He was a prominent Marathi writer, a poet, an educationist, a newspaper founder—editor of Maratha a Marathi language daily , a political leader, a movie producer—director—script writer and above all, a noted orator. This multitalented personality known as Acharya Atre or P. Atre will be forever remembered by the people of Maharshtra for his writing, his wit and his generous nature. His writing touched almost every area in literature - prose, poetry, plays et al. His speeches touched every heart in Maharashtra. He was a litterateur, educationist, film producer and director, journalist, orator and a leader, all rolled into one.
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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. India was rebelling against British rule, but it was also rebelling against outmoded social and religious practices. A teacher must never stop learning.
It was this quality of Atre that, perhaps, brought him into the new and growing world of cinema. Atre confessed to being a novice, and Torne took it upon himself to educate the playwright in the intricacies of filmmaking.
He completed the screenplay in under a week. Torne was impressed. But the director suggested a few edits in the screenplay which hurt Atre. Atre was unhappy with the way his script had been handled by the director. 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. And he met many such characters during his life as a teacher, politician and social activist.
Through them, he displayed a bold attitude towards women. Even today, this will shock some sections of society, so one can imagine what the reaction must have been like in the s. 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. 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 , also released in Marathi and Hindi. The film was a failure at the box office. It was also the first time a film satirized Indian puritanism and celibacy — it is art that entertains without being preachy.
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. His plays celebrated women and their rights. He was an entrepreneur with a vision. In , 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.
Lapandav 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. A poster for Payachi Dasi 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.
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. On the heels of this success, Atre conceptualized his ambitious bilingual project Vasantsena 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 and Raja Rani , Vasantsena was getting made. Compared to the six months that Atre had hoped to complete the film in, Vasantsena took 14 months and cost Rs7.
Next, the film ran into distribution trouble and it became difficult to find good cinemas to release it in. Within three years, he had gone from success back to failure.
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. Packed with comedy, the film starred Damuanna Malvankar and Durga Khote and did phenomenally well. Atre was very close to social activist Sane Guruji. But Papa did it. Atre received the award from Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India. The second film to win him this medal was Mahatma Phule Atre started to veer towards politics and moved on from filmmaking.
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. When filmmaking frees itself of this capitalism, only then will it see itself soar to new heights.
Shakti Salgaokar is an author and freelance journalist. People in this story.
Remembering the one and only Acharya Atre, literary giant and daring filmmaker