The qualifier “rising” no longer needs to be added to “helmer” when describing Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni after “The Temple,” the director’s third and best feature to date. Ever since his debut, “The Wild Bull,” Kulkarni’s shown an interest in the foibles of village life, but here he’s honed his satire, retaining the humor while making it more biting. Skewering venality via a tale of a simple cowherd whose vision of a deity turns the townspeople into mad merchandisers, scripter Girish Pandurang Kulkarni tackles corruption from multiple angles yet keeps things from feeling preachy. A healthy fest life is assured.
Local rollout is set for early November and could surpass the strong showing for “Wild Bull,” adding to the increasing B.O. power of Marathi pics in recent years. Stars like Sonali Kulkarni and Nana Patekar should certainly help, along with a couple of production numbers beautifully integrated into the plot. Though things drag a bit toward the end of the first hour, they pick up in the second half, and the film has a palpable appeal despite an unnecessarily extended ending.
When Kesha (Girish Kulkarni) has a dream of the triple-figured god Dutta, the artless cowherd can’t contain his excitement; wiser men in the village warn him to keep the vision to himself, fearing ridicule or a stampede, but it’s too late. At first, little changes in the town, where the latest TV soap takes precedence over everything else, but then a group of men drunkenly propose a temple should be built.
Gentle sage Anna (Dilip Prabhawalkar) has been working on plans with local politico Bhau (Patekar) to build a hospital, but popular pressure pushes aside this vital improvement and he watches helplessly as a sanctuary is constructed and tourists and pilgrims swamp the town. Bhau’s a typical local politician, neither too corrupt nor too honest and completely under the thumb of his party superior, which means he does things for political expedience rather than community betterment.
Money pours into the village coffers and the whole tenor of life changes, with people’s values shifting as cynical opportunism and hypocrisy take hold. Kesha, the man who had the vision, is all but forgotten, and the sacred cow gets sick and dies, with only the simple cowherd to mourn.
To the pic’s enormous credit, rural life before the temple isn’t some Edenic existence: there’s poverty, a primitive infrastructure and superstition. The helmer doesn’t argue that modernity is itself corrupting, but rather how it’s integrated, so while the coming of electricity should be a force for good, its implementation breaks down community ties and erodes interpersonal relations. The frenzy of consumerism replaces genuine spiritual feeling, resulting in locals wired to the outside world but cut off from each other, encouraged by power-hungry politicos and a yellow press only interested in sensationalism. The pic leavens things with warmth and humor without weakening the pointed criticism.
Thesping is universally strong, especially Patekar and Sonali Kulkarni as his wife (not their first time as an onscreen couple); their playful relationship and strong sexual chemistry add an unexpected level of intimacy. Lensing by Sudhakar Reddy is topnotch, with special attention paid to landscape and the village’s isolation. The two production numbers, both catchy tunes, are organically incorporated, furthering sarcasm and satirizing celebrity culture. Opening credits, of a hand in silhouette making sand patterns on backlit glass, are lovely.