Mee Vasantrao (Marathi) is an epic musical saga

Rahul Deshpande plays his real grandfather, the legendary Pt. Vasantrao Deshpande, in the Marathi (subtitled in English) biopic Mee Vasantrao. Photo: Jio Studios

Epic is the one word that best describes this Marathi musical biopic on the music legend Pt. Vasantrao Deshpande (1920-1983). It is a perfect answer to why only South Indian films should have a monopoly on pan-Indian cinema. The film has English subtitles and has been invited already to one international festival. It is 180 minutes long, and but for a short while in the second half, its pace never flags even in this era of shorter movies.

Pt. Vasantrao Deshpande was an enigmatic musician. Refusing to kowtow to a specific gharana (style or method used by a teacher who pass it on to the next generation and to their students), his music stemmed from deep within him, from the time he was a child.

His childhood was unique: his elder paternal aunt tried to jealously drown him as a baby because she did not have progeny of her own, and as a result, his mother (Anita Date) left the husband’s joint family with the baby. She worked hard to raise the boy Vasant, and when his inherent musical acumen was discovered, a local teacher in Nagpur, where they were staying, offered to teach him music.

But Vasantrao never fettered himself. He went on to imbibe the musical styles of a variety of gurus—shown here is a Muslim teacher from Lahore (Kumud Mishra), and before that, from none less than maestro Pt. Deenanath Mangeshkar (the entire Mangeshkar clan’s contribution is acknowledged in the credits in acquiring material about their association).

As a clerk in a government office (during British rule and after Independence too), Vasantrao treats music as a passion and a hobby, and at best, a source of supporting income for the needs of his family of mother, wife Vimal (Kaumudi Walokar) and finally three children. And he finds an early catalyst in a friend who wants to be a musician-singer but also writes—another Marathi legend, Purshottam Laxman (P.L. or Pu. La. as he was known) Deshpande.  P.L. Deshpande went on to become a world-famous titan and an icon of humor and literature, who also performed music.

This film illuminates the uninitiated into the big secrets of the small yet humongous role played in Vasantrao’s life by the patriarch of the Mangeshkar family and the decisive and extensive contribution to his art and career by the other Deshpande.

In biopics like these, wherein certain aspects are dramatized and may not have happened in real life, I for one do not know whether his repentant father (Yatin Karyekar)’s coming to meet the now-seasoned Vasantrao happened for real or not. But the one thing we learn from this telling sequence is that the daring and strong-willed musician refused to be tempted by the riches he was heir to and continued to lead life the way he wanted. Well, almost.

For Deshpande, thanks to the way his father had disowned his mother and him, considered his own family his prime responsibility, even at the expense of his art and his genius in that zone. Despite his friend Deshpande’s insistence at a few points in his life, he never compromised until his mother finally told him some home-truths.

And from there began his real struggle. His blunt tongue had cost him a lot, and it was an uphill battle because he even openly castigated Purshottam Darvhekar (Madhav Vaishampayan), the playwright and producer of the stage masterpiece Katyar Kaaljaat Ghusali for what he thought was a compromised end to a great play. As a result, he was almost thrown out of the play that finally signaled big time for him.

The format of this biopic is brilliant. Vasantrao is narrating his life’s story to an unknown person (a superb touch as revealed by the person’s identity in the climax) and what comes out as a lesson is that a true artiste always finds his due, even if it happens a shade late. Vasantrao was 47 when he achieved real fame, but after that, he had a meteoric rise. And everything he achieved was without any compromise, and on his own termsmusical and otherwise.

The film’s first half is absolutely a perfect blend of cinema, authenticity and a massive connect with the viewer through its excellent humor (again, this may be part-fictional in the way it is shown). The second half gets into more drama, but P.L. Deshpande’s omnipresence makes the story still have the elements of entertainment that keep us riveted even when proceedings turn dramatic and even poignant. And an obvious red thread that runs throughout is the exceptional music—this is the first film in what seems like eons to actually have a physical CD of its soundtrack released. The songs are such a treat for the ears in an era when film music, including in many Marathi movies, has almost been destroyed by commercial “notes”.

And if the Nipun Avinash Dharmadhikari-led script is exceptional, especially in the dialogues, his direction is no less. This multi-talented man best known to international audiences for his small role as the toy-seller in the Oscar-nominated Marathi film Harishchandraachi Factory (2010), excels as only a master storyteller can. I am also watching him right now in the web series Bloody Brothers in which he does an exceptional essay again. But what he has done as the captain of this film is plain fabulous, and like every good director, he gets every key artiste to excel.

First and foremost are the three actors who play Vasantrao, led by Rahul Deshpande, Pt. Vasantrao’s grandson, who has also composed music and sung most of the songs. Rahul inherits the genes of his late father, who had acted in Marathi sangeet natak (musical plays) and even some movies. And though he is naturally good at music, he is more than competent as an actor too.

Gandhar Joshi as the young Vasantrao is brilliant, especially in his scenes with Amey Wagh, while Arush Nand also makes a mark in the way he is shown singing intricate musical notes.

Mee Vasantrao, indeed, is a showcase of histrionics. Anita Date is plain magnificent in the doughty role of Vasantrao’s mother, his guiding force at all levels. Another natural scene-stealer is Pushkaraj Chirputkar as P.L. Deshpande, and yet another fabulous turn comes from Amey Wagh as Pt. Deenanath. Hitting the perfect notes also are, in that order , Kumud Mishra as the Muslim maestro, Alok Rajwade as Vasantrao’s maternal uncle, Madhav Vaishampayan as Darvhekar and Kaumudi Walokar as the silently supporting Vimal.

Technically upbeat, the film’s only faux pas, if we can call it that, is that the credit titles are only in English. No doubt, international audiences need that (Hindi films have had them for decades!), but what about the Marathi folks who may not be familiar with the Queen’s language? I have always maintained that at least the main credits should also be there in the language spoken in the movie. Indians films today can aim taller, but we cannot sacrifice local for global, can we?

Mee Vasantrao is a milestone, otherwise, and almost deserves a complete rating.

Rating: ****1/2

Jio Studios present Viacom 18 Studios’, Antarnaad’s & Darshan Productions’ Mee Vasantrao (Marathi) Produced by: Chandrashekhar Gokhale, Darshan Desai & Niranjan Kirloskar  Directed by: Nipun Avinash Dharmadhikari  Written by: Nipun Avinash Dharmadhikari & Upendra Sidhaye  Music: Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, Rahul Deshpande & Bhushan Mate  Starring: Rahul Deshpande, Anita Date, Pushkaraj Chirputkar, Kaumudi Walokar, Amey Wagh, Kumud Mishra, Alok Rajwade, Sarang Sathaye, Madhav Vaishampayan, Gandhar Joshi, Arush Nand, Yatin Karyekar & others



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