For a biopic on one of Maharashtra’s best-loved humourists, Bhaai – Vyakti Kee Valli takes its time landing its first real joke. After a few limp-fisted jabs at humour, the movie hits its target in the fortieth-odd minute during the first encounter between PL Deshpande (Sagar Deshmukh) and his second wife Sunita (Irawati Harshe). They meet in the library of the college where Deshpande teaches, and his bumbling attempts to strike up a conversation are rebuffed by the stern, sardonic Sunita.

What else could this be but love at first sight? More gentle comedy follows through the courtship and the wedding, conducted with minimum fuss in between the brewing of tea. The relationship, nearly as iconic as Deshpande’s contributions to literature, music, theatre and films, anchors Mahesh Manjrekar’s movie and sets the stage for the second part, which will be released on February 8.

Written by Ganesh Matkari, with dialogue by veteran theatre and film personality Ratnakar Matkari, Bhaai – Vyakti Kee Valli consists of key incidents that have shaped the life of Pu La, as Purushottam Laxman Deshpande came to known. Since his fame has been predicted by his father (Sachin Khedekar) and therefore seems predestined, the movie doesn’t work hard enough to trace the steps in Deshpande’s evolution. Two important events take place during formative years: his father’s early death, and the demise of his first wife within a week of the wedding from typhoid. Did these deaths mark – or mar – Deshpande in any way, creating an urge to be funny and flippant when his very existence seemed tragic? At least on the strength of this biopic, we will never know.

Bhaai – Vyakti Kee Valli (2019).

The film opens in the present. Deshpande lies in hospital in a coma. Various family members and luminaries drop in, including Pu La’s brother Ramakant (Satish Alekar) and director Jabbar Patel (Sunil Barve). Bal Thackeray (Sarang Sathe) puts through a concerned phone call.

Flashbacks reveal Deshpande’s happy-go-lucky childhood and adolescence, his talent at playing the harmonium and his love for music, and his involvement with theatre and, later films. Deshpande’s immersion in the arts is so steep that he neglects Sunita – the only bit of character shading permitted in a movie that is deeply respectful of its subject. Sunita’s attempts to tell her husband about her pregnancy are thwarted by his insistence on talking about his play rehearsals, and she wonders whether she has married a grown man or a child trapped in an adult body.

Various life experiences are played out in full – the luxury afforded by a two-part biopic – and while they never quite shake off the feeling of watching a well-lit stage production, some are absorbing. Apart from the relationship between Deshpande and Sunita, the song-less movie produces a stirring sequence of Hindustani classical music that features the legends Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva and Vasantrao Deshpande. Pu La, Vasantrao (Padmanabh Bind) and Bhimsen Joshi (Ajay Purkar) visit Kumar Gandharva (Swanand Kirkire) in the hope of scoring some liquor. Instead, an impromptu music session follows, featuring marvellous renditions of Kanada Raja Pandhari Cha and Sanware Aijaiyo.

Bhaai – Vyakti Kee Valli has a fascinating subject, a huge cast and an enviable canvas, but its central character is still buffering by the end of the first part. The production’s overall lack of ambition extends to the largely unremarkable performances and the theatrical staging of scenes. The second chapter promises a bigger parade of luminaries, including Acharya Atre, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhakti Barve and Vijaya Mehta. It is hoped that somewhere in between ticking off the milestones, the man with the magic pen and the ability to crack sides with his perspicacious insights into human nature will come into view.