer duo actually walk the talk.

We had decided at the outset that we would make content-driven films that should be entertaining and yet have some sort of a social message. We don’t move away from that. And we want to make Marathi films that we can showcase to the world.”
Vivek Kajaria, Holy Basil Productions
Selfie time for the producers at the <i>Raakshas </i>press conference.&nbsp;
Selfie time for the producers at the Raakshas press conference. 
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)

The first film they produced together - the path-breaking Fandry directed by Sairat maker Nagraj Manjule - was screened at the BFI London Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Göteborg International Film and Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, to name a few. It brought home several trophies including the Indira Gandhi Award for Best First Film of a Director at the 61st National Awards.

Nilesh Navalakha and Vivek Kajaria receive the state appreciation award after their National Award win for <i>Fandry</i>.
Nilesh Navalakha and Vivek Kajaria receive the state appreciation award after their National Award win for Fandry.
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)

This approach to filmmaking is in fact what sets the duo apart.

“They are building a niche for independent films in the industry,” points out director Sujay Dahake, whose much-acclaimed first film Shala was produced by Navalakha.

“They stand for a project, for its uniqueness and have the highest risk-taking appetite in the industry as of now. They don’t think commercially - they go with the inventiveness and experimentation of a project.”
Dnyanesh Zoting, director, Raakshas

Gunning for the New

In an industry rife with nepotism and generally unwelcoming to unknown talent, Kajaria and Navalakha are also unique for their propensity to work with debutant directors. In fact, they prefer to do so.

“We find that first or second time directors bring a different level of dedication and honesty to their work, which usually gets tarnished by the industry and its ambience later. For their first film, they go all out,” says Kajaria.

First-time directors have nothing to lose, so they give it their best shot. I don’t like directors coming and narrating 15 scripts, with the approach that I can do this or do that. I see if the person is living with a particular story.
Nilesh Navalakha

And as producers who throw their full weight behind a debutant’s idea and execution, Kajaria and Navalakha are deeply involved in the creative process.

“We work together with the director right from the script level. We send scripts to various labs - Raakshas was developed in the Sundance Scriptwriters Lab for instance. We have our own production team and we market and sell our films ourselves.”
Vivek Kajaria

And this without marring the director’s vision. For Raakshas for instance, Zoting says he had many discussions over several points with the producers.

There were some concerns. It’s my first film. Plus, blending a socio-political backdrop with mystery and fantasy is not easy. We had a lot of discussions, and there was clear communication about how I wanted to present it. They gave me a free hand... there were no creative differences as such. 
Dnyanesh Zoting
A still from <i>Raakshas</i>.
A still from Raakshas.
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)

Nailing the Business

But if you think Navalakha and Kajaria aren’t savvy businessmen, think again. “We market our films to their full potential, whether on TV or social media or both. We don’t underestimate our own product,” says Kajaria.

Dahake, who has been following their work over the years, also points out how despite their non-filmy background, they not only taught themselves the business but found a new market for Marathi films.

Even though Navalakha did not come from a filmy background, he had the talent of picking up unconventional, content-driven projects. When Mr Kajaria came on board, they started visiting film festivals and acquired knowledge about the market. Most other producers are like ‘release karo, paisa lao’, but they realised that if a film doesn’t work here, they can still sell it to a global audience.
Sujay Dahake, Director
The cast and crew of <i>Fandry </i>after winning the Jury Grand Prize at the 15th Mumbai Film Festival.&nbsp;
The cast and crew of Fandry after winning the Jury Grand Prize at the 15th Mumbai Film Festival. 
(Photo courtesy: Facebook)

“There are so many film festivals in India and around the world today. Reviews, screenings and awards have started grabbing eyeballs. These generate a lot of interest around the film,” says Kajaria.

Kajaria and Navalakha also usually partner with big studios only after the completion of a film. “Big studios have awesome distribution and marketing infrastructure, which is impossible for independent producers to compete with,” points out Kajaria.

If a big studio joins us for a film, it’s great. But I prefer it if they join later, after the film is complete. Then even if they suggest changes - they have great research teams as well - it’s at the surface level, which doesn’t really alter the ethos of the film. For Fandry for instance, we added a song which helped market it. But it did not affect the actual film in any way.”
Nilesh Navalakha

Climbing Every Mountain

 Nilesh Navalakha and Vivek Kajaria are determined to walk the less beaten path.&nbsp;
Nilesh Navalakha and Vivek Kajaria are determined to walk the less beaten path. 
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)

Prod them about censorship and controversies like that around Padmaavat that hold filmmakers to ransom, and Kajaria and Navalakha agree that they do some basic self-censorship on the outset.

“If you want to make a statement, make it in a subtle, dignified way. Then there will be no censorship issues.”
Vivek Kajaria

Navalakha adds that it’s important for a film not to become a political tool: “It’s important to take a tough stand, which the Supreme Court did for Padmaavat. Saying that, in regional films, we would incur heavy losses if we were to be at the centre and state’s mercy. It’s best to be careful and route out things you know for sure would run into trouble with the Censor Board.”

A poster of <i>Ek Number</i>, the next film under the NABH banner.&nbsp;
A poster of Ek Number, the next film under the NABH banner. 
(Photo courtesy: NAHB)

So what are the challenges Kajaria and Navalakha face as independent producers in the Marathi film industry?

“There are two to three Marathi films releasing every week, and we are creating competition for ourselves. It needs to reduce drastically and we need to collaborate more,” says Kajaria.

Another challenge is the limited number of theatres playing Marathi films, largely thanks to skewed government policies.

Traditionally, Marathi films have always released more on single screens. But in the last 5-10 years, more than 300 single screen theatres in western Maharashtra have shut down, says Navalakha.

According to government policies, theatres can’t be renovated or turned into multiplexes - hence the shutdown, among other factors.

Less than 10 per cent of the state’s population watch Marathi movies - if you count a successful film like Sairat. And this too is only in the urban areas of Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Aurangabad. The films simply don’t reach rural Maharashtra. There are no theatres in the Konkan belt. This is a matter of great concern.
Nilesh Navalakha

But the producers are ready to brave every hurdle in their bid to tell stories that resonate locally as well as globally. “We want to make films we believe in,” they sign off.