Mrinal Dev-Kulkarni gives herself a quick-fix as she readies to face the photographer accompanying this writer. Not a hair out of place as she settles down on the couch with her legs curled under her.
Before the interaction begins she calls out, “Virajas!” A strapping 19-year-old arrives and is given instructions on last minute touches to the trailer of her second directorial venture Rama Madhav which focusses on a love story in the Peshwa period between 1760-72. “This is my son who’s helping me with post production and editing,” she says with pride.
You’ve seen the soap ad where Saif Ali Khan’s character impressed with a radiant beauty ends up shocked when he discovers that she’s a mother to quite a grown-up girl? This writer had a similar experience at Mrinal Dev-Kulkarni’s office.
The 46-year-old whose petite frame makes her look like she’s in her mid-20s (She’s been the shy Vicco Turmeric bride in the ad since 1997!) seems to read my thoughts. “Oh come on! I got married early and became a mother soon afterwards,” she says flashing her famous pearlies.
Since her first directorial venture Prem Mhanje Prem Mhanje Prem Asta (PMPMPA) was an out and out Marathi drama film based on the connection between love and marriage, we ask her whether she chose her second subject to become the first Indian woman to direct a historical. “How I wish I could plan my life like that. It’s only now that you mention it that it strikes me.”
This post-grad in linguistics ,who is also historian GN Dandekar’s granddaughter, says history has always fascinated her. “I grew up in Pune, the capital of the Maratha kingdom under the Peshwas which the grand Shaniwarwada is still living testimony to. This was bound to happen,” she says and adds, “You know, I would spend hours in the premises of the fort and the palace within, imagining how each scene must have played out even while writing the film.”
She should know what she’s saying given that her first role, as an actor when only 16, was that of Ramabai in the cult ‘90s Marathi teleserial Swami, based on Ranjit Desai’s Sahitya Akademi award-winning book of the same name. “With Rama Madhav, I’m reliving the serial. Ravindra Mankani who played Madhavrao Peshwa opposite me is now paired with me as Nanasaheb Peshwa. It is both nostalgia and life coming to a full circle. However, unlike the serial, which was more about Madhav being a Peshwa, this time the focus will be more on Rama and Madhav’s love life.”
She admits that being a woman helped her look for finer humanised nuances between the grand historical events unfolding in the plot. “History’s generally about men who fight wars and is also more often than not written by men. But life doesn’t play out only in the courts and battle grounds. Much of the dynamics happen in the interiors of the palaces where warriors and kings have to shed their royal regalia and armour to become fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and lovers. I’ve kept the spotlight on the women, the pivots who make this happen.”
This becomes obvious with the opening shot of the film, where a 12-year-old child-bride Rama gets off the palanquin at Shaniwarwada and exults, “Oh my God! Is this my sasurwadi?”
As if this weren’t enough, there are powerful characters like Anandibai (Sonalee of Natarang fame who wore 32 different types of ornaments so heavy she couldn’t walk. She’d take position for the shoot and the ornaments would be put on her later), Raghunathrao Peshwa’s second wife or her orthodox and power-hungry cousin Gopikabai (Mrinal herself admits that though she’d done PMPMPA as both director and actress, this was tough because of the huge canvas), who had huge differences with her son Madhavrao. When things reached a head, she left for Nashik and didn’t return even for her son’s last rites.
Then there is Parvatibai (Shruti Marathe) who accompanied her husband Sadashivrao Bhau in his campaign in North India. When he died in the third battle of Panipat on 14th January, 1761, his body couldn’t be found. For the rest of her life she denied her husband had died and refused to live like a widow. “Imagine a Brahmin woman refusing to shave her head and give up shringar in those times,” says Mrinal, who adds that she researched each character in detail. “I referred to several books on Peshwa history but relied mostly on Shriram Sathe’s elaborate Peshwe.”
She admits the nearly Rs 5 crore budget is lavish by Marathi film industry standards. “We shot in 37 days, got Nitin Desai to do the the sets at his studio in Karjat, cinematography is by Rajeev Jain, Ravi Dewan’s done the action, Saroj Khan, the choreography (especially the Aditi Hydari Rao item number), Poornima Oak, the costumes. Late Anand Modak composed music while late Sudhir Moghe penned the lyrics,” she recounts and adds, “I want this to be a film which will help the youth rediscover the pride in their history. I hope the audience thinks so too.”
We are also hoping that happens.