ON FEBRUARY 26 evening, it was full house for Charchaughi at a 1,200-seater auditorium in Maharashtra’s Thane. The path-breaking play in Marathi, written by noted playwright Prashant Dalvi, was revived by director Chandrakant Kulkarni last year. The story is about four women―a headstrong mother, who is in a relationship with a married man, and her three independent-thinking daughters, born out of that relationship. At the centre of the narrative is Vidya, the eldest daughter, played by Mukta Barve, who decides to divorce her husband for infidelity. She even argues for their five-year-old daughter’s custody to be equally divided between the parents, so as to not let the father walk free from sharing responsibility. The play, set in the 1990s Maharashtra, continues to be much ahead of its times, and Barve, with her thunderous monologue in defence of equal rights, has emerged as the face of the modern woman.
In 2014, Barve produced Chhapa Kata, a play about a mother and a daughter; she also played the daughter. Her character of a 33-year-old vivacious spinster is manipulated by her sickly, borderline hypochondriac, widowed mother, who craves company and hence tries to keep her daughter from starting out a life of her own with her suitor. Barve’s outing as a producer became symbolic of a shift in the mindset among the audiences of the day, which hailed women-centric narratives to take centre stage in Marathi theatre and cinema. Apart from a woman producer, the play also had a woman writer (Irawati Karnik)―a first in Marathi theatre.
Theatre and cinema are intertwined here, as the former is an integral part of the Maharashtrian way of life. Barve, a student of theatre from Pune, has been straddling both worlds with élan since she was 19. To date, the 41-year-old has won seven state awards and one national award for her performances on stage and screen. “I guess I am luckier than my peers because I can tell you there is no dearth of good actors in Marathi cinema,” she says. “I came to be an actor but in the process also got to be a heroine.” While her role in Jogwa (2009) took her career several notches higher, Mumbai Pune Mumbai (2010) and its sequels made her “insanely famous as a lead heroine”. Both the films throw light on a woman’s inherent resilience. The Marathi film industry, says Barve, is driven by content, and not stars. “If the audience wants to dream, they go to Bollywood; if they want slice-of-life, real cinema, they watch Marathi films and theatre,” she says.
One of her pet peeves with regard to Marathi cinema, however, is the pay gap. She cites the example of her costar Swapnil Joshi, a close friend. “Both of us have almost the same fan following on social media but, as per the producer, the hero and heroine are placed at different levels, with him [Joshi] almost always claiming the upper hand,” she says. “There were times when producers would ask me to adjust my fees on the excuse that they were casting [a hero] whose charges were way higher than mine....The producer is the one who draws the lines of bias here.” Once, Barve had to walk out of a project after she was made to change her dates to suit a male lead’s schedule.
But things are changing, even if slowly. “I think we, as women, are no longer only expected to look good and be showpieces in the narrative,” she says. “We actually get to lead the narrative ourselves.”