Naatak hey Marathi maansaachya kana-kanaat rutlay (Theatre is settled deeply in every vein of the Marathi population). If you watch and follow the Marathi plays, and the people behind it, this is a phrase you might’ve heard often. In a time when Bollywood is all the rage, myriad options of entertainment keep cropping up and folk theatre seems to be pushed to the fringes, Marathi theatre continues to rally on, and beautifully so! Marathi theatre sees multiple plays open to packed houses, and it churns out an average of 150-200 productions each year - both commercial and experimental put together. While theatre in English or even Hindi is either seen as something to indulge in over the weekend or as entertainment for the elite, Marathi theatre has managed to seep into every aspect of a Marathi Manoos's life, social standing irrespective. There's something for everyone.
So what is it that makes Marathi theatre so rich and active? Maharashtra has a 150 years old tradition in theatre, and is equally rich in stories both folklore as well as contemporary. There's something in every genre – comedy, drama, thriller, horror, romance, et al. These are the stories every average middle class Maharashtrian has grown up on or can connect to, so there's also an emotional pull towards theatre.
The Plays But, that is not all the reason for the long standing popularity of Marathi theatre. The secret lies in Marathi theatre’s accepting, embracing and adapting to the changes in society. In the 1960s, when most theatre in India depended upon adapted stories and plays from across the world, the Marathi guys had begun writing original plays and gave rise to the experimental movement.
The foundation was set by stellar playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchawar, whose works have not only been way ahead of their time, but have also set the foundation for a tradition in excellent theatre. These writers raised topics which were untouched before, like sexuality, and the life and problems of the middle class. They spoke about subjects that took theatre closer to the people. Actors and directors like Tendulkar, Sulabha Deshpande, Sai Paranjpye, Vijaya Mehta, Shriram Lagoo, and such stalwarts, with the help of the stories provided, laid the foundation for a progressive audience.
Breaking Stereotypes The prominence of women in the experimental theatre circuit at a time when the society was still highly patriarchal took away the taboo associated with performing arts and paved way for many a female stalwarts gracing the Marathi stage. It was things like these attached with theatre, coupled with the storylines and issues tackled in the plays, that groomed the audience to accept crazy ideas, handle grave socio-political issues, and bring a change in their lives accordingly. It only made the Marathi population fall in love even more with theatre.
Production That was just the start, though. Once the audience was groomed and ready to accept any good concept, work had to be done to accommodate them and ensure adequate infrastructure was in place. Auditoriums, public and school halls came to be used. Eventually special auditoriums were built. Now, there's no dearth of venues that cater specifically to Marathi theatre. There are about 10-15 theatres in Mumbai alone that show only Marathi plays, and run on Government subsidies, therefore making it affordable for theatre companies as well as audiences.
The one and a half century's worth of experience has helped devise various techniques and adopt Western ways wherever necessary, especially when it comes to production. The younger theatre directors are not afraid to strike a balance between old traditions and modern technology.
A Marathi play will have as many showings as the nearest film theatre, and even the ticket prices for legendary and popular plays can be at par or even more than the popular latest release from Bollywood. But, that has never stopped the audience. This makes the Marathi theatre a flourishing, fully independent industry. The economics of it is stellar, and it provides employment to lakhs of Mumbaikars.
Marathi theatre, apart from being an escape from the daily life for a Maharashtrian, is also his look into the things around him; the problems creeping into society while he is busy working hard and taking care of his family. It is his way to look at things differently, because theatre shows it in a way he would not have seen. Marathi theatre is that friend to the Marathi Manoos who makes him laugh and cry, awakens him from his reverie and also pushes him to be better if there is a need to.