Thursday, December 04, 2014

Connecting dots (and being underwhelmed by Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug)

Usually, when adapting a book into a film, the scriptwriters don’t take it for granted that their viewers have read the source text; the movie should work on its own terms. But it gets trickier when a film tries to do new things with the template of a very well-known tale and a degree of familiarity is presumed. I enjoyed Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation Haider when I saw it two months ago, but since then I have wondered how I would have felt if I had watched it knowing nothing about Shakespeare’s play. Because the thrill of connecting the dots was central to my viewing experience – noting how Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer had turned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into buffoons who idolise Salman Khan, or anticipating the famous grave-digger scene, complete with the “Aha!” moment where Haider holds up a skull, and the goofy little song (“So Jao” – a take on the recurring links between sleep and death in Hamlet?) that would probably have delighted Shakespeare’s own, plebeian heart.

Would the descent into madness of Haider’s girlfriend Arshia have been credible if one weren’t prepared for it by knowledge of Ophelia’s tragedy? Possibly not: the film is cantering along at this stage, and the abrupt cut to the scene where Haider sees Arshia’s funeral procession might puzzle an unprepared viewer – I remember a few murmurings in the hall – especially since being reduced so quickly to a nervous wreck doesn’t seem consistent with Arshia’s personality (unlike the sheltered Ophelia, she is a journalist working in Kashmir, accustomed to seeing bad things happening).


To some extent the question “How important is pre-knowledge?” applies to all of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations (even if the answer to the question is unclear or variable). The first and still arguably the best of them, Maqbool (Macbeth), began with a brilliantly atmospheric scene where two crooked cops gossip about the Bombay underworld and use astrology to predict a gangster’s rise and fall. The scene works well by itself, but gains a new dimension once you realise these are versions of Shakespeare’s witches, commenting from the sidelines while also helping to engineer and direct events. And who can forget Maqbool’s pitiful “Main bachunga ya maroonga?” followed by the witch/cop’s reassurance that he is safe until the “dariya” comes right up to his house, a Birnam Wood drifting to Dunsinane.

Anyway, what started me on this "adapting an over-familiar tale" subject was a recent re-encounter with Shyam Benegal’s 1981 film Kalyug, a modern-day Mahabharata about a business family split into rival factions. I loved Kalyug when I was 10 (back then it was the only Benegal film I would have touched with a long spoon, much less forced my mother to take me to Palika Bazaar to find a video-cassette of, as I did)... or at least I thought I loved it. Possibly what really stimulated me was the Mahabharata dot-connecting game (then as now, I was obsessed with the epic), and especially seeing my hero Karna sympathetically portrayed by the film’s biggest star (and producer) Shashi Kapoor.

Watching it again now, I was disappointed. It is enjoyable in bits and pieces certainly – the cast is full of interesting people, and the plot is busy enough: the cousins keep raising the stakes passive-aggressively until things get out of control; Amrish Puri plays a Krishna who doesn’t have anything like the agency and influence of the charioteer-God; Kulbhushan Kharbanda is an amusingly priapic Bheema; Rekha and Raj Babbar sleep in separate beds and look unhappy; the smooth Victor Banerjee looks as if he would be perfectly happy sleeping alone forever; Supriya Pathak is sexy. But these elements don’t add up to very much. The film shifts between big-canvas cynicism – with its caution about how, in the machine age, everyone sinks morally into quicksand – and trying to evoke sympathy specifically for one character, the underdog Karan (using Shashi Kapoor’s personality and star-cachet to achieve this without a great deal of help from the actual writing). There is a neither-here-nor-there feel to the whole, which is a reminder of the film’s unusual conception: getting a Serious Director to helm a project that would be backed by money and a cast of well-known names from the mainstream, but would also have the sort of verisimilitude that can be created by Om Puri seething and shaking his fists in a small part as a trade-union rabble-rouser.

Take away the Mahabharata-awareness and this is a confused story with too many characters, most of whom are underdeveloped and don’t get enough screen time. There are tensions and meaningful silences that don’t seem to stem from anything – except, well, as a viewer you are simply supposed to know that Karna was rejected by Draupadi at her swayamvara, or that Yudhisthira is a bit of a non-entity who is over-fond of gambling, or that Abhimanyu may simply have been an overenthusiastic kid who got too involved in adult games. And those who don’t know all this are naturally foxed. A non-Indian friend, who loves old Hindi movies but hasn’t read
Vyasa’s epic, had this take on Kalyug: she felt it played like a sort of home video where a viewer has all the relevant information beforehand about the people, and then indolently watches their little dramas play out. Interestingly, in the film itself, there’s a scene where the characters sit together watching a video of themselves at a wedding function. Vanraj Bhatia’s stirring music score aside, I’m not sure that Kalyug on the whole is much more interesting than that footage.

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Update: a follow-up conversation with my erudite friend/fellow Mahabharata nut Karthika Nair helped me articulate another reason why Kalyug didn't work for me this time: the best Benegal films, including the ones that are more "art-house", like Suraj ka Saatvan Ghoda or Mammo, are very far from the art-cinema cliche of the "boring", "educative" movie; they are kinetic and have a sense of style, they do interesting things visually (look at Nihalani's cinematography in Bhumika, and how it uses four  different types of film stock to capture different periods in the protagonist Usha's life). Whereas this film, for all its glamorous, "commercial" trappings, is formally static, and content to rest on the Mahabharata references.

[Two old posts about Benegal films I like very much: Trikaal and Charandas Chor. And this one on Junoon, written back when I was trying to sound more knowledgeable about Benegal than I actually was, and which I should probably watch again some time]

9 comments:

  1. Very interesting topic. I felt the same while watching Kalyug the second time (when I was older) and had fun connection the dots.
    I had completely opposite experience while watching Nihlani's Party. It is one of my all time favourites but it was much later, when I was reading War and Peace, that I realized striking similarities between Party and initial scene of the book. Many parallel characters can be identified.
    Have not read Elkunchwar's play so don't know how much that differs.

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    1. Wow, I really should read War and Peace - at least the initial bits.
      The film follows Elkunchwar's play quite closely, from what I remember - maybe a couple of characters taken out, or combined into a single new character. Should read the play again.

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    2. The party starts right in the second chapter. Would love to hear your comments on it.
      Will also try to get hold of the play and see how all three compare.

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    3. Glanced through War and Peace and this time my impression is slightly different. I could identify 3 or 4 main characters that have strong resemblance. Few others seem to have shades of it. So I'd say the movie has borrowed the concept of party and few characters. Rest everything is Elkunchwar's.

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  2. The character description made me chuckle, especially "the smooth Victor Banerjee looks as if he would be perfectly happy sleeping alone forever." And loved "touched with a long spoon"; somehow goes very well with a 10-year-old boy!

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    1. Ha, yes, I was about to go with the usual "barge pole", then realised I had no real idea what a barge pole is. Plus, for me, watching Benegal's cinema pretty much meant dining with the devil back then...

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  3. The movie itself didn't make much of an impact, as I saw a really bad print on VCD about a decade ago. Lots of missing scenes as well.

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  4. Quite interesting that you have had exactly the opposite response :) Having enjoyed both of VB's previous shakespeare adaptations without being totally aware of the original plot, I attempted to watch Haider after reading Hamlet and found that the experience was worse. Partly because the anticipation of seeing how those original elements would be translated made it seem, as you put it, more of a connecting the dots experience. Essentially it no longer seemed fresh even on a first time watch.

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    1. Oh yes, no hard and fast rules about how one reacts to these situations - and one can quite easily feel differently at different ages, as I did with Kalyug.

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