Among the recent releases that have brought good tidings for the Marathi film industry is a chronicle of a perfect murder that unravels in spectacular fashion. The success of Paresh Mokashi’s Vaalvi is a shot in the arm for Marathi cinema, which labours under the massive shadow of the Hindi film industry in Maharashtra.
Vaalvi (Termite), written by Mokashi and Madhugandha Kulkarni, was released on January 13. With just four principal characters – played by Swwapnil Joshi, Anita Date-Kelkar, Subodh Bhave and Shivani Surve – and a narrative stripped of sentimentality or judgement, Mokashi and Kulkarni have crafted the very antithesis of the morality-laden crime thriller.
Having charmed Marathi filmgoers, the twisty mystery produced by Kulkarni and Zee Studios will be streamed on ZEE5 on February 24. This is an opportunity for non-Marathi speakers to catch up with a title that has reinforced Mokashi’s reputation for pitiless satire.
The 54-year-old stage and film director is yet to come to terms with Vaalvi’s golden run.
“I am still in shock,” Mokashi told Scroll during an interview over Zoom. “My play Mukkampost Bombilwadi became the biggest commercial success of 2001. We did some 500 shows. So forget Vaalvi, I am still in the shock of 2001. Certain things just click with the audience. You can’t plan your success. It is always about cinematic narrative – we don’t give this enough thought.”
Mokashi made his feature debut in 2009 with Harishchandrachi Factory, an account of DG Phalke’s Herculean efforts to make India’s first feature film Raja Harishchandra. Like many Marathi directors, Mokashi had cut his teeth in theatre before embarking on filmmaking.
Alongside following up Harishchandrachi Factory with Elizabeth Ekadashi (2014) and Chi Va Chi Sau Ka (2017), Mokashi continued to write and direct plays. His stage experience has directly fed into his filmmaking practice, particularly his penchant for bitter comedy, he said.
“This dark, satirical, comical tone is something you can’t really implant or cut and paste [into the material],” Mokashi observed. “In Marathi, there is a saying: pindi te brahmandi. What is in your core gets reflected in the things you do. Perhaps this comical, satirical, darkish thing comes naturally to me. I was comfortable in this genre even in my plays, like Sangeet Debuchya Mulee or Mukkampost Bombilwadi. Harishchandrachi Factory had a light-hearted treatment. I didn’t try to portray Mr Phalke as serious or filled with pathos, which is normally how our biopics are.”
Vaalvi flowed out of Mokashi and his co-writer over a two-month period in 2019. Shooting was wrapped up in December that year, but the post-production and release were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Once we decided to write this so-called murder mystery, the perfect murder, the rest of the things fell into place automatically,” Mokashi recalled. “The first thing we agreed upon is that we didn’t want to create a typical murder mystery. We definitely didn’t want to have a private detective or somebody else cracking the case. We didn’t want to involve the police, since you have plenty of films in that genre. We were left with one choice – poetic justice. But how to achieve that? After all, you don’t want a ghost taking revenge.”
An unusual inspiration, which is cleverly woven into Vaalvi, was scientific research into whether insects that consume plastic can be treated as a solution to ecological destruction. Termites also signify decay over a period of time – another one of Vaalvi’s themes.
Among the inspired casting choices is Marathi cinema’s resident chocolate-boy hero Swwapnil Joshi as a heartless philanderer. While Mokashi is no stranger to getting the best out of acting talent, his focus on Vaalvi was on the way the screenplay unfolded.
“In this particular film, I didn’t want to burden the actors with a particular style,” he said. “They are already skilful and experienced actors. I wanted to focus entirely on the cinematic narrative. I was handling this genre for the first time, and I didn’t want to mess it up.”
He could have shot “a speedy film or a sleek film”, but that wasn’t his intent. “Speed is irrelevant if your characters are not bringing to the film what they are supposed to be bringing,” he said. “So the sound, the background music, the selection and duration of shots were all very important. I didn’t want to exhaust the actors in the rehearsals itself. The edge-of-the-seat expressions had to come out spontaneously.”
Vaalvi was warmly received by the Marathi media upon its theatrical release – another unexpected outcome for a filmmaker used to flying under the radar.
“None of my films has received this kind of applause or admiration,” Mokashi observed. “How is this possible? The box office was a surprise too.”
He has already been approached for a remake in Hindi – a “big temptation” that he says he is trying hard to resist.
If he did handle the remake, he might like to rework certain scenes. For instance, could the opening sequence, in which a couple plan a double suicide that masks a murder attempt, be treated differently?
Vaalvi’s success has bolstered Mokashi’s understanding, built over successive releases, that audiences are well attuned to sharp writing and direction. Packing a film with clever dialogue and memorable characters isn’t enough.
“Creatively speaking, I have become more conscious of the medium I am handling,” Mokashi said. “We have given unnecessary importance to the story. If you want to write a good story, write a novel or a radio play. But theatre or cinema are different mediums. We have failed on this one point – of not noting the beauty or power of a particular medium. We have always talked about what a different subject, what a sensational topic, what a socio-political angle. We need to focus more on creating good cinema.”
The revival of the Marathi film industry is yet another welcome development for Mokashi – although he points out that all kinds of language films need to survive if the theatre-going habit is to be preserved.
“Fortunately this year, cinema is picking up, and that too with a couple of Marathi films – that is another surprise,” Mokashi said, having delivered a film that is also full of surprises.