Me Vasantrao is the latest addition to the healthy library of Marathi-language biopics. Nipun Dharmadhikari’s film moves between the formative years of renowned Hindustani classical singer Vasantrao Deshpande and the time just before his death in 1983, when the musician talks to an unseen visitor minutes before a stage performance. Tabla maven Zakir Hussain is drumming up a storm on the stage. In the green room, Vasantrao (Rahul Deshpande) looks back on the dark clouds that have hung over much of his existence.
It’s an adventure characterised by life-altering encounters, epiphanies and missteps. The first person to leave a mark on Vasantrao is his mother (Anita Date), who walks out on her feckless husband soon after Vasantrao’s birth in 1920.
Vasantrao never gets over the absence of his father, seeking them in a series of mentors, screenwriters Dharmadhikari and Upendra Sidhaye suggests. These include one of his early gurus Shankarrao Sapre (Sarang Sathaye) and the singers Deenanath Mangeshkar (Amey Wagh) and Khan (Kumud Mishra).
Despite being celebrated as a child prodigy, Vasantrao takes decades to come into view. Like its lead character, Me Vasantrao is still buffering at the interval point, where we see a grown Vasantrao unable to escape the pressures of providing for his family and unwilling to sacrifice stability for the unknowable pleasures of a music career.
Like the single swatch that gives a sense of the whole tapestry, Me Vasantrao takes a part-for-the whole approach. The biopic’s leitmotif is the making of Vasantrao Deshpande – the “me” or the I of the title – and his efforts to balance resilience with diffidence.
Unlike most biopics, Dharmadhikari’s movie acknowledges the contributors and supporters who rescue its late-blooming hero from the perils of anonymity.
There is no dearth of people praising Vasantrao’s golden voice, nor is there are a shortage of scenes of Vasantrao on the brink of long-awaited stardom, only to be pulled back by his own timidity. Even as Vasantrao resists being identified with any one musical gharana, the film suggests that his artistry was shaped by a range of eclectic influences, each of which enriched his craft even as it made him hard to categorise.
The iconic writer PL Deshpande (Pushkaraj Chirputkar) is Vasantrao’s biggest ally, scattering about sage advice and bon mots. (PL Deshpande was the subject of another recent two-part biopic, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Bhai, starring Sagar Deshmukh.) PL Deshpande is attempting to sing when he first meets Vasantrao, but gracefully withdraws and devotes the next several years to championing his friend’s talents.
Begum Akhtar (Durga Jasraj) plays her part in rescuing Vasantrao from yet another moment of doubt. Serendipity has male and female faces, taking the form of a fan and a lavani singer who give Vasantrao the confidence to throw caution to the winds.
The exploration of Vasantrao’s drudge years stretches out the film to 180 minutes. Despite being schematic and repetitive, Me Vasantrao commands attention on account of strongly written scenes, committed actors and a glorious score by Rahul Deshpande and Bhushan Mate.
Vasantrao finally comes into his own with Purushottam Dharvekar’s blockbuster stage production Katiyar Kaljat Ghusli. The musical play, about the rivalry between the Hindustani classical singers Khansaheb and Shastri, starred Vasantrao Deshpande as Khansahab. (The play was adapted by actor-filmmaker Subodh Bhave for the film Katiyar Kaljat Ghusli in 2015.)
Dharmadhikari and his co-writer attempt to contextualise Khansahab’s obduracy, which leads to professional and personal ruin. Me Vasantrao proposes that Khansahab’s stubbornness mirrors the difficult experiences of the man who portrays him on the stage – among the film’s most inspired ideas.
Me Vasantrao is sometimes plays out like an episodic series with too much attention on cliche-ridden eureka instances and too little investment in moments that might have provided greater psychological shading. The decision to shoot the actors in tight close-ups benefits only the more seasoned among them.
Rahul Deshpande, Vasantrao Deshpande’s grandson and himself a classical singer, is always more convincing singing than emoting. Anita Date, as Vasantrao’s tough-hided mother, and Pushkaraj Chirputkar, as the jovial PL Deshpande, stand out in the ensemble cast.
The music, the lodestar of Vasantrao’s wanderings, elevates even ordinary scenes. Rahul Deshpande has sung most of the film’s full-throated compositions. One of them plays out in the final scene and well into the closing credits, but is stirring enough to ensure that nobody will move till the last note has been sung.