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How ‘Zollywood’ explores the zest of Vidarbha’s lesser-known zhadipatti theatre

Updated on: 26 March,2023 08:34 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Sarasvati T |

The Marathi film ‘Zollywood’ offers an unfiltered glimpse into Vidarbha’s thriving zhadipatti theatre scene. Director Trushant Ingle and writer-actor Asawari Naidu tell us about their early engagements with the form and challenges in bringing it to the big screen

How ‘Zollywood’ explores the zest of Vidarbha’s lesser-known zhadipatti theatre

Director Trushant Ingle; writer and actress Asawari Naidu on the sets of Zollywood. Image courtesy: Trushant Ingle

“I wanted to show the world of zhadipatti to those who were unaware of it,” says Trushant Ingle, director of ‘Zollywood’, a Marathi film, which explores the dynamics and celebration of zhadipatti, a thriving theatre scene in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region.

Prominent in the forested villages of Nagpur, Gondia, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur, together known as zhadipatti--roughly translating to trees and fields-- the local theatre of the same name presents a lesser-known picture of a region mainly shown as drought-stricken in the visuals by mainstream media. With zhadipatti, the region is in a different zone; it echoes with music, theatrical energy and people here have fun too, indulging in six-month long entertaining dramas at night post-work. ‘Zollywood’, by Wishberry Films productions, offers the viewer a glimpse into this zestful world of Vidarbha’s farmers, who eagerly await zhadipatti naatak every year.

Written by Asawari Naidu, who plays Rajni in the film, the story revolves around the rivalry between production houses, known as ‘presses’ in zhadipatti, run by Aman, Raja and Dipak. While Aman (Anil Uttalwar) remains transfixed on monetary gains, his cousin Raja (Kajal Rangari) is flattered by one of the female performers and Dipak (Ajit Khobragade), a young writer passionate about social subjects, tries to preserve the essence of the theatre’s art and values through his own press. A silent observer to these events, Narayanrao, the veteran of zhadipatti, who is respected by many, worries about the future of the art form.

Naidu, who has been associated with zhadipatti for over 20 years now, says the film, though fictionalised, has been inspired by multiple real life events. With a turnover of crores in just about four months, zhadipatti is the bread and butter of hundreds of people, including actors, drivers, scriptwriters, cleaners and many others from villages across the region.

“It is unfortunate that nobody outside the region knew about a theatre form, a culture which defined the lives of so many people. I wanted to show different elements of it and also how integral it is to their lives, so much so that the dialogues of zhadipatti shows stay with people for years after a season ends,” says Naidu.

A still from Zollywood. Asawari Naidu as Rajni performing on the stage in front of a suspended microphone. Image courtesy: Trushant Ingle

Capturing the spirit in its truest form

For Ingle, creating a film on zhadipatti was a long-time dream. From the time he worked as a child actor in its acts in 2005 to his stint in dramas at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, the desire to bring this unexposed theatre to a larger audience always topped his aspirations as a filmmaker, which is also why he was determined to capture it in its real form.

From elements such as a suspended microphone on the stage, curtain closing actions, live music, personal make-shift greenrooms for the actors, live background sound effects to the dynamics theatre operations and the excitement it generates among the people, the film offers an unfiltered version of the actual theatre scene. Moreover, most of the actors in the film are non-actors, belong to the Vidarbha region and are familiar or associated with zhadipatti in different ways.

“If I had not casted the local people from that village, there would be nothing authentic about the film. I was very strict about this aspect, mainly the language dialects, the essence and spice of the theatrical acts. I wanted the fragrance of the soil and didn’t want to dilute it,” says Ingle.

Naidu stresses on the commercial aspect of the theatre--also a premise of the film--wherein rivalries between presses over money is a common affair. “I wanted to show different kinds of people, genuine artists and also the commercial people who only cared about the money. There is nothing wrong or problematic about it; it’s just the way it is, similar to the way any other film industry in the city functions” she observes.

A still from the street-play scene in Zollywood. Image courtesy: Trushant Ingle

Talking about the evolution of the theatre over these years, Ingle and Naidu say it still operates in the same manner. While there are minor changes in the dialogues and other creative experimentations by the actors, the writers adhere to the daily-soap format for the plays, catering to the women in the audience. This is to ensure that it is purely about fun, entertainment and reflections of their everyday household events.

Though predominantly a commercial theatre, the film consists of parts that reflect the director’s thought process to touch upon anti-caste expression. This is evident through scenes in the everyday life of the artists outside the theatre, which are not meant for advancing the story, but does have an impact on the viewer. Whether it is when the lead actor Dipak pays his respects to a photo of Dr BR Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule before leaving for work or a street-play where the performers talk about caste as a social evil and the need to fight back, these scenes do provide insights into the lives of the diverse communities who are involved in the happenings of zhadipatti.

“When you start fighting for human rights, you won’t be able to hide it for long. Zollywood was a subject, but I was involved in it too. If I can’t put forth indicators of my beliefs and ideological perspectives through my film, then I am not there in the scene at all,” Ingle notes.

Challenges in getting the film out

An unconventional film bringing an unfamiliar theatre form to the big screen, in all its originality, naturally did not have many takers among the mainstream industry producers; as Ingle puts it, the issues were mainly rooted in the way the idea was perceived. The negotiations largely involved demands to give a commercial touch to the film with glamour and probably an item number, something that did not sit well with the director’s creative process.

Director Trushant Ingle with zhadipatti audiences. Image courtesy: Trushant Ingle

While bringing a producer on board turned out to be a two-year-long process, involving around 200 narrations, discussions with multiple producers and navigating commercial hurdles, the film was completed in merely 20 days after a collaboration with Wishberry Films. The director credits it to the unwavering dedication of the actors and crew members, who were passionate about the subject and stayed until the end without giving much thought to their personal financial gains.

Moreover, accusations of defaming the theatre by stakeholders of zhadipatti in real life presented another set of challenges to the Zollywood team. This is true, especially for Naidu, who faced a ban along with the film by her own industry members. “At some point, I had to resort to police protection to travel to the village, meet with the complainants and clarify their doubts about the story,” says Naidu.

While the film’s initial release date was April 9 2021, Covid-19 lockdown restrictions on cinema theatres further stalled the release until June 3, 2022. Zollywood received much appreciation for its authenticity from reviewers and filmmakers alike, including director Nagraj Manjule, who is also an inspiration to Ingle. Taking the challenges in stride, Ingle focuses on the genuineness of the work, “I am satisfied that I could make the film the same way I wanted it to be. It was my responsibility towards the theatre and its people as well. Challenges will be there, otherwise there’s no fun in the process.”

A screening of the film organised by Mavelinadu Collective on July 30 in Mumbai was a full-house show with people appreciating the creators for their honest treatment of the art form and the artists. The film will soon be out on OTT platforms for the public to watch.

Also read: #BoycottBollywood: Independent filmmakers decode the trend’s causes and impact

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