Most people outside Maharashtra have never heard of Bal Gandharva. The story of one of India’s most popular singers and stage actors from the 1900s until his death in 1967 has completely passed some people by. Given that this biopic covers the years of his greatest fame quite quickly and features many different characters who appear and then reappear later without an over amount of explanation, you’ll definitely get more out of this film if you’re already familiar with Gandharva’s story. I'll also say that this film suffers from the usual biopic problem — that of when you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all. The only real difference here is that this one is set in Maharashtra.
Balgandharva is an awkwardly paced, unevenly executed drama that has some interesting moments – particularly a fine, sublime performance by Subodh Bhave as the titular character – but is, in the end, a kitchen sink film that just keeps on throwing stuff at you. A strong argument can be made that Bal Gandharva was the greatest stage actor of the 20th century. But that argument is not supported in Ravi Jadhav’s disjointed biopic, because it is a film that disregards the rules of storytelling yet fails to innovate a successful alternative. Though not luxuriously long, it commits one sin that would have been an anathema to a genius artist like Bal Gandharva — the lack of variety.
Two things this movie has going for it that make it stand out as something special are the magnificent art direction and Subodh Bhave’s performance. While his resemblance to Bal Gandharva is apparently accurate, it is not as simple as a straightforward impersonation. Bhave thoroughly transforms himself physically as well as vocally, lip-syncing the musical numbers and capturing Gandharva’s strident, nasal resonance in his voice.
Pinballing aimlessly across the span of Bal Gandharva’s life, from the rise of his career to his frail final days, the film grabs huge chunks out of his biography and scatters them carelessly. This unfocussed method becomes tiresome and irritating, and the film’s unstable storyline becomes too much of a bad thing. The director, either intentionally or accidentally, omits key segments of Gandharva’s life that show a very idealistic man. His extraordinary generosity in launching the careers of struggling artists like Baburao Painter is not cited. His hatred towards commercial forms or art is only touched upon with brief mentions of him dissolving a motion picture contract after just one film, giving the impression that he was an objectivist. His deep friendship with Ganpatrao Bodas and Govindrao Tembe is telescoped here into brief and awkward scenes on the sets of the Sangeet Mandali. And there is no mention of Gandharva’s activities during the formation of the Prabhat Film Company, where his quiet inner turmoil of selling out has been well-documented by more responsible biographies. What’s more, the director minimizes Bal Gandharva’s wonderful music and in turn diminishes Bhave’s extraordinary performance.
Speaking of songs, very few of the Gandharva standards are presented here in their entirety — most are sliced and diced. And many of his most beloved plays (including the ones by Kirloskar and Ram Gadkari) are not even mentioned. There is also a rather unsatisfactory handling of the people who surrounded the legend, beginning with filmmaker Shantaram, the scapegrace friend who used to hang around with Narayanrao when he struggled to make ends meet. Later, when Gohar Karnataki (Mhatre) becomes the disgrace of late-thirties Pune theatre, Gandharva begins to resent his loving, devoted wife (Deshpande), and suddenly claims that he would never return to her. What happened in between? Later still, we see Gandharva discontent while speaking with a rich Gujarati businessman (Manoj Joshi); how he came to sneak into the picture is anyone's guess. This is either an editing fault, or director Jadhav was concerned that further exposition would burden the swollen running time. Moreover, Balgandharvahas some peculiar ellipses. For example, the deaths of a couple of underwritten characters come out of nowhere. The movie also leaps from decade to decade, omitting the small episode of India’s independence at the height of Bal Gandharva’s stardom. The death of his wife is curiously overlooked as well — either the film was hacked down or the episode didn’t fit in with Jadhav’s view of Bal Gandharva as a basket case.
Granted, not everything in an incident-filled life like Bal Gandharva’s can be included, unless in a trilogy. Only once does Jadhav manage a convincing link between the inner tumult and the outer shell — at the halfway mark, in a long bravura shot of Bal Gandharva walking down a street, determined to clear his debts. The magical elision between the details of the composition and the performed grief are so confidently organised that one detects the shadow of a much more engrossing film. I wish that we could have seen it.
Balgandharva can't elude the pitfalls of the biopic —the tendency to sacrifice depth in the hope that covering the highlights of the life will somehow explain its meaning. The narrative is sketchy to the point of evasiveness. I wanted a concert of a story and didn't get it —Bal Gandharva would be disappointed.
First published in DNA