A Hollow Tale Of Fake Masks
A Review of Mahesh Manjrekar's Biopic 'Bhaai- Vyakti Kee Valli'

Meghana Bhuskute

It takes courage to make a biopic on Purshottam Laxman Deshpande (1919-2000), who was endearingly and popularly known as Pu. La. The Marathi-manoos simply dotes on Pu. La. as both writer and performer. So naturally, a biopic on his life becomes a must watch for them. They will watch it irrespective of the reviews. It would be a matter of even greater pride for them if they managed to convince their teenaged children to watch it as well. Such is the cultural value attributed to Pu. La's work. Whether or not it is justified to equate Pu. La. with a quintessential Marathi identity, is another question. The biopic is a double-edged sword even for the filmmakers. It may be a safe business proposal but at the same time it attracts minute scrutiny from the cognoscenti. They would take the makers to task for the slightest error.

For the aforementioned reasons, I watched both the parts of the film 'Bhaai - Vyakti Ki Valli', directed by Mahesh Manjerkar and written by the Matkari father-son duo. The two parts only manage the length of the narrative, but if you ask me how the film is, I say: Absolute rubbish!

It is disappointing, frustrating, and annoying in equal parts.

It is annoying because the film is an insult to Pu. La. The man who was hailed as writer par excellence, the font of happiness, the life of a gathering, the soul of a mehfil, the "pun-ful" man - who never had any spite, even against his bitterest critic - such a grand personality - has been reduced to a cribbing clerk speaking in a screechy voice - as someone who cracks lame jokes all the time, a lazy bum, and a careless and a silly man! The failure of the film can be attributed to Sagar Deshpande who essays the titular role so ineffectively, as well as to the dialogue writer. Imagine Pu. La. mouthing such a ludicrous line: "If I were a historical figure, I would never be Shaista Khan. How would he write after his fingers got chopped?" It is not at all a joke befitting the grand stature of Pu. La. You cringe in your seat as the dialogue writer strangulates the humour out of the lines and Sagar Deshpande delivers the dead dialogue in a morose tone.

Pu. La. was a man with a cheerful countenance but he never cracked cheap jokes.

Why is he being made out to be such a clown?

How did Pu. La. become such an accomplished personality? How easy or difficult was his path to success? What challenges life had in store for him? How did he overcome those? Who else besides his wife Sunita-bai contributed to his phenomenal success? How did his unprecedented popularity affect his life? How did his personality evolve? What did he gain and lose along the way? What is the special attribute of his Literature? Which new experiments did he conduct through his creations? How did his work influence the taste of his fans? What were his strengths and weaknesses? What kind of mark did he leave behind?

The film does not touch upon any of these fundamental questions. It even fails to answer the question raised by the title - whether Pu. La. was just a regular person or an unconventional, eccentric person in his own right. It fails miserably on all counts.

What one rather witnesses is a contrived pageant of all the erstwhile Saraswat Brahmin celebrities. Yes, Pu. La. was one of them! But please don't ask what role they played in his success story - they are all like the characters from the Bollywood film 'Hum Saath Saath Hain' - a procession of fake masks.

The film is stuffed with look alikes of Marathi celebrities: Babasaheb Purandare, Vijaya Mehta, Satish Dubhashi, Bhakti Barve, Ga Di Madgulkar, Mardhekar, Ramu Bhaiyya Date, Anil Awchat, Vijay Tendulkar, Baba and Sadhana tai Amte and Dr Jabbar Patel. They make walk-in appearances that do no justice to their presence or personas. In the order of the length of their roles it is Pu La, Sunita-bai, Mai, Jabbar Patel, followed by the Late Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thakre! One wonders if Thakre had any significant connection with Pu. La. at all.

The other annoying thing about the film is the portrayal of Pu. La.'s marital life with Sunita- bai. Sunita-bai has openly admitted in her autobiography about how she took major decisions in their life and at times even forced Pu. La. to tow the line. She has spoken about the streaks of male chauvinism that Pu. La. was not immune to, yet she goes on to admit that their wedded life had been a happy journey together. She recounts romantic scenes like how Pu. La. shook the Prajakta tree to shower her with flowers or how he sang her favourite song, "Majhiya maheri ja" on his harmonium during the monsoon in Pune. The film on the other hand depicts Sunita-bai as a strict matron dressed in starched cotton sarees, wielding an invisible cane, but with a soft heart. Pu. La. is shown as an unruly child in a classroom without any sense of discipline, which is far from the facts of their lives together.

Contrary to the reality about their stay at Belgaum where Pu. La. fondly remembers the cow-dung plastering of the house done by his lovely wife and of how he was deeply pained to leave the town where he had immensely enjoyed musical mehfils - the film shows that the couple left the town because Pu. La. was "bored" of living there.

The Deshpandes have been hailed as the first couple of Maharashtra by the noted writer Mangala Godbole, but the film ends up mocking a revered, socially committed, and culturally significant couple. Indeed, this only shows the immaturity of the filmmaker.

We are aware that while making a biopic facts may to be tweaked to add zing to the narrative. However in this case, the filmmaker ends up abusing the cinematic license completely. For instance, it is understandable that the maker may be tempted to bring musical greats of the era - Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Hirabai Badodekar, Manik Verma, Vasant Deshpande and Pu. La. in one frame, but if they are being portrayed as a jobless gang just hanging out together all the time - it certainly isn't acceptable! It is also beyond comprehension filming two mehfils of these greats with Pu. La. - it is like throwing in two item songs to appease the audience. The ploy works more like an overdose!

Although it is a fact that Balasaheb Thakre and Sunita-bai were born in the same year, it is too far-fetched to show a young Bala as her classmate in the eighth standard making her sketch while their teacher is Pu. La.! This twist in the tale serves no purpose really. The fact is that Thakre visited Pu. La. when he was critically ill. It is also a fact that he denigrated Pu. La. by calling him "modke pula" (broken bridge).

What is the point then in showing that Dr. Jabbar Patel rang up Thakre when near and dear ones were asked to be informed about Pu.La.'s sinking health? Why drag Thakre in? In showing this, one wonders why is the filmmaker trying to establish a level of intimacy between the two men where none existed?

Pu. La.'s immortal characters like Antu Barva, Sakharam Gatne, Natha Kamat, Babdu - these are the products of his keen observation and creativity. But the film unnecesarily tries to thrust these characters as persons who inspired Pu. La. Sakharam Gatne's character is seen as someone being heckled at by the trio of Pu. La., Bhimsen Joshi and Vasantrao Deshpande.

Really ludicrous!

Harsh background music, an unprofessional and immature characterisation, a purposeless parade of celebrities, sets not in sync with the timeline - even on the techincal front - the film fails miserably.

A special mention must be made about Ratnakar Matkari's atrocious dialogue, which is a huge let down.

On the whole, this is a shameful film to watch. I pity the filmmakers, the writers, the actors, but most of all, the audience - for being subjected to such torture. I shudder to think of the film's release had it happened when Sunita-bai was alive.

*Meghana Bhuskute is a translator with a keen interest in languages, literature and orthography. Apart from being an enthusiastic blogger and editor of some online anthologies, she writes and translates for various Marathi publications.

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