AND A FIRST-RATE FILM
When the Prabhat Film Company released their historical-musical Sant Tukaram in 1936 about the great 17th century poet-saint, cinema as spectacle/miracle was still very much in form and the idea of Vithoba (Vitthal, another name for Krishna) watching over his ardent devotee from the skies and showering him with gifts and his benevolence at every turn must have seemed the best way to bring this story to the screen.
Directed by V. Damle and S. Fattelal, the celebrated feature -- it ran to packed houses for over 50 weeks and was feted at the prestigious Venice Film Festival -- cast Tukaram as a creature who didn't belong to this world yet had to live with the constant nagging of his quarrelsome but loving wife Aawli and face the ire of the Brahmin community which loathed his interference in the business of religion and usurping their constituency with his simple and evocative abhangs in praise of the Lord.
The film treads the narrow path of hagiography but soul-stirring music by Keshavrao Bhole and Vishnupant Pagnis' angelic face glowing with goodness and innocence (legend has it that people identified so much with his incarnation of Tukaram, they would actually fall at his feet in the streets!) ensured its enormous success and added another feather to Prabhat's cap.
Given the aura of this film and the potency of nostalgia, attempting another biopic about Tukaram may have been fraught with the difficulty of unfavourable comparison. However, Chandrakant Kulkarni's Tukaram is nothing like Sant Tukaram either in style or content. Unlike its predecessor, it doesn't pick out just one phase from the poet's life, but tries to map his evolution from childhood to reluctant successor to his moneylender father and ultimately his renunciation of the material world (to the extent it is possible, given that his wife does keep dragging him back and reminding him of his responsibilities). In the process, it gives us a better sense of the man's remarkable journey.
More significant though is the manner in which Kulkarni and his writers Prashant and Ajit Dalvi make the Tukaram story a fable for modern times. There are no miracles here, but enough food for thought about the way we conduct the business of life and the possibility of changing our equation with the world around us, nature and god. Which is perhaps why they start with Tukaram's childhood in a prosperous household where his father (Sharad Ponkshe) returns from a pilgrimage to Pandharpur and immediately gets down to business, going around the village recovering dues from debtors and confiscating land and property from the poor if necessary. This portion of the film moves rather slowly and given the importance of what is to follow, could have well been clipped to make the narrative crisper.
Although Tukaram (Jitendra Joshi) hails from a prosperous and respected business family, the tradition of worship runs deep in his household. In fact, his older brother is so crazed by devotion to Vitthal, he virtually renounces the world and is unable to manage the family business, which then falls on Tukaram's head. A benevolent and just landlord, Tukaram tries to strike a balance between keeping the books in order and being considerate towards poor peasants. He isn't very successful and his ailing father watches with dismay as the business starts sliding.
But unlike Prabhat's Tukaram, he isn't a one-key soft-spoken saint at all times. When it comes to fighting for justice, Tukaram doesn't baulk and kicks up a row when a Brahmin demands tax exemption at an octroi post because he's carrying 'sacred' cloth and other items for the temple. Tukaram, who has been haggling with the officer about the sudden increase in taxes then puts his foot down and demands that unless the priest coughs up what he owes, he too will pass the post without paying.
Gradually though, he gets more and more distressed by the inequities of society and the transience of the material world, withdrawing into his cocoon writing poems in praise of god. Meanwhile, his parents pass, so does his first wife Rakhma (Veena Jamkar) an asthmatic who has goaded Tukaram to take a second wife, Aawli (Radhika Apte in a brilliant turn) in order to give the family an heir. In scenes of domestic harmony (or the occasional lack thereof) we see Tukaram with both his wives as a doting husband not averse to the idea of conjugal happiness.
It is the great famine when the village goes without rain for years and the people are shrouded by a cloud of hunger and depravation that Tukaram's transformation gets an urgent spurt. He opens out his granaries to feed the poor only to find people pouncing on the stock like rodents and grabbing what they can with both hands. When he sees the birth of a small sapling in the midst of the parched, cracked earth, he marvels over the power of creation and eventually turns to nature for succour. For days on end, he goes and sits on a hill under a tree surrounded by birds and trees, composing his famous poems.
Interestingly, not only does Tukaram interpret and simplify the message of religious texts making them accessible to the masses, he also encourages them to find their own songs. His trusted servant expresses his feelings through a rustic poem at one point. A woman mesmerised by his songs and their message is ready to renounce her marital life and live at his feet, when Tukaram tells her she has to find her own meaning and not blindly follow what someone else tells her.
Even Shivaji the great king is humbled by Tukaram's simplicity when he turns down a gift of gold and jewels -- in the earlier version, there is an elaborate scene where Tukaram's wife and kids happily adorn themselves with the jewellery before he removes it all and turns the king's messenger away. The king then steps out of the shadows and falls at Tukaram's feet. In this version, the two men meet as equals and although Shivaji pays obeisance to the saint, the latter too acknowledges the king's place at the head of state and encourages him to continue with his good work.
But his greatest ideological battles are with the Brahmin community that's up in arms against him, and particularly distressed about his growing cult. Tukaram who lived in Dehu, a place not far from Pune, is summoned to the city to face trial in the court of religious leaders, where it is ordered that he throw all his compositions in the river and never create another song in praise of god. He defends himself logically and passionately, but doesn't defy the orders and silently offers his books to the river -- in a parallel scene, he has earlier thrown his business ledgers in the same river with equal detachment. But this time he is heartbroken, although he doesn't utter a word and sits on the banks of the Indrayani without food or water for several days, his family and followers thronging around him and sharing his devastation.
Again, unlike the older film which takes recourse to miracles to give the story closure -- Tukaram's books float back to the surface and thus his greatness is reiterated -- Kulkarni takes a more logical approach and in the process critiques the disruption of culture by the self-righteous moral police (such as the vandalisation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune by right-wing dissidents over the publication of a book on Shivaji, or the burning of Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey). In his vision, art and culture will live on even in the face of the worst sanctions and oppression, through the word of mouth and in peoples' hearts.
This positive, heart-warming end is perhaps the greatest triumph of a film that boasts of excellent production values and performances all around, particularly that of Joshi and Apte.