Girish Kulkarni has long been a familiar name to followers of Marathi theatre and cinema. Hindi audiences know him from Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly (2014), in which he played an obdurate police officer. The playwright, screenwriter and actor has written all of Umesh Kulkarni‘s films starting with Valu (2008). He finally makes his debut as a director with Jaudya Na Balasaheb, a political comedy set in a town near Pune, co-produced by the hit music composers Ajay-Atul, and released by Zee Telefilms on October 7 with English subtitles.

“I wrote the script one and a half years ago, but the story had been accumulating for a while,” Kulkarni said. “I went to a quiet place near Pune and wrote the film in 15 days.”

Jaudya Na Balasaheb is placed at the intersection of theatre, politics and ideals. Kulkarni plays the wastrel son of a former member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly who is seeking re-election. Annasaheb Marne (Manoj Joshi) is an old-fashioned politician who knows the importance of staying within a system that he has rigged in his favour. People are paid to cast their votes and get small jobs and handouts in return. When Marne proposes to convert fertile farmland into a residential township, there are murmurs rather than cries of protest.

Marne Sr’s biggest opponent turns out to be his son Balasaheb (Kulkarni), who snaps out of his liquor-fuelled stupor when he lays his eyes on theatre director Urmi (Manava Naik). Balasaheb is motivated enough by Urmi’s encouragement to decide to mount a stage production written by his loyal friends. The rag-tag bunch of amateur actors that is pretending to fumble through their scenes actually comprises accomplished performers from Marathi theatre, stage and television: Sai Tamhankar, Shreekant Yadav, Nandkishore Chaughule and Bhau Kadam, among them.

The play opens Balasaheb’s eyes. He is no more the aimless son of a cynical father and an indulgent mother (hilariously played by the ageless Reema Lagoo), but an Arvind Kejriwal-like messiah who rebels against the establishment.

‘Jaudya Na Balasaheb’.

The main character’s name is loaded enough to make viewers wonder whether the movie is a humourous critique of the Shiv Sena. “Balasaheb” actually refers to the culture of dynastic politics that is rampant in Maharashtra and other parts of the country, Kulkarni told “There are plenty of Balasahebs all over Maharashtra, the sons of the most important person in the village, so-called princes who have not done anything and not proven anything but still get appointed as the next kings,” he said. “People vote for them as a ritual and blindly put them on the throne.”

Kulkarni’s cultural roots are obvious from his suggestion that theatre in particular and the arts in general have the ability to fix the problems that plague Balasaheb’s Garsoli village, among them land acquisition, debt and caste prejudice. While Jaudya Na Balasaheb is a new script, the characters of Balasaheb and his two friends originally appeared in a one-act play Kulkarni had written some years ago. “The characters are from my one-act play Prasango Path, but the rest of the story is new,” he said.

The major theme running through the rustic-flavoured comedy is the lack of communication. This is reflected in Balasaheb’s inability to convince his father of his disinterest in politics and his own ignorance of the feelings that his childhood friend Karishma has towards him. Technology is everywhere in Garsoli. Balasaheb leads the selfie-loving, WhatsApp-addicted pack (his mother is a close second), and the locals are all up-to-date with their pop culture references. For instance, the rousing Dolby Wala song invokes the Korean pop song Gangnam Style while making a case for a vernacular idiom of music.

‘Dolby Wala’.

“The film represents my understanding of the contemporary social and political situation, the loss of dialogue between different classes and castes, and the segregation of people who like and don’t like certain things,” Kulkarni said. The overly busy screenplay brims with references to farmer suicides, the censorship of the theatre, and the chasm between high culture and folk culture. Even though Balasaheb speaks in an accent that is makes it obvious that he isn't from a city, Kulkarni name-checks well-known literary figures, including Durga Bhagwat, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Sadanand More. “These different worlds need to co-exist and take something from each other,” Kulkarni said. “I was born and raised in a Brahmin family in Pune, and while I grew up on amateur theatre, I could not initially relate to a guy who dances to an Ajay-Atul tune at the Ganpati festival. I would become judgemental and pass comments about this person.”

Marathi high culture has not penetrated the worlds of the street and the unpaved village road, Kulkarni added, and there are few cultural spaces where such levelling happens.

In the movie, the levelling takes place in the use of comedy delivered in the local Marathi dialect. “We had to use humour, otherwise the content would have been very serious,” Kulkarni said. “It’s difficult to tell people to mend their ways anymore, so I used humour.”

At its worst moments, the 165-minute movie seems like a series of hilarious sketches strung together. The sharp dialogue, written by Kulkarni, perfectly captures the quirks and foibles of its characters, but the movie suffers from a first-time director’s indulgence and inability to sacrifice a good joke in the interests of a snappier narrative.

Girish Kulkarni and Sai Tamhankar.

“It was a hell of a challenge, and I was often in danger of losing control over the process,” Kulkarni said. “I wanted to have a balance with all other characters, since there is a transformation happening to the subjects of the king, as it were.”

In any case, the composers Ajay-Atul loved the story when it was narrated to them. Jaudya Na Balasaheb is the first movie to be produced by the siblings, who have scored several chartbusters, including Sairat earlier this year. Like Sairat, Jaudya Na Balasaheb opens with a voiceover running over the credits, but it takes a very different journey. While Sairat is about a dream turning into a nightmare, Jaudya Na Balasaheb is content with keeping its hopes high. Theatre and an exposure to the right ideas can save Maharashtra from corruption and inequality, the film cheerfully suggests. Audiences might not be convinced so easily, but they will have a good laugh while they ponder about the legacy of the state’s Balasahebs, both real and fictional.