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Remembering the one and only Acharya Atre, literary giant and daring filmmaker

On the legendary Prahlad Keshav Atre's 48th death anniversary (he died on 13 June 1969), we look at his journey through tinsel town that saw him become the only filmmaker to win the National Award for Best Film twice in succession.

Acharya Prahlad Keshav Atre (Courtesy: Meena Deshpande)

Shakti Salgaokar

Teacher, playwright, poet, author, filmmaker, journalist and political figure — Prahlad Keshav Atre’s multi-faceted personality is nothing short of intriguing. But for one who made India’s first National Award-winning film, there is next to no information or comment on the tryst with celluloid of the man popularly known as Acharya (Sanskrit for preceptor) Atre. So we got in touch with his daughters Shirish Pai and Meena Deshpande as well as grandsons Rajendra Pai and Harshavardhan Deshpande to find out more about Atre the filmmaker.

Seated by a bust of the great man, Atre's grandson Rajendra Pai reminisced about him. "My earliest memory is of Acharya Atre the orator," says Rajendra, a lawyer by profession. "By then he had achieved the peak in almost every walk of life. He was at the peak of his political career when I saw him. And like all grandfathers do, he would share his memories with me.”

To understand Atre’s cinema, one needs to look deeper into the events that influenced him as a child. "When Papa [the family addressed Atre as Papa] was growing up, Pune was full of thought leaders like [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak, [Gopal Ganesh] Agarkar, [Mahadev Govind] Ranade and Lokahitawadi [aka Gopal Hari Deshmukh], who were attempting to radically change society. He grew up in an India trying to rebel,” says Rajendra.

India was rebelling against British rule, but it was also rebelling against outmoded social and religious practices. "British rule was bringing in Western thought and philosophy, and laws to protect women were being framed. All these things influenced Papa in his youth,” says Rajendra.

Atre went on to become a teacher, and realized that a good teacher has to be an excellent student. A teacher must never stop learning. It was this quality of Atre that, perhaps, brought him into the new and growing world of cinema.

In the 1930s, when Atre was still a teacher and a playwright, filmmaker RG 'Dadasaheb' Torne, whose Pundalik (1912) is credited by some as India's first feature film, approached him to write a script. Atre confessed to being a novice, and Torne took it upon himself to educate the playwright in the intricacies of filmmaking.

In Atre's autobiography titled Me Kasa Zhalo (How I Came to Be), an entire chapter is dedicated to his volatile journey in filmmaking. In this chapter, Atre recalls the evenings spent in a Pune theatre watching English films with Torne whispering terms like ‘fade in’ and ‘fade out’ in his ears.

Within a week, Torne was confident that Atre’s education in film writing was complete. And Atre sat down to write a screenplay based on a tale from the Puranas. He completed the screenplay in under a week. Torne was impressed. But the director suggested a few edits in the screenplay which hurt Atre. Torne later changed his mind, but Atre's first screenplay was never filmed.

Acharya PK Atre receiving the first President's Medal for Best
Film from Babu Rajendra Prasad in New Delhi in 1953,
for Shyamchi Aai (Courtesy: Meena Deshpande)

Atre was then approached by director Vishram Bedekar to adapt playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari’s story Thakiche Lagna into a film. "I went into the theatre with great pride, but when I came out [after watching the film] it was like someone had slapped me," wrote Atre in Mi Chitrapatkaar Kasa Zhalo (How I Became a Filmmaker), the chapter in his autobiography dealing with his filmmaking adventures.

Atre was unhappy with the way his script had been handled by the director. Disillusioned by the liberty directors took with a writer’s work, he stayed away from films for the next couple of years.

Then actor-producer Baburao Pendharkar approached him. He was starting a banner called Hans Pictures. The idea was to produce films written by literary giants. Around that time Atre had been reading Henrik Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society, which dealt with two-faced personalities. That was also the period when talk of a spiritual guru who led a dual life was the hot topic of gossip in Pune, and that's whom Atre modelled his protagonist on. The bilingual film, Dharmaveer (1937), starred Master Vinayak, Baburao Pendharkar and others and was a great success. 

"That was his speciality," says Rajendra. "He didn't depend on a situation to write his plays or films. He picked up interesting characters, observed them, and wrote stories around them. And he met many such characters during his life as a teacher, politician and social activist."

Marathi cinema was going beyond mythological stories in this period and filmmakers were experimenting with socially relevant subjects. Atre was already doing this in his plays. Through them, he displayed a bold attitude towards women. His protagonist in the play Gharabaher [Out Of The House] breaks her mangalsutra and leaves her marital home. Even today, this will shock some sections of society, so one can imagine what the reaction must have been like in the 1930s.

"He was heavily criticized for it," says Rajendra. "Come to think of it, every subject he chose was controversial. Because he was ahead of his times. But when he wrote the play he had seen a woman who had taken this bold step. So there was always a real-life event that inspired his stories."

Rajendra's mother, the celebrated poet Shirish Pai who is credited with bringing the haiku to Marathi literature, believes it was her father's ability to tell relatable tales that brought him the honour of being the first playwright to have shows of his plays sold out. "The term 'Housefull' was coined for the first time during his plays,” she says.

With Dharmaveer and with various plays that he wrote, Atre had realized the power of humour. And his years as a teacher had taught him that the best way to teach people was through entertainment and humour. His next script, also starring Master Vinayak, was an out-and-out comedy called Premveer (1937), also released in Marathi and Hindi.

"While humour would be part of films then, there was hardly any film that was an out-and-out comedy," says Rajendra. "Premveer was a pathbreaker in that sense."

More paths were waiting to be broken. "Hans Pictures produced a film called Jwala, which was written by VS Khandekar [a towering figure in Marathi literature of the time]. The film was a failure at the box office. Pendharkar came to Papa and said ‘Jwala has made a chicken out of our Hans [swan]. Now, please save us'."

Around this time Atre was reading a book that proposed abstinence as a way of life. "The extreme ideas in the book inspired him to write a comedy around a protagonist who is sworn to celibacy," says Rajendra.

The film was Brahmachari (1938), made simultaneously in Marathi and Hindi, which featured Indian cinema’s first swimsuit scene. Clad in a one-piece swimsuit (the bikini hadn't been invented yet) and cavorting by the water, actress Meenakshi Shirodkar, grandmother of Shilpa and Namrata Shirodkar, sang ‘Yamuna tati khel kheluya’ to entice the protagonist.

A poster for Brahmachari (1938),
the first film to show
the heroine in a swimsuit

Atre’s grandson and author Meena Deshpande’s son Harshavardhan, who corresponded with this writer on e-mail, believes that with Brahmachari, Atre pioneered the modern Indian screenplay and brought a polished, dramatic structure akin to Western filmmaking to India. "The film was a technically perfect comedy that used satire, humour, wit and farce," he says. "It was comparable to British comedy. It was also the first time a film satirized Indian puritanism and celibacy — it is art that entertains without being preachy."

Interestingly, when Atre narrated the plot to Master Vinayak, they realized they had a winning comedy at hand. Atre enthusiastically wrote a part of the script within a day and handed it over to Master Vinayak to start making the film. Atre completed the script as the shooting progressed and the film was completed in under two and a half months.

For a film featuring the leading lady in a swimsuit, Brahmachari had a strong message, but then so did most of Atre’s work. His plays celebrated women and their rights.

Says Harshavardhan, "Almost all his work was pro-women. The reason is that Atre was shocked to see his mother’s shaved head after his father passed away.” This episode left a lasting impact on Atre. 

"In those days, he tried to show that without financial independence, women’s rights meant nothing. And if you watch his plays or read them, you will realize that he was way ahead of his time."

Atre was ahead of his time not just creatively. He was an entrepreneur with a vision. In 1938, he was elected to the Pune municipality where he met Rambhau Abhyankar, a well-known entrepreneur. Atre shared his idea of creating a limited company to raise capital to make films. After some planning, they started Navayug Pictures with Rs25 lakh. They bought out Hans Pictures and integrated Baburao Pendharkar, Master Vinayak and Pandurang Naik into their limited company. Lapandav (1940) was the first film produced by the banner.

To help market his movies, Atre started Navayug weekly, a magazine that went on to become an institution. "He had a great sense of marketing," says Rajendra. However, after a while, creative differences cropped up with Master Vinayak and Atre dissolved the company and decided to move to Bombay, as the city was known then.

A poster for Payachi Dasi (1940)

In Bombay, Atre found an investor and bought a movie studio, Chitramandir, which was the first film studio in the city to be owned by a Marathi-speaking person. That's when he wrote Payachi Dasi (1941, Charnon Ki Dasi in Hindi).

Initially, Atre thought of directing the film himself. But he was worried that he would not be able to do justice to the business affairs of Atre Pictures, as he has written in Mi Kasa Zhalo. So, Gajanan Jagirdar was signed on as director. The film went on to become a big hit.

On the heels of this success, Atre conceptualized his ambitious bilingual project Vasantsena (1942). It was a big-budget film and Atre left no stone unturned to sign the best talent. He hired Kanu Desai to design the grand sets of the Buddhist era. Master Krishnarao was signed up for the music while Pandit Navakumar was signed up to choreograph the dance sequences.

While Chitramandir was doing well and producing great films like Gharjawai (1941) and Raja Rani (1942), Vasantsena was getting made. With the Second World War underway, however, Atre was forced to shoot the film outdoors in Kolhapur, which pushed up the cost of production substantially. Compared to the six months that Atre had hoped to complete the film in, Vasantsena took 14 months and cost Rs7.5 lakh — a princely sum in those days.

Next, the film ran into distribution trouble and it became difficult to find good cinemas to release it in. Neckdeep in debt, Atre had to sell his studio and the rights to his films, and yet had a sizeable amount left to pay off. Within three years, he had gone from success back to failure.

To pay off his debts, Atre made another film, Baielveda (Crazy About Women). However, during the making of this film, he started to think of ways to cut costs and realized that if he started directing his films himself, he would be able to save money and also complete the work in a shorter period.

"Papa believed that a good teacher is always a good learner, so he would observe everything and he learnt everything on the sets," says Rajendra. "So a move to direction was only natural.”

A poster for Dil Ki Baat (1944)

Atre's directorial debut was a Hindi film called Dil Ki Baat (1944), which was made in under three months. The film, starring Durga Khote, Ishwarlal and Vanmala, did well across India.

During this time, there was an unexpected boom in Hindi cinema. The cost of making films increased substantially. Atre realized that producing Marathi films would be more realistic. This is when he wrote Moruchi Mavshi (1948), based on the English play Charlie’s Aunt. Packed with comedy, the film starred Damuanna Malvankar and Durga Khote and did phenomenally well.

Confident about his skill, Atre decided to make Brahmaghotala (1949) based on his own play Lagnachi Bedi (Marital Fetters). The film didn't do well at all and Atre was back to square one.

But his tryst with cinema wasn't over yet. Atre was very close to social activist Sane Guruji. Sane Guruji’s novel Shyamchi Aai was one of Atre’s favourite works and he was of the opinion that everyone in Maharashtra ought to read about this boy who gains life lessons from his mother.

"At Sane Guruji’s funeral pyre, Papa took an oath to take Shyamchi Aai across the country as a film," recounts Rajendra. "And he started to write the screenplay. This wasn't an easy task as the novel is rather verbose and to translate it into a fit was a herculean task. But Papa did it."

Shyamchi Aai (1953) was the winner of the
first National Award for Best Film

The film was a roaring success. For the first time in India, a president’s award for cinema was announced. Acharya Atre’s Shyamchi Aai (1953) created history by winning this prestigious award. "There was not a single Marathi-speaking person on the panel that selected the film for the award that year. But the emotion of the film went beyond the language," says Rajendra.

Atre received the award from Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India. Shirish Pai's son, Atre's grandson, was born around the same time and Atre named him Rajendra. "Atre is the only filmmaker to have won this medal two years in a row!" says Rajendra with unmistakable pride. The second film to win him this medal was Mahatma Phule (1954).

It was around this time, however, that the Samyukta Maharashtra movement for the setting up of a unified state of Marathi-speaking people was taking root. Atre started to veer towards politics and moved on from filmmaking. 

Acharya Atre and Sohrab Modi (right) greet president Rajendra Prasad as he
arrives for the first National awards function in New Delhi, circa 1953
(Courtesy: Meena Deshpande)

'I entered the film industry with so many ambitions,' Atre wrote in conclusion of his chapter on his film career. 'I wanted to bring together art, literature and culture to create a wholesome experience for Indian society. But as I worked in the industry, I realized that this is not a business for creative, principled artists. It is a business of gambling for rich investors. In the passion of this art, I took on enormous debts and spent some precious years of my life paying it back. I don't think any other industry in the world makes a heartwrenching mockery of a hardworking individual the way the Indian film industry does. When filmmaking frees itself of this capitalism, only then will it see itself soar to new heights.' Truer words have seldom been written.

Though Atre had some projects in mind around the time he wrote the book, he said, 'I do not wish to take on debt to make films anymore. However, if I don't make any films and conclude my filmmaking career with the two president’s medals, it wouldn't make me any less luckier.'

Although most of the films Atre wrote or made have been lost or destroyed, their screenplays are available through Chitrakatha 1 and Chitrakatha 2 (Parchure Publications).

Shakti Salgaokar is an author and freelance journalist.