Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: Marathi's English tadka

Contrary to nationalist agenda, emerging competition in Marathi films and theatre has led to a scramble for English titles. Making an impact, is how directors define it

Writer-director of last week’s release, Marathi Tigers, a film that explores the contentious issue of the inclusion of Karnataka’s Marathi-speaking populace into Maharashtra, Aavdhoot Kadam felt the title was “sufficiently militant”. His expectations were met in the opening week itself.

Last weekend, the Shiv Sena cried foul over the State government’s decision to ban its screening in Shinoli, Kolhapur’s border town citing law and order problems.

Kadam, happy with the use of the English word, tigers, says the idea of the film “could not have been summed up by the Marathi equivalent.”

Jitendra Joshi and Girija Oak-Godbole in the play, Don Special, a title that refers to ‘special’ chaiJitendra Joshi and Girija Oak-Godbole in the play, Don Special, a title that refers to ‘special’ chai

Like him, other Marathi filmmakers and theatre directors have begun to explore the impact of English titles.

The first quarter of 2016 has seen 13 English titles, while last year saw 32 Marathi films release with titles that carried English or hybrid ‘Minglish’ — a mix of Marathi and English — words. With just 11 in 2013 and nine in 2012, the popularity seems to have risen every year.

Filmmaker Aavdhoot Kadam (left) with the cast of Marathi Tigers
Filmmaker Aavdhoot Kadam (left) with the cast of Marathi Tigers

In the Marathi entertainment industry, a non-Marathi title tends to be one of three distinct varieties. First is the category of conversational English idioms co-opted in the native Marathi lexicon. February releases Police Line, Mumbai Time and Poshter Girl exemplify this natural integration. Similarly, plays like Selfie, Cut to Cut, Lovebirds, and Don’t Worry Be Happy demonstrated an attempt to wear the cultural vibe of the times. The titles present a contemporary reality that could not have been translated in monolingual regional terms.

Marathi Tigers, released last week, explores the issue of inclusion of non-Maharashtrians in the state
Marathi Tigers, released last week, explores the issue of inclusion of non-Maharashtrians in the state

Second, the titles are pitched to a non-Marathi speaking audience. Easily ‘searchable’ online, these attract a clientele across social media — Classmates, Prime Time, Cheater, What about Savarkar? and Happy Journey — while passing off the film as an English one for the uninitiated.

Timepass, released in 2014, took on the the troubled lives of two people who fall in love but have to face parental opposition
Timepass, released in 2014, took on the the troubled lives of two people who fall in love but have to face parental opposition

The third and most interesting category uses English and Marathi phrases that fuse to create a kitsch outcome. Online Binline, Murder Mestri, Bai Go Bai, Elizabeth Ekadashi, Ideachi Kalpana, Dombivali Return qualify as shoptalk where the joke is in the wordplay and one that’s apparent only to insiders. Likewise Aggressive… Ek Nazar, the title of a “the first Marathi bold play” attracted a loyal audience (across linguistic boundaries) because of its provocative poster.

Vijay Patkar, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Chitrapat Mahamandal, the nodal body that deliberates on and registers almost 200 titles annually for Marathi films, is privy to interesting anecdotes that speak of the politics and economics of the English and Hindi titles.

The growing competition in the Marathi film industry compels producers to book titles before taking on a project, leading to titles being amended for films that are in the pipeline. Filmmakers are asked to precede or follow their titles with supplementary words (Highway Ek Selfie Aaar Paar), merely to avoid conflicting claims on similar titles. On an average, 10 titles land in a tussle every year. There have been occasions when producers have traded titles or endlessly squabbled, like with filmmaker Machhindra More who was not allowed to stake claim to the title Bajirao before Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hindi release, Bajirao Mastani released in January. Patkar says titles that have a strong connect with the story find easy clearance. He himself starred in the 2015 Marathi film, Carry on Deshpande, a comic take reminiscent of the long-running British Carry On series of comedy films and stage shows.

Producer Vivek Kajaria, whose Holy Basil Productions was behind the much-feted Fandry, says the Marathi industry has turned into a promising market over the last few years, and the fascination for English titles is a sign of local filmmakers aspiring to woo the international film circuit. His theory sees a reflection in protracted self-explanatory bi-lingual titles like Olakh-My Identity and Madhyamvarg: The Middle Class.

But, do English titles contribute to the box-office success of Marathi films and plays? At present, it is only native wisdom and common business sense driving producers to piggy back on the trend. “The co-relation between a catchy title and ticket sales is difficult to establish. But, the production crew usually banks on the title as a rightful launching pad. It is a big deal for them, and for good reason,” believes actor-producer Sandeep Kulkarni whose 2004 film, Shwaas was India’s official entry to the Oscars that year. He also acted in the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Dombivali Fast (2006) — which had a less successful sequel in Dombivali Return (2014). Both films had titles that used the Maharashtrian dominated suburb Dombivali’s ethos to underscore a middle-class professional’s fight against corruption and social injustice. Both titles were earthy and evocative of a regional sensibility despite the use of English lingo.

Actor Jitendra Joshi, who currently stars in the play, Don Special (a reference to two ‘special’ cups of tea that bind an alienated couple) sees the trend as a result of creative exhaustion. “Everybody seems to be in a hurry to market their film fashionably and an English title has become the first predictable step in the selling process.” He is particularly critical of industry stalwarts who indulge in the sale of titles. The ‘out-of-court’ settlements have turned titles into pieces of commerce, he argues.

An appealing English title can be only be a good enough entry point, after which content is king. To borrow an analogy from an insider who hates the dependence on English titles, an English title is like a recommendation letter for a Ranji player. What he does on the field ultimately decides his lasting power in competitive cricket.

Did someone say, what’s in a name?

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