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Remembering the prolific Raja Paranjpe, a filmmaker who looked to challenge himself: Birth anniversary special

An auteur of Marathi cinema, Raja Paranjpe was known for experimenting with his craft and always trying something new. The actor-filmmaker directed 29 films in his career.

Suyog Zore

Raja Paranjpe is one of the legends of Marathi cinema. Actor, writer, director and producer, Paranjpe was a multi-talented personality. He started his career as an actor but went on to direct many hit and critically acclaimed films. He was known for experimenting and always trying something new. Be it comedy, social drama, suspense thriller, romance, mythology or horror, he made films in all genres. Paranjpe was an auteur in the true sense of the term.

Raja Paranjpe started his acting career in Baburao Painter's social drama Savkari Pash (1936). Paranjpe played the oppressive moneylender's son in the film. He never looked back thereafter, going on to act in other social dramas like Bhalji Pendharkar's Sant Kanhopatra (1937) and V Shantaram's Manoos aka Aadmi (1939).

But entering the film industry had not been easy for Paranjpe. Born on 24 April 1910, Rajabhau Dattatraya Paranjpe showed a  keen interest in theatre from childhood and used to participate regularly in school plays. In the silent era of cinema, theatre owners would arrange for a few musicians to play live music as accompaniment from behind the screen or in a special music box when the film was being shown. Paranjpe used to assist those musicians as a hobby.

During one such event, Paranjpe met Bapurao Ketkar, a music composer at Godavari Cinetone. Seeing his keen interest in music, Ketkar hired Paranjpe as his assistant. Later, on the recommendation of Keshavrao Date, a renowned theatre personality of that era, Paranjpe got a job as an organ player in the theatre company Natyamanvantar. At that time, Natyamanvantar was producing a play called Lapandao. One of the actors in the play left abruptly and Paranjpe was cast as a last-minute replacement. That is how his professional acting career was launched.

Later, Keshavrao Date also helped Paranjpe bag the role of the savkar's son in Painter's Savkari Pash (1936).

Though acting was Paranjpe's first love, he also had a keen interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking, especially direction. To learn the art, he began assisting director Bhalji Pendharkar in 1937. He also used to act in Pendharkar's films.

Finally, after working as an assistant for a few years, Paranjpe decided to direct a film on his own. His first project was Jivacha Sakha (1948). It was produced by the Prabhat Film Company and starred Chandrakant Gokhale and Sulochana, who went on to become a popular leading lady. The film was a harsh critique of the way in which moneylenders took advantage of uneducated farmers and tied them in debt for generations to follow.

From his first feature, Paranjpe showed his prowess at direction. The film came like a whiff of fresh air at a time when melodrama was a big selling point. Despite handling such a serious issue, Paranjpe made sure the film never became melodramatic. And with the exception of the climax, he stayed true to the realistic handling of the subject.

The same year, Paranjpe released his second directorial venture, Balidan, or The Sacrifice. The film was released simultaneously in Hindi as Do Kaliyan.

In 1950, Paranjpe released his third feature, Pudhche Paul. As the title suggests, Pudhche Paul was about taking a step forward to break with old customs and talked about the need for the uplift of the so-called lower castes.

The film's screenplay was a collaborative effort of two of Marathi's foremost litterateurs of the 20th century, PL Deshpande and GD Madgulkar. But the most special thing about the film was its casting. Deshpande, popularly known by his initials Pu La, played the lead role of Kisna, who hails from the downtrodden Mahar community. Kisna is a prolific dholki player. The film traces his journey from his village, where he is treated poorly by the so-called upper castes, to a city where he joins a tamasha group as a musician.

Paranjpe highlighted both the advantages and the disadvantages of moving to the big city without villainizing any side. He showed how villagers oppress the so-called lower castes while the big city takes advantage of ignorant and innocent guys like Kisna. The music by Sudhir Phadke became hugely popular, especially the abhang (devotional song) 'Zhala Mahar Pandharinath'.

Following two social dramas, Paranjpe decided to experiment with his craft and chose to tell a mythological story for his next directorial venture. The film was titled Shri Krishna Satyabhama (1951). It was simultaneously released in Marathi and Hindi. In his 14-year career as actor and assistant director before this, Paranjpe had never worked on any mythological film.

Paranjpe's Pedgavche Shahane (1952) was a milestone film not only for the filmmaker, but also for Marathi cinema. The film was a morality tale that questioned the notion of sanity itself. In one of his best-known films as director and actor, Paranjpe played the bearded Kaka Shahane, a once-famous surgeon who loses his mental balance after performing an unsuccessful operation on his girlfriend.

Escaping from the asylum, the doctor finds shelter with a family by pretending to be their long-lost uncle back from Zanzibar in Africa. The family, corrupted by ‘modernity’ (the mother is a singer, daughter a dancer, with one son obsessed with racing) tries to get at the presumably rich uncle’s money. The 'madman' eventually reforms the family and denounces rationalist notions of sanity.

Paranjpe was known for his insatiable appetite for work. Unlike other directors from that era who used to take a lot of time to make one film, Paranjpe worked ceaselessly. From his directorial debut in 1948 to 1956, he directed as many as 16 movies. Four of his films were released in 1956 alone.

Usually, when directors work at such a breakneck pace, they end up making many compromises on their vision and the final product often ends up unsatisfactory. This was not the case with Paranjpe. Despite working on multiple projects simultaneously, he never compromised on his vision, something that is clear from his filmography.

The lust for power and money was a recurring theme in Paranjpe's early works like Jivacha Sakha, Pudhche Paul, Lakhachi Gosht (1952) and Pedgavche Shahane. Along with his exceptional directorial skills, another prominent reason for his success was his habit of working with talented artistes. In his early films, Paranjpe only worked with trusted artistes like writer-poet-actor Madgulkar and music composer Sudhir Phadke. The cast changed, but these two were common to most of Paranjpe's early works.

Exceptional music was another big plus point of his films. He always used to extract the best out of Phadke. The seamlessly embedded songs were always part of the narrative and took the story forward to lend it completeness. Paranjpe's experience as an assistant and an organ player under music composer Bapurao Ketkar came in handy here.

After 1956, however, Paranjpe took a sabbatical of three years. Constantly being on film sets was taking a toll of his health. After three years, Paranjpe returned with Baap Bete (1959), his first Hindi film. It starred Ashok Kumar, who was then back at the height of his popularity with the success of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958).

In his second innings, Paranjpe slowed down his filmmaking pace and directed only 13 more films, the last one being Aadhar (1969). But his work continued to win awards, with Suvashini (1961) winning second prize at the inaugural Maharashtra State Film Awards.

He followed up with Haa Mazha Marg Ekla (1963), which won two National awards and a state award for Best Film. Haa Mazha Marg Ekla is also notable for being Sachin Pilgaonkar's debut film. The boy, not even five years old then, won the National award for Best Child Actor. Sachin went on to become a successful actor and director in Marathi cinema.

Pathlag (1964) was a suspense drama starring Dr Kashinath Ghanekar and Bhavna and was the most successful film in Paranjpe's career, both commercially and critically. It won a National award for Best Marathi Film and the first prize at the state awards. Pathlaag was later remade in Tamil as Idhaya Kamalam (1965) and in Hindi as Mera Saaya (1966).

After Aadhar (1969), Paranjpe gave up filmmaking but continued to act for a few more years. The filmmaker died on 9 February 1979 in Pune.