After graduating from FTII in Pune, Marathi filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni directed three pathbreaking Marathi films – Valu, Vihir and Deool, the latter scooping up many National Awards. Kulkarni also produced Pune 52, which won him accolades. He speaks to Sagorika Dasgupta about his directorial next, Highway, and where he thinks the Marathi film industry is headed
Tell us about your latest film, Highway.
It is a road film, thus the title Highway. It’s a part of NFDC’s Co-production market this year. We try to explore new ground with every film we make. For instance, after we made Valu, we did something entirely different in my next film Vihir. I try to explore the medium differently every time I make a film. I don’t want to get trapped in a particular style of filmmaking. My main goal is to figure out different ways to communicate my ideas through film, to explore cinema as a medium and also renew ourselves and ideas about telling stories.
What is so different about Highway?
It is different in style, the setting of the film and the kind of humour we have used. We are the same kind of people but we are trying to explore the medium in a unique way. The format of storytelling is not similar to any of my previous films.
Do you think Marathi cinema is seeing a change in story-telling techniques?
I absolutely see a transition in Marathi cinema because a lot of young people are making films based on their own experiences and the audience prefers that we tell our own story. In the ’90s, filmmakers assumed that the audience liked a certain kind of cinema, and they used to make their films based on these false notions. I couldn’t connect with these films and they meant nothing to me because they weren’t in that experiential space.
Today, we have to create cinema out of our own experiences. You have to make films out of your own experiences and that is reflected in the films being made. Filmmaking is about being inspired by the world as experienced by filmmakers, who also travel a lot. So, filmmakers are exposed to cinema from across the world as they visit film festivals, and several film festivals are hosted across here too, like the Pune Film Festival and the Mumbai Film Festival. We have the opportunity to see where we stand from an international perspective. There are also many new technicians in the industry and that is a very healthy sign for Marathi cinema.
In what areas is Marathi cinema lacking?
We are still struggling to get our films screened in cinemas. A film can earn revenue only when the audience goes out to watch it in cinemas. Marathi films are still finding it difficult to get screens allotted to them.
Is that also because Marathi films, especially, face stiff competition from Hindi films?
Absolutely. Whenever there is a big Hindi film releasing along with a Marathi film, the Marathi film barely gets any screens and any takers. There are almost 100 Marathi films made every year, and because we can’t release our films when a Hindi film releases, our films bunch up for release. That really kills the business. I am not saying that all Marathi films are great. But when so many films are thrown at them all at once, they get overwhelmed and cannot watch all of them. So they need the right distribution strategy too. We need to pay attention to all the aspects.
Are corporate studios solving the Marathi industry’s distribution problems?
Corporate studios know the essentials of distribution and marketing, and they also have their infrastructure in place. But they have to understand that a Marathi film cannot be marketed like a Hindi film and vice-versa. We need to employ new ways to reach out to different audiences. We need to make use of social media and other cheaper resources to market our films.
There is a lot of scope for young distributors and people who are into the business of filmmaking as a passion.Also, there is a lack of good critics to review our films. When films are reviewed, the critics usually reveal the entire story and that is not criticism! Reviewers have an important job, and so does the media. They could do so much to increase the business of a film. I can’t make films which are no-brainers because I don’t believe in that kind of cinema. Art plays a very important role in our lives and we should not think that cinema is just for entertainment.
Has anyone ever professionally critiqued your films?
Your film should have the strength to convey whatever you had in mind through the visual medium. A lot of Indian and international reviewers have critiqued my films and have suggested that I should have approached the film in a different manner. I have taken that criticism very positively. I have used that criticism and incorporated it in my films. At festivals like Rotterdam, there are six screenings of your film followed by a discussion after each screening. That is a really good model and that audience feedback helps a lot.
Why is it that after so many award-winning films and National Awards to your credit, you still choose to explore the festival route for your films, and not a big producer?
Since I am making Marathi films, I can’t guarantee that I will be able to recover the producers’ money because there aren’t sufficient people coming to watch these films at cinemas. There are certain films which are very difficult to fathom and it is difficult to convince a producer to invest in them. Our market is very small and I don’t want to burden my producers. That’s why you need international producers as they come to co-production markets where they feel the film is viable internationally too.
Do you plan to make a Hindi film?
I want to make a Hindi film and I am planning to make a love story but that is not my ultimate goal in life. I think there are some stories that are apt in the Hindi language. But I am yet to work on that concept.