A MODERN LOVE STORY
I remember Mrinal Kulkarni (formerly Mrinal Dev) from the seminal Marathi television series Swami, playing young Rama, the gentle, endearing wife of Madhavrao Peshwa while still in her teens. The image has stuck and her later film and television forays never quite matched up to that memory; not even the hugely popular series Avantika. With her directorial debut, Prem Mhanje Prem Mhanje Prem Asta!?, Kulkarni adds a definitive feather to her cap in a delicate and mature romance that reflects accurately and with feeling the churning in urban Marathi society of the post-globalisation era.
Set in Pune's relatively affluent class, the film grapples with multiple issues, but primarily the changing nature of love and its impact on the twin institutions of marriage and family. Divorce isn't an alien western import anymore and broken homes, lonely middle-aged individuals and confused children and parents are a familiar sight in big cities; so that even as people juggle high-profile careers and home-making responsibilities they find themselves looking for companionship once more.
This is a generation that can't reconcile to bad marriages or simply incompatible ones. Some are forced to live apart for professional reasons, others don't have the capacity to put their heads down and go from one day to the next ignoring the yearnings of their heart. Yet society holds them accountable for their decisions and chastises them for choosing self over sacrifice.
Those who aren't rebellious enough, ill equipped to withstand parental pressure or the incessant burden of their children's needs and expectations, often feel trapped. As Anushree (Kulkarni herself) does. She's an entrepreneur and single parent––her spouse Kedar (Sunil Barve) has walked out on her four years ago to be with another woman and interestingly, his mother (Suhas Joshi) has chosen daughter-in-law over son, living with her and helping her raise her two daughters.
Dr Rohit (Sachin Khedekar), on the other hand, is divorced from Pradnya (Pallavi Joshi) because he couldn't join her in the US when she left to pursue her career as an astrophysicist and ultimately the long distance marriage failed. In a concise observation Pradnya busts the myth of equality and articulates the burden of being an ambitious woman. Thus two attractive middle-aged people––Anu and Rohit––meet by chance and are drawn towards each other. But love isn't simple even at the best of times...
Kulkarni’s and her screenplay-dialogue writer Manisha Korde’s approach is decisively non-melodramatic even though the narrative has great emotional charge. The direction is devoid of excessive stylistic flourish and instead lets the script dictate proceedings. Several situations and reactions of characters seem to have been plucked straight out of real life. And the diversity of viewpoints is refreshing because this isn’t a conventional story about heroes and villains. In fact, even the darkest character in the film gets space to express himself and is treated with empathy despite his transgresses. Many pertinent questions are thrown up and while there are no straight answers to life’s conundrum, the key lies in acceptance and compassion.
Prem Mhanje Prem... which derives its title from the eponymous Mangesh Padgaonkar poem, is a great example of mature writing. Whether it’s the lead couple’s children, ex-spouses, parents or Anu’s sister, enough is conveyed to give us a sense of who these people are, thereby making their interactions believable. Equally engaging are the performances, particularly from Pallavi Joshi, an instinctive and touching portrayal of a confident woman torn between ambition and the desire to be with loved ones, as sadly, women are still forced to choose either. Kulkarni too uses silences well to express Anu’s stifled personality and her evolution is tackled with sensitivity.
But the one who easily steals a march on everyone else (as usual) is Sachin Khedekar. The sheer variety of his cinematic output makes him one of the most exciting contemporary actors to watch and his enormous talent and naturalistic style ensure that like Sanjeev Kumar, he’s impossible to stereotype. Here, his warm and cheerful presence is a significant contributor to the film’s success and watching him woo the heroine with such grace makes you fall in love all over again.