Being one of only three of the dozens of major Indian languages I can claim to know, I’ve always been curious about Marathi cinema. I watched my fair share on the TV in the good old days of Doordarshan, but all that taught me was that I was almost always in for either utter tragedy or tragically clichéd attempts at comedy. Recently, however, as the various regional film industries have taken lessons from each other and upped their game, there have been a few exceptional films coming out even from the Marathi camp (Amol Palekar’s Anahat comes to mind). I got a similarly promising vibe from Natarang (2010), in no small part because it stared Atul Kulkarni, who has always delivered in his various outings in Hindi films. While I’ve yet to see the film as I write this, watching the song Apsara aali has certainly strengthened my resolve to do so.
The film is set around the world of tamasha, a form of traditional folk theatre with its own set of artistic staples, one of which is the lavani dance style that is depicted in the song. Appropriately set entirely on a small stage, first and foremost this song is beautifully shot in brilliant colour by Mahesh Limaye. It might seem like a strange thing to mention colour so many decades after the fading away of black and white cinema, but Indian cinema really does help you rediscover colour in new ways on many occasions, and the picturization of Apsara aali is a fine example.
Sonalee Kulkarni, who is only a couple of films into her acting career, has had some training in classical Indian dance and her comfort with the choreography shows it. She brings to it the right mix of sensuality and all-out camp theatre; All very appropriate to the lavani roots of this sort of music. Atul Kulkarni is only a background player in this piece, but shows flashes of his penchant to really get into character and play characters in all his films. The song also seems to move some elements of the plot forward in subtle ways, which probably makes it a great fit into the film.
Let’s not forget the song and the music itself, though. The sibling duo of Ajay-Atul create an admirable aural mood here, sharing a lot in spirit with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack for Swades. It’s a natural commonality, as both are borrowing heavily from the musical styles of Indian folk theatre. The string solo that starts the song off, punctuated with some tabla percussion is a very memorable piece, and the rest of the tune is wonderfully varied. In spite of the very modern sound design of the song, it uses an array of traditional Indian instruments, which is always a refreshing thing to hear, not to mention the right choice for this film.
The lyrics, by Guru Thakur, are variations of exactly the sort of playful and suggestive material that populates a lot of lavani music. There’s much boasting by the protagonist about her beauty and a lot of backup singing of praises and word play by the chorus. But mostly, it’s good solid old-school poetic hyperbole delivered in a slightly archaic Marathi that survives only in such art forms, on stage and in literature. So lines such as:
Hi natali thatali, jashi umatali, chandani rang mahali
Mi yavvan bhijali, pahun thijali, Indra sabha bhavatali
I shine and twinkle with the colours of a star in the night sky,
My youth is like a bolt of lightning, that even the gods are dazzled by.
… seem perfectly normal under the circumstances.
Apsara aali is very well done, beyond my strange soft-spot for film-songs set on stages. It’s colourful, playful, utterly theatrical and best of all includes some very good music. A worthy and welcome addition to Marathi film music and Indian music in general.