Vidarbha, the region in eastern Maharashtra notorious for drought and despair, needs to be recognised for its vibrant theatre tradition too. This is the premise of Trushant Ingle’s spirited debut feature Zollywood, and it is hard to disagree.

The Wishberry Films production will be premiered at the Jagran Film Festival in late September, and a theatrical release will be planned over the next few months. Zollywood celebrates the local theatre scene known as “zhadipatti”. Every year, between Diwali and Holi, numerous troupes produce plays about a range of subjects (family dramas, social themes, sex comedies). The groups are known as “presses” because they operate printing units the rest of the year. The plays are hugely profitable and popular, and the performers are on par with movie stars.

However, this demotic tradition also has a reputation for being unsavoury, the 27-year-old director of Zollywood observed. The fact that the plays are staged all night is held up as a sign of decadence. The performers and audiences cut across caste and tribal lines, and the plays are in the local Varhadi dialect, which carries the salt-and-sugar flavour of the soil of Vidarbha. All the more reason a movie needed to be made on zhadipatti, Trushant Ingle said. “This too is a part of the culture of Maharashtra, and people need to see it,” he told Scroll.in.

Zollywood (2019). Courtesy Wishberry Films.

Zollywood revolves around the gentle rivalry between three groups aiming to be the “Number 1” of the season. One is led by the hard-nosed Aman, who has moved away from his mentor and is recruiting new talent because the experienced artists want a pay hike.

Raja, Aman’s cousin, hires the dancer Reshma to boost his own group’s fortunes. Reshma warns the luxuriantly-moustached Raja that she cannot act or sing, but she can certainly dance. When Reshma draws boos for her performance, she shakes her hips and all is forgiven. Raja is smitten, and his associates can’t stop grumbling.

The third major player is Deepak, described as the “jalta chirag” (eternal flame) of zhadipatti. The idealistic Deepak writes about life’s endless struggles and embarks on his own play, about the rehabilitation of a rape victim. The movie follows the experiences of these three sets of characters up until the start of the theatre season.

Zollywood (2019). Courtesy Wishberry Films.

One of the insights of Zollywood is that zhadipatti is to local theatre what Bollywood is to Hindi cinema – it is beloved and lucrative and therefore subject to the pressures of show business. Ingle, who has also written the screenplay, picked up the title from an article in the newspaper The Hitavada. “When I was researching about zhadipatti, I found the word Zollywood in an article by the journalist Chaitanya Deshpande,” Ingle said. “I thought it was an apt title. Like Bollywood, Zollywood too is big business and functions like a mini-industry.”

The incidents in the film are drawn from Ingle’s research, which was supplemented by conversations with zhadipatti veterans. The story is credited to the actress Asawari Naidu, who also appears in the film as the respected performer Rajni. Naidu’s parents too were zhadipatti actors, Ingle said.

Ingle himself is a product of zhadipatti. As a child, the Nagpur-born filmmaker performed in zhadipatti plays for two years to overcome his hardscrabble circumstances. “I come from a poor background, and I used to deliver newspapers,” Ingle said. One of Ingle’s customers, zhadipatti star Rajesh Chitnis, encouraged him to take up stage roles. The money was good – Rs 300 per show, Ingle recalls.

Ingle’s fascination with zhadipatti endured into adulthood. His movie reproduces many elements of the performing tradition: the manner in which actors say their lines into a microphone placed at the centre of the stage; the influence of Hindi cinema on the plays; the involvement of viewers, who give both their rapt attention and frank disapproval to the stage proceedings; the commercial pushes and pulls.

Zollywood (2019). Courtesy Wishberry Films.

In one hilarious sub-plot, Raja hires the actor Suraj Kumar to boost his play’s prospects. Suraj’s only claim to fame is that he has appeared in a few Hindi films. But since Suraj is a denizen of Bollywood, which casts a long shadow over Zollywood, he receives star billing and the approval of the female populace.

Even as the production companies compete for the audience’s attention and earnings, Ingle throws in another element. A street theatre group talks about the issues that do not always make it to the zhadipatti productions – land rights, the state of the economy, the stranglehold of caste.

Ingle, who is Dalit, said that the light-hearted and seemingly non-confrontational Zollywood is more politically-minded than it appears. “Politics is everywhere,” Ingle said. “These street plays express the problems that are there not only in Vidarbha, but in the rest of the country too. I felt that though my film, I could make people aware that this kind of theatre exists too.”

Trushant Ingle.

Zollywood is staffed mostly by zhadipatti performers, who shed their usual flamboyant acting styles for a more naturalistic approach. “I wanted a real zone, and I didn’t tell anybody how to act,” Ingle said. “We did a ten-day workshop, and all I had to do was give the actors the names of their characters and their relationships with one another. They were a bit apprehensive at first before the camera, but then they opened up. They were the same on and off the screen.”

The movie was shot over 22 days in a village in the Chandrapur district in 2018. Ingle is a self-taught filmmaker, who moved to Mumbai in 2009 to be a theatre actor. In 2018, he made a short film, Shewantai, about farmer suicides.

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Shewantai (2018).

Before making Shewantai, Ingle was an assistant casting director on Amit Masurkar’s acclaimed movie Newton (2017). “I felt that if a film like Newton could be made, if locals could be taken to act in a movie and recreate their own world, I could make a film too,” Ingle said. He credited Masurkar with having steered Zollywood in important ways. Masurkar is identified as the movie’s creative producer.

Ingle appears to have been given a free hand in the making of his first film. Apart from the Hindi movie tracks being lip-synced in the plays staged within the movie, Zollywood isn’t burdened by any songs of its own. When Ingle was pitching the film to potential producers, he was advised that a song or two might help, but he stuck to his guns.

“I thought logically, and felt that songs are usually placed in films when there is an extraordinary thought that isn’t being expressed by the script,” he said.

It was equally important for Zollywood to reflect the Varhadi dialect, rather than resort to more formal Marathi. “This film is from a corner of Vidarbha, and it needed to have the language of the region,” Ingle said. “The language of any place is beautiful, and there is no such thing as a clean or perfect Marathi.” A scene in the movie captures Ingle’s intent. A character pronounces a word in what is considered to be proper Marathi, before being reminded of his roots.

Zollywood too never forgets its place. The movie pays tribute to zhadipatti’s dedicated souls, and captures their hardiness, enterprise, and passion for theatre. Vidarbha often makes the headlines for the wrong reasons, but Zollywood suggests that it is possible to strike a cautious note of celebration too.

Zollywood (2019). Courtesy Wishberry Films.