Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar began their journey in filmmaking with documentary and short films more than 25 years ago. Their films are noted for their underlining social message sometimes quite vocal and sometimes very subtle. Their contribution to Indian cinema in general and Marathi cinema in particular defies comparison. Over the past two and a half decades they have made 8 feature films, 40 short films and five telefilms winning 3 international awards, 6 National awards and 45 state awards. Their films taken as a body of work, explores the irony of existing social structures, often with a definite closure that suggests a resolution of the issue the film takes up.
Vaastupurush opens in the present and moves into the flashback mode when the elderly Bhaskar Deshpande (Mahesh Elkunchwar) arrives at his homestead, watching the ruins that were once his home. When the film opens in Mumbai, we are introduced to the dignified, very quiet and somewhat distant medical philanthropist in his Mumbai apartment, listening quietly to the grumblings of his caretaker. The camera moves in and out of the living room where the television news channel focuses on his award and his contribution and his study where he opens his laptop or talks to his son over the cell phone.
Setuís kids are initially fascinated by the lush green overgrowth of the gardens of the mansion but soon tire of the surroundings and the heat, and the family repairs to the guest house leaving Bhaskar to move back into his boyhood where we often find him hovering behind his younger self with a smile of benign amusement on his face. The village ambience is captured beautifully through mid-long and long shots as the young Bhaskar (Siddharth Daftardar) weaves his way through the muddy pathways of the village to catch a folk play, or a festival but mostly to study in Krishnatai's small room.
The film is almost entirely character-centric throwing up a prism of colourful characters that people the Deshpande home. Narayanrao Deshpande (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), Bhaskarís father, is an irresponsible, moral coward who uses his Gandhian principles to escape responsibility throwing his 'principles of patriotism' into the face of his worried, angry but determined wife (Uttara Baokar). He shies away from asking for the mandatory freedom fighters' pension when it comes because, as he tells a bewildered Bhaskar, "I cannot sell my patriotism to benefit my son, can I?" He has no guts to either see or perform the last rights of his mother when she dies and leaves everything to his wife and the neighbours.
His younger brother Madhavrao (Ravindra Mankani) believes in the myth of the vaastupurush as the hidden treasure his ancestors have buried underneath the mansion and sets on an unending pursuit of digging and following the false promises of soothsayers and mendicants in exchange for whatever little he has such as the gold ring on his finger. That the digging will yield nothing except causing damage to the old structure means nothing to him. He has a faithful in Nishikant (Atul Kulkarni), Bhaskar's older brother who cries like a baby, is afraid of staying alone at home and is totally dependent on his uncle whose faith in the vaastupurush lying hidden as a treasure underneath the house he backs completely.
The young Bhaskar is a quiet, timid but good boy who is more an observer of the goings on than an integral part of the proceedings. He watches how his Aai looks after his paralytic grandmother (Rekha Kamat), bonds with the half-wit family retainer Goturam (Rajesh More) and does everything to be done to keep the family okay within an ambience of terrible poverty without any support from the men. She has only one dream - to see that her brilliant son goes to Grant Medical College, becomes a doctor and returns to the village to make socially good use of his education and experience. Bhaskar has a young friend too who remains with him through thick and thin.
The other woman Krishnatai (Renuka Daftardar) is a Dalit woman who has left her alcoholic, battering husband to make a life of her own as the nursing head of the primary medical health centre. She does not turn a hair when the husband comes back to fetch their only daughter. Bhaskar comes to know by accident that Nishikant and Krishnatai were once in love but the marriage proposal was rejected outright by his Gandhian father who felt that a Dalit girl in a Brahmin household would not be acceptable to the villagers! She keeps saving for Bhaskar's medical education from her meager earnings and hands them over to him when he finally leaves for the city to return after forty long years. But he never sees his mother again who passes away when he was in medical college.
The film lends itself to a powerful feminist reading between the lines of an otherwise male-dominated narrative because of the two strong women who dominate the proceedings. There is the third woman too, in the form of Aaji, the ailing grandmother who hands over the little gold she has left to Aai to do what she wants with it. It is the half-wit Goturam who remains more loyal to the mistress of the house than to the masters.
The directors between them have been able to extract ideal performances from their bevy of established actors and also the unfamiliar faces like renowned playwright and author Mahesh Elkunchwar who performs the older Bhaskar with restraint. The newcomer Siddharth Daftardar seems to be a bit self-conscious to begin with but later we discover that that is how the screenplay fleshes out the character. The quietness and the sense of being aloof while being within are carried over in the older Bhaskar. Rajesh More as Goturam is brilliant. Most of the main cast is drawn from Marathi theatre but none of them bring any theatricals into their performance.
The cinematography, the art direction and the background score (Shrirang Umrani) dominated by raga-based pieces, sometimes a khayal, (Ustad Saiduddin Dagar) sometimes lines of a thumri and vedic hymns and prayers enrich the ambience of the film beautifully. The music is mood-centric when Bhaskar is into his memory mode but draws heavily on folk modes in the past when some festival is being celebrated in the village. Sanjay Memani's cinematography deserved an award for the way it reflects the half-lit ambience of the haveli, with darkness sustaining to reflect the metaphor of their dark lives, or captured the pastoral landscape in long shots, or zeroed in on a pensive Bhaskar as he sits in his study thinking about his future course of action.
The two points where the film falters are - its inordinate length which could have been clipped by at least 30 minutes and the slightly melodramatic closure which shows Krishnatai's granddaughter, a medical graduate, requesting Bhaskar whether he would take her in his project involving the village.