Maithili cinema: Awards, appreciation but no viewers

The other film industry in Bihar: Beyond Bhojpuri, beyond sleaze

Cinema

April 8, 2021

/ By / Patna

Maithili cinema: Awards, appreciation but no viewers

Mithila Makhaan won best film in the language category at the 63rd National Film Awards

Away from the glitz of the popular Bhojpuri films, often sleazy, the Maithili cinema industry is struggling to develop roots even in its home state.

“Maithili cinema’s fate has not changed despite good quality content and awards that we have received in the recent past. We still struggle to get some time on television or even a theatrical release,” says Nitin Chandra, a Maithili filmmaker based in Bihar’s capital Patna.

About five years ago, in 2016, Chandra had completed directing Mithila Makhaan, a Maithili-language film which won a national award for best film in the language category, at the 63rd National Film Awards but could not find any takers either for a theatrical release or streaming on an over-the-top (OTT) platform.

After that, a number of big Bollywood stars, from Hrithik Roshan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee to Vidya Balan, Sonu Sood and Jackie Shroff came forward to promote that film. Industry’s biggest singers and composers like Udit Narayan, Hariharan, Suresh Wadkar and Sonu Nigam had provided playback voices for songs in the movie but even that did not help.

In 2019, the director was forced to release the film on his own online platform, Bejod. Even today, barring a few recent ones, such as Gamak Ghar (2019), the number of Maithili films produced remains abysmally low.

No place for Maithili in Indian cinematic world

Gamak Ghar released in 2019

Anurita Jha, one of the lead actors in the film Mithila Makhaan, says that regardless of the fact that Maithili is spoken by millions of people in and outside Bihar, not to miss neighbouring Nepal where it is the second official language, the movie still failed to find any distributors.

“The advent of the OTT platforms also could not change its fate, as they were seemingly wary of streaming a movie in a language the film fraternity has not been familiar with for years,” she adds.

Even though the first Maithili film, Mamta Gabay Geet was made way back in early 1962 by C Parmanand, and an acclaimed director of his time, Phani Majumdar made Kanyadaan in 1965, Maithili cinema failed to take off.

Since then, unlike the prolific Bhojpuri cinema, Maithili films were made intermittently, especially in the new millennium but barring a few like Sasta Jingi Mahag Senur (1999), none of them could even manage to get a release on the box office till recently.

Overshadowed by Bhojpuri film industry

Jha says that one of the biggest threats that the Maithili cinema industry faces is from the more popular Bhojpuri film industry.

“Bhojpuri films earn throughout the year through their obscenity and sexism prevalent in music and cinema industry where auto-tune technology has made it possible for many to record songs that get hits on YouTube and other social media,” she explains.

She claims that even Bhojpuri films without sleaze do not find audiences. “Bhojpuri is a beautiful language and Tollywood (Bhojpuri cinema) has produced numerous good movies. However, it is the sleazy ones that do the business,” she says.

A cultural and financial crisis

A strong culture of movie-watching has existed in Bihar right from the earliest years of cinema. Director Chandra reminds that the state capital still has Elphinstone Theatre, which came up in 1919 and started off by screening silent films, in a functional state. “And yet, not only have there been relatively fewer films in the local languages but also the existing productions are poorly preserved. Prints of Kanyadan are unavailable today – even the National Film Archives of India in Pune does not have a copy,” he adds.

Chandra adds that continuous financial failure of Maithili films also discourages regional artists like actors, singers and directors to turn away from it and start telling Maithili stories in Hindi. “Despite a Mithila backdrop and story, films are made in Hindi for better reach like the iconic Teesri Kasam (1966) which was based on Maithili story Mare Gaye Gulfam by renowned author Phanishwar Nath Renu. The film created magic, actors, singer became stars but the Maithili story remained unknown,” he says.

A 2018 Maithili film, Premak Basant, directed by Nepali artist Pravesh Mallick had its songs and music listed on different audio-streaming platforms like Spotify, but could not manage a dignified release even in Bihar. Later it had to be released on YouTube.

Holding on to rare rays of hope

Finally about two years ago in 2019, Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar grabbed attention all over the country. The film premiered at 21st MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2019, where it won the inaugural Manish Acharya Award for New Voices in Indian Cinema and the Golden Gateway of Best Indian Film award.

The film was then released on a digital streaming platform, Mubi and is now available on various other OTT platforms.

According to actor Jha, what it proves is that there is scope and hope for Maithili movies from Bihar that bring forward new talents. “To change the current state of Maithili cinema, this is the best time to create various kinds of content and look for young minds and new platforms that are open to experimentation, risk-taking and innovation,” Jha adds.

Busy with casting for his upcoming project, director Chandra says that various regional cinema have managed to conquer new territories in the past two decades in India and one-day Maithili cinema will also reach the multiplexes. Very slowly but surely.

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