It was a herculean task sketching the life and times of a saint from Maharashtra’s Varkari Tradition whose teachings have not lost even an ounce of their relevance. The key challenge was the cinematic approach – while it would have been easier to pick the grand spectacle of Tukaram’s legend to guarantee the film’s commercial success, Kulkarni focuses on his trials and tribulations instead, sketching his life story as a common man from Dehu who, challenged by circumstances, moves closer to his beloved God and inches closer to ultimate truth in the same breadth. More important, Tuka learns from his blunders as also the detached observation and introspection of his people and circumstances, not from some mysterious blaze of spiritual enlightenment. The screenplay brings out the strife in his life through carefully chosen characteristic scenes, thanks to Ajit and Prashant Dalvi’s perceptive dialogues powerfully reinforced through actor Jitendra Joshi’s superb histrionics.
As if destiny had reserved the million dollar role for him, he reigns supreme as Tukaram. A regular face in films and TV but largely wasted in trivial parts, he’s underplayed the legend with such miraculous authority; it’s nothing short of a case study for playing larger-than-life iconic characters.
While the situations are in tune with the times, there was no room for glitches, yet a few tragically remain. A director of the caliber of Kulkarni, especially given his experimental theatre roots, could have easily checked them. Certain frames have turned inadvertently comic –Tuka’s kith and kin turn overtly desperate for food following his magnanimous sacrifice of his wealth for the village’s cause, Bahinabai seems more like Tuka’s starry-eyed, doting devotee than the ingenious poetess that she was in her own right, young Tuka has a vision of Vittal in the village temple but the later story is completely (and aptly) devoid of such divine experiences. While Shivaji could have best remained a character described in narration, we needlessly see him characterized. Worse than the mediocre actor chosen to play the part is the unconvincing situation (Shivaji Maharaj goes to the doorstep of an unknown martyr’s household with the last remains). In sharp contrast, Kabir’s influence is pertinently depicted through a wandering fakir’s soulful renderings.
The flaws notwithstanding, the film has enough to make it a fine piece of enduring cinema. Kulkarni and Joshi together have pulled off a miracle that’s ably supported by Sharad Ponkshe and Pratiksha Lonkar (Tuka’s parents), and Veena Jamkar and Radhika Apte (playing his wives). The child artiste playing young Tuka is a great find. Veteran Ravindra Mankani could have played the negative character of pompous God man Mambaji much better than the loud and overtly animated Yatin Karyekar but is wasted in a trivial role instead. The art direction and cinematography bring the context alive while the inventive music of Ashok Patki and Avadhoot Gupte beautifully adorns Tuka’s insightful abhangas. Save for the ultra-modern “Chal na Gadya Vyapaarala”, all numbers faithfully carry the spirit and sensibilities of the given times.
Don’t miss this rare devotional treat for anything. The wonderful end leaves you engulfed in a mesmerizing trance amidst melodious chants of ‘Vittal Vittal’, speaking volumes of Kulkarni’s directorial insights. We saw him last as the lead actor in Amol Palekar’s incisive ‘Bangarwadi’ –can’t wait to see more of him on celluloid in any capacity. More so, now that he’s been blessed by none other than Tuka!