Saturday, February 18, 2012
The Shashi Kapoor-Shyam Benegal combo worked well in Junoon, which was an adaptation of a Ruskin Bond novella. Apparently wanting to take the successful collaboration forward, they decided to adapt the great Indian epic Mahabharata into a film by weaving it into a corporate modern-day scenario. This was some thirty years before Prakash Jha successfully aped the idea and applied it to a modern-day political setting.
Before I go on to talk about the film; I feel the word ‘epic’ has been coined just to describe the magnanimity of our two ancient relics- Mahabharata and Ramayana. Like most others from my generation I got introduced to both through popular tele-serials and some school text-book reading. Recently however I found time to go through some excellent re-telling of both- CR Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana, and Devdutt Pattnaik’s Jaya (an illustrated version of Mahabharata). The latter was a more enriching experience than the former as Mahabharata truly is an amazingly sinuous yet cohesive work of art. It is so wonderfully detailed and multi-dimensional that it is difficult to remember most of the things. On the other hand I know pretty much all the things about Ramayana which, comparatively, is much simpler and easier to comprehend. So post reading Jaya, I got the feeling that I had never really known Mahabharata.
So when I sat down to watch Kalyug, I did it with great anticipation and excitement. I had thing movie with me for the past 3-4 months but never really got down to watching it, for at the back of my mind I always had this thing that I would read the epic once prior to experiencing it. With Shyam Benegal at the helm I was quite certain that the film would enthrall me. But now after watching the movie, in retrospect, I feel that I did great wrong by having such high expectations from this endeavor.
Kalyug is by no means a bad film. It is definitely a notch above the regular 1980s fare. However that aside, I am quite surprised by the lack of a lot of things in the movie. Coherence, for one. Emotional appeal, for another. Good acting (most surprisingly) for another another. The movie starts off with a rather simplistic narration of the rather simplistic (as compared to the one Mahabharata had) family tree of the two families involved. It is perfectly justified, and rather thoughtful, of the makers to keep the number of protagonists limited or else it would have been difficult to do justice to all of them in a 150 min motion picture. The two families are two rich business houses of India, fighting for the same contracts and tenders. The movie wastes no time in establishing the hostilities between these two families of cousins, related by blood but separated by their love for power and ambition.
As soon as the drama started, I excitedly started to draw parallels between the characters from the great epic and the movie. It is surely captivating, for someone who knows a bit of Mahabharata, to decipher and witness the way in which Shyam Benegal has made some interesting moves. Some of the characters are given the same names as in the epic. Karan Singh (Shashi Kapoor) plays Karan, a devoted friend to Duryodhan in the book, who is Dhanraj in the movie (essayed by Victor Banarjee). Karan Singh is pretty much the central character in the movie and it seems to be an adaptation of the saga from his perspective. Other characters with the same names are Subhadra, Krishna, Parikshit, amongst others. Many plot elements are cleverly harmonized with the ones from the book (something that Mani Ratnam tried in Raavan) and identifying the same is quite enjoyable for the first few minutes. Post the hour mark, however, the movie becomes quite bland and lifeless in its treatment.
My main issues with the film are-
· The characters are not well developed. None of them are likeable and the motivations behind many of the things the various people do are quite unclear. I couldn’t understand the role Rekha played for instance. She is Supriya, the wife of Dharmraj (Eldest brother of the troika playing the Pandavas), and throughout the movie comes across as an irritable lady who finds it tough to get along with her mother-in-law and her younger devar’s wife (who is also her niece). This younger devar Bharatraj (Anant Nag interpreting Arjuna) and his Bhabhi share a very unclear relationship. Till the end there is no clarity whether their relationship is just one of mutual respect or something more (In the Mahabharata there is no Bhabhi and Draupadi is wedded to all the five brothers). Similarly the relationship between Dharmraj (Raj Babbar essaying Yudhishtir) and his wife is shown to be dysfunctional but there are no reasons given. Balraj (Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Bheem) is shown as a pleasure-loving guy, but plays no critical role in the narrative (except being a trigger to the accidental death of his cousin Sandeep- a mentally unstable Dushasan?). Also, there is no explanation given for the great dislike Bharatraj has for Karan Singh (The Arjun-Karan war).
· A lot of the things from the Mahabharata are necessarily forced-fitted into the narrative, while many crucial things are not touched upon at all. So there are the incapable parents, growing senile and having no control over the actions of their kids. Similarly Arjun’s marriage to Subhadra (which wasn’t a big plot point in Mahabharata) is given great prominence by the introduction of a sappy and boring romantic track between Bharatraj and Subhadra. There is a Bhishma Pitamah too (played by AK Hangal!), but too plays no real part in the drama unlike the book where he was termed as the root-cause of the entire war. Also, in today’s context a woman bearing kids with Sadhus and priests as a mark of her devotion is too much to digest. There is also a fleeting mention of a past love affair between Supriya and Karan Singh (In the book Draupadi had prevented Karan from participating in her Swayamwar on the grounds of him not being from a royal family. Much later she had admitted to being attracted to him despite her being married to the Pandavas).
· The central conflict in the Mahabharata had its roots in the fight for the throne. Both parties believed that they were the true heir to the throne of Hastinapur. The hostility got to the highest point post the game of dice between Yudhishtir and Shakuni (representing Kauravas), in which Pandavas lose everything, followed by the subsequent disrobing and public humiliation of Draupadi. In the movie, there is no apparent central conflict. There is a slight throwaway to the Draupadi humiliation episode when income tax officers treat Savitri with disrespect while frisking her wardrobe. However the entire war between the two families comes across as manufactured and unreal.
· The acting by many of the leads looks embarrassingly amateurish. A part of the discredit for this should also go to the writers who didn’t really develop any of the characters well. Anant Nag seriously hams it up in the last few portions of the film. Victor Banarjee as Dhanraj fails to evoke sympathy or ethos despite playing a bit of a loser (again contrary to the tough and overbearing Duryodhan of Mahabharata). Sushma Seth is given too much to do, and is unconvincing in many of the scenes. Supriya Pathak irritates as the young bride of Bharatraj who has nothing to do in the world except listening to a formulaic Bappi Lahiri’ish’ love song. The only actor who actually does well is Shashi Kapoor, who is convincing as the angst ridden Karan Singh. He gets the meatiest part and does a good job of it.
It is not that there is nothing to appreciate in the movie. The idea of retelling Mahabharata in the corporate world itself deserves kudos. Some of the references to the epic are done really well. For instance the death of Karan while he is changing the wheel of his car is striking. Similarly at the end how Parikshit (a kid) emerges as the only heir to the entire set-up highlights the futility of the war between the cousins. Apart from these few well thought of references, the entire corporate set-up is done realistically. The fight for a Government contract, the intricacies of law, the dissatisfied union, the import of raw materials etc. is shown in an authentic manner (though in a certain sense it reminds of the Trishul corporate conflict). The first hour is quite fast paced and engaging.
Parting Note: All said and done, Kalyug is in no ways a perfect modern-day interpretation of the Mahabharata. It suffers from the similar flaws as Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti (a far more entertaining film). However, for the people who are aware of the epic saga, this movie is a good watch if only for the effort it makes.