Usually, it is advised to not pursue biopics of characters you are in awe of. That awe will turn a story into a myth, a narrative into a hagiography. You never get a portrait of the person, stuck as you are with plot points that produce heroism through hurdle-hopping.
Me Vasantrao, the biographical sketch of singer Vasantrao Deshpande, heeds no such advice. In fact, it digs its heels deeper into its awe. Vasantrao Deshpande's grandson Rahul Deshpande plays him, sings as him — giving the maxim 'fear the day you realize you have become your parents' a more visceral, generational leap of horror — offering his art as devotion to the singer and grandfather. It is in this context that I would rather call this film an ode, an offering than a biography. The binary of good-bad to judge the film is now replaced with sincere-insincere.
The film opens with an old Vasantrao in the green room, unworried about following Zakir Hussain's percussive perfection. People are whispering outside his room — how can any following act match up?
An old Muslim man walks into the green room — we don't know who he is, offered only shots from behind his shoulder, his cane, his skull cap — asking him about his life, and Vasantrao spills us into a flashback. It's a clunky frame, somewhat neatened by the time we realize who this old Muslim man is and what he represents, a clunkiness that dots the film, which is coated over by its music — so powerful, daring, delicate, diverse (ghazal, shastriya sangeet, lavani), moving, and melodious. This is a music album, stretching at 1 hour 20 minutes, for the ages.
The production of art here, cleaved off any divine or moral calling, is merely summoned on its own terms — music for music's sake.
Thus begins the episodic retelling of Vasantrao's life — from his childhood where his mother (Anita Date) walks away from her in-laws, raising him on her own, his first brush with music, observing the way the hand moves when a singer sings, emulating it, and then immersing it into his practice, his brief detour in Lahore where he learned a new raag, a new style, his friendship with Begum Akhtar, his flirting with lavani, and ultimately, how he gives up a secure government job for the unsteady, unforgiving life of the artist.
A character who is written as if he is merely a product of his circumstances, Vasantrao was called by many in the music circle, the Brahmakamal, the lotus that blooms at night leaving a lasting fragrance, testing everyone's patience who are waiting for the unfurling of scent and sight. Vasantrao's musical career, too, like the Brahmakamal, bloomed in the autumn of his life, with the Marathi play, Katyar Kaljat Ghusali, about the battle between two musical gharanas. (One of the running threads through this movie and his life was his unwillingness to slot himself into a gharana, having absorbed his art from Aman Ali Khan and Anjanibai Malpekar of the Bhendibazaar gharana, Sureshbabu Mane of the Kirana gharana, Asad Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana, and Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze of the Gwalior gharana.)
In Lahore, he spends months learning Raag Marwa — where the pancham note, or Pa, is always left out. The Pa, described as the spine note, when omitted, suddenly produces a kind of blustering anchor-lessness, which the film also calls a father-lessness, one which Vasantrao is very familiar with, having had no contact with his father over the years. Fitting then, that the Raag Vasantrao Deshpande is best known for, one that he created — Raag Raj Kalyan — also omits the Pa. One of his gurus, Asad Ali Khan, had told him, "Sing as you speak", and, thus, his speech and song became one.
In one of the most moving scenes of the film — spun around 'Tere Dar Se' with Rahul Deshpande and Himani Kapoor singing as Vasantrao Deshpande and Begum Akhtar — Vasantrao asks the Begum's permission to sing after listening to her, because if he doesn't, he will burst. The production of art here, cleaved off any divine or moral calling, is merely summoned on its own terms — music for music's sake.
But for a film on Vasantrao Deshpande, his work in Marathi films is suspiciously missing — he sang in more than 80 Marathi films, and even acted in a few, including the role of Krishna at the age of eight in Kaliya Mardan (1935). Instead, his deep roots in theater, his affinity for lavani music — a lovely scene where he transforms his shawl into a pallu, performing lavani as a woman sublimating desire and drama — are explored through musical asides.
What is also missing from this film is an endearing complexity. Hints of chinks are thrown around — when he refuses to let his daughter learn Kathak after he is jilted because there is no money in the arts, or when the long gaze between him and Begum Akhtar is waiting to burst open, or his outburst towards his friend Pu La Deshpande (Pushkaraj Chirputkar) — but it all ties back neatly into his goodness and grace. There is a servility in the narrative to the myth of Vasantrao Deshpande, and I can't help but think of what he told someone who insisted that Marathi theater was "indeed fortunate to receive [his] seva" — "Why do you want to make it all greasy by uttering words like seva-biwa?"