Bal Gandharva

Author: Dr. Mandar ---

Bal Gandharva
Year: 2011
Director: Ravindra Jadhav
Cast: Subodh Bhave

To cinematically encapsulate a legendary artiste’s life in 2 odd hours is not an easy task. It is even more difficult when the life-story began in an era almost 125 years ago. But Marathi film Bal Gandharva manages the difficult feat quite admirably. It portrays the life and times of Narayan Shripad Rajhans alias Bal Gandharva, a legendary figure in Marathi theatre and music.

The story begins in 1898. Narayan is just ten years old but his prodigious singing is already making waves in Maharashtra’s cultural circles. He is suddenly thrust into limelight when Lokmanya Tilak, the foremost freedom fighter of the day, is mesmerized by his singing and names him ‘Bal Gandharva’ – a child- singer from heaven. Groomed under the traditions of the famous Kirloskar Natak Mandali, Narayan grows up to play ‘Stree Party’- a term for male actors playing female roles. With his immaculate transition into the heroine’s role and his exceptional singing, Bal Gandharva changes the theatrical equations  and comes to be recognized as the uncrowned king (or rather ‘Queen’!) of Marathi stage in the first two decades of the 20th century. His popular portrayals of various stage-characters like Bhamini, Rukmini and Draupadi come to define the female beauty, fashion and style standards of the times. His stage performances leave the audiences spellbound with heartfelt acting and heavenly singing. The kings (of Kolhapur and Baroda states) and rich businessmen become his ardent admirers.

But after this heady ascent, begins the downward spiral. His tendency to go to any lengths to present the best and the lavish on stage; his total lack of business sense and his over-reliance on unreliable friends alienates him from his trusted colleagues and leaves him neck deep in debts. Well, it is a disaster waiting to happen when you are spending thousands on sets, costumes and perfumes without looking at the cash registers! Like many passionate artistes, his excessive attachment to his art has slowly driven him apart from his family and the situation becomes worse when in his declining middle-aged years he finds solace in the company of Gauhar Bai, a young actress who leaves her film career to join him in theatre. Now old and tired, Bal Gandharva is already a misfit in heroine’s roles. The glory of theatre has given way to the growing public attraction for cinema. Actual ladies are now entering the acting field and ‘Stree parties’ are becoming anachronisms.

In these changing times, star film-maker V. Shantaram offers a lifeline to Bal Gandharva through a multi- film contract. But while making the first film itself, the ex-stage artiste realizes that his heart is not into this new medium. He walks out of the contract. The fame, friends and family – everything has gone away for good. The only thing left is to wait for the inevitable end….!

Bal Gandharva succeeds in transporting us back in the times at the beginning of the twentieth century. It presents to us the lost world of early Marathi theatre, bringing into focus the tremendous impact the stage/music icon had on the Maharashtrian audiences. It also offers insightful glimpses into the artiste’s rather dramatic life story and highlights his selfless devotion to his art and his craft. The man who despite getting the news of his infant daughter’s death, refused to cancel the opening show of his new drama and performed on stage for many hours; the man who spent like there was no tomorrow on his theatre activities while himself living almost in poverty; the man who through his women portrayals defined fashion and style for at least two generations of fairer sex; the man who in pursuit of his art left his family interests far behind; the man who refused to accept charity from any of his thousands of fans and instead kept performing on stage to repay his ever-soaring debts; the man who steadfastly refused to move with the changing trends and times….the events in Bal Gandharva’s life are tragic and yet inspiring.

Some critics – especially those who are well-versed with the artiste’s life/ music- have tried to say that the film fails to do justice to his associates and does not cover his artistic exploits in details. They may have a valid point from their angle but for a person like me, who had known Bal Gandharva just briefly through some articles and songs, this film serves as a great educative primer. So I think the film achieves its main objective of making the general audience interested in an almost forgotten chapter of theatre/ music history. As it is, a biopic is almost like a life summary, capturing the highlights and the spirit of the personality; it cannot be expected to present every tiny detail of a person’s life and career.

The film has many positives. Ravi Jadhav’s direction is crisp; Kaushal Inamdar’s music is excellent and the castings/ performances are top notch. But doubtless, the highlight of this film is Subodh Bhave’s portrayal of Bal Gandharva. He was the one who got this project rolling by getting the producer interested in making this film and what a performance he delivers. His is a restrained and finely nuanced portrayal and the Bal Gandharva-centric script gives him full scope to show his true acting mettle. And yes, how could I forget the contribution of Nitin Chandrakant Desai who produced/ art-directed this movie in the true Bal Gandharva- spirit – sparing no effort/ money to recreate the period feel in a majestic way? Hats off for that superlative effort.

For me, Bal Gandharva was an excellent educative entertainer. I am sure most of you would feel the same way about it!