I usually shy away from writing about films that I like a LOT because I find myself gushing about everything I liked in them! This is one such film. I like everything about it - the story, the acting, the costumes, the sets, the actors, everything! But it’s Rekhatober, and I was determined to write about at least one film that was a worthy showcase of her talents. This film not only showcases her skilful performance, it’s a very satisfying film on the entertainment and aesthetic counts as well. (I warned you... I WILL gush!)
The film is based on two classical Sanskrit plays - Bhāsa’s Charudatta, written about 1700 years ago, and adapted by Śudraka a century later into Mricchakatika. The Sutradhaar* (Amjad Khan) introduces the various characters in this complex narrative, and then takes the stage as Rishi Vātsyāyana, author of the Kamasutra. Here’s the tale he tells...
The spring festival (Vasanta Utsav) is near and our fictional town is teeming with activity, even at night. The beautiful courtesan Vasantsena (Rekha) is fleeing from the importunate Samsthanak (Shashi Kapoor), the King’s brother-in-law. Revolutionary Aaryak (Kunal Kapoor) and his nameless political adviser (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) are roaming the streets, plotting a revolution against the cruel King Paalak. The masseur, Teli (Annu Kapoor), is busy gambling and losing money he does not have. Thief Sajjal (Shankar Nag) is paying a call on his beloved Madhulika (Neena Gupta). And in the impoverished Brahmin Charudatta’s (Shekhar Suman) house, his friend Maitrey (Harish Patel) is bemoaning their mutual lack of funds.
Charudatta’s wife and child are away at her parents’ place and he is urging Maitrey to take the servant girl Radha (Gopi Desai) there, since his wife cannot cope without a servant. After much grumbling, Maitrey agrees. Maitrey and Radha leave the house just as Vasantsena runs into their street. She hides in the dark nook of Charudatta’s house and the pursuing Samsthanak jumps on poor Radha, mistaking her for Vasantsena in the dark. Radha’s screams attract the attention of Aaryak who fells Samsthanak with a well-placed right hook. Radha and Maitrey depart for their destination and a discomfited Samsthanak hobbles away with his psychophant (Anupam Kher).
Oblivious to all this drama close to his house, Charudatta is busy playing his flute. And just as Vasantsena decides to leave, he breaks into a song that holds her transfixed. The song exercises such a strong pull on her that she walks straight into the house. Charudatta hears her step and assumes that Radha has returned. He orders “Radha” to bring his shawl and when “Radha” drapes the shawl around his shoulders, he realises his error. One look at Vasantsena in all her glorious beauty and Charudatta is reduced to,“Me Charudatta, you beautiful.” Vasantsena is also powerfully affected, but manages to explain her predicament.
The threat of Samsthanak safely past, Vasantsena needs to return home. She reluctantly takes her leave, and then remembers that it’s not safe to wander alone at night with all her gold jewellery on. So naturally, she turns back to leave her jewels with Charudatta for safe-keeping. Her complex jewellery requires complicated manoeuvres to get off her person. It necessitates lying down to untangle her chains, and a great deal of kissing and cuddling, too! (No we do NOT see the kissing! :D)
The night past, the scene shifts to the house of pleasure where Vasantsena resides with her fellow courtesans and their “Maa”. Vatsyayana is holding forth on the philosophy of sex and pleasure, and answering questions from the courtesans. He comes there to research the various asana/mudra* for his Kama Sutra, and explains to the interested courtesans that he’s stuck on the 28th asana. His disciple interrupts the learned discourse and urgently summons him upstairs to peep into one of the house’s pleasure chambers. And lo! Vatsyayana has discovered the 29th asana.
Just outside the house, Teli is unsuccessfully trying to sell himself to pay his gambling debts. He is saved by Aaryak’s friend - the nameless political adviser whom we’ll refer to as AF (Aaryak’s friend). AF engages Teli’s creditors in a fight while he escapes. They meet behind the house and AF requests Teli to help the revolutionaries. Teli is a royal masseuse and can help the revolutionaries enter the palace to stage a coup. But Teli does not want to be drafted in an army! To escape, he climbs the house and hides under a bed. He hears Maa berate Vasantsena for neglecting rich Samsthanak and smiling on the the impoverished Charudatta. When Teli is discovered soon after, to avoid being thrown out, he blurts out that he is Charudatta’s servant. He explains that he is hiding to escape his creditors. Vasantsena immediately comes to his rescue! He is asked to rest, while Vasantsena’s maid, Madhulika (Neena Gupta), goes out and pays off his debts. Overcome by gratitude, he confesses to Vasantsena that he doesn’t know Charudatta from Adam, and then sets out to renounce the world!
While Vasantsena is lost in dreams of her Charudatta, his wife Aditi (Anuradha Patel) and child Rohit (Master Manjunath) return home. Charudatta is hard-pressed to hide the signs of Vasantsena’s nocturnal visit - her jewels are still lying at his home! He avoids detection, thanks to a distraction outside the house. But it’s only a short reprieve. Thief Sajjal is out to steal a fortune so he can can buy his Madhulika from Vasantsena. He fetches up at Charudatta’s home, and finds his fortune in the bundle of Vasantsena’s jewels that he gets from a sleepy Maitrey. When Maitrey discovers the theft, he inadvertently lets slip the secret about Vasantsena’s sojourn in the house. An angry Aditi ups and leaves home.
A triumphant Sajjal takes the jewels to Madhulika, boasting that he can buy a dozen Madhulikas with all this gold. Madhulika recognises the jewels and is terrified that they’ll both be convicted of theft. To avoid jail, she suggests that he pretend to be Charudatta’s servant and return the jewels to Vasantsena. One of the house servants overhears their conversation and let’s Vasantsena know. So, when she is given the jewels by the latest in the series of "Charudatta’s servants", she rewards him by gifting him Madhulika. The jubilant couple leave to get married and start living happily-ever-after, but their joyous plans are interrupted by AF. He wants Sajjal to get into the palace and free Aaryak who was captured by the King’s soldiers after a street-fight. Only an experienced thief could break through the royal door-locks. Sajjal isn’t too keen, but AF entices him by suggesting that his help will ensure Sajjal an immortal place in history. So Madhulika, and their marriage plans, are temporarily abandoned, while he goes about earning his place in history.
We’ll let Sajjal earn his immortality, and go back to the big romance. Before leaving, Aditi had handed her last valuable jewel - a necklace - to Maitrey. He was to hand it over to Vasantsena in lieu of her stolen jewels. So Maitrey comes to Vasantsena with the necklace and news of the theft. Vasantsena grasps the most important point of Maitrey’s speech - that Charudatta is alone at home. Off she goes to meet him! While Charudatta and Vasantsena rekindle their romance in his budoir, Samsthanak is planning to finally start his romance with her. Vasansena’s “Maa” advises him to woo the lady, rather than pursue her with harsh demands. She tells him to send a covered wagon for Vasantsena on the morrow, and wait in the park for her.
Blissfully unaware of her projected romance with Samsthanak, Vasantsena prepares to leave Charudatta’s house for her own. It’s Vasant Utsav, and she has things to do. But Charudatta won’t have it. They will get away from the festivities in the city and hide in the park all day. He goes off to the park, promising to send a covered wagon to convey her there after him. The moment he leaves, Aditi returns. It turns out that she was not really offended by Charudatta’s infidelity. She is, in fact, quite proud of having a husband who can attract a beauty like Vasantsena! The two women bond over jewellery and breakfast, unaware of the troubles waiting for them, just around the corner.
Charudatta sends his covered wagon, but in the confusion of the festivities, Vasantsena boards Samsthanak’s wagon by mistake. She makes it to the park, and instead of her beloved Charudatta, finds Samsthanak waiting for her! In terror, she turns to flee, calling out to Charudatta to save her. Sadly for her, her lover is too lost in his dreams (of her!) to hear her cries. Samsthanak catches up with her, and in a jealous rage, strangles her. Charudatta finally does come upon the scene - attracted by Samsthanak’s loud weeping over Vasantsena’s death. Samsthanak promptly orders his arrest, claiming that Charudatta is responsible for Vasantsena’s death! And before we know it, poor Charudatta is sentenced to death by beheading.
What will happen to poor Aditi? Will she be left alone with Rohit? Will Aaryak finally manage his revolution? Will Vatsyayana chalk up any new asanas in his favorite house of pleasure? How is Teli’s grand renunciation working out? And do we even care what happens to the loutish Samsthanak? It’s a wonderfully complex story with all the threads intertwined into an intricately layered narrative. And you can see where modern masala films get their inspiration from. Classical Sanskrit drama seems to run the gamut of every possible emotion - from romance and humor, wickedness and melodrama to tragedy and joy, even singing-n-dancing and dishoom-dishoom!
Now let me list some of things I love about this film... A lot of effort is expended on adding appropriate period touches - from the costumes and sets inspired by medieval Hindu temples, to small things like the gaily-coloured ox-drawn wagons and the quaint little lamp-lanterns used to light the way. The dialogues are beautifully written in very simple, but completely Sanskritised Hindi - not a word that could’ve been derived from Persian/Arabic. The fights are beautifully choreographed and play out like a martial ballet!
Rekha is superb as the lovely Vasantsena. The camera tends to focus a lot on her face and catches every subtle nuance of Vasantsena’s expression - her fear of Samsthanak, her love and desire for Charudatta, her yearning for a child like Rohit, and her deep hurt at the realisation that she does not really belong with Charudatta and Aditi, no matter how welcoming they may be. The actors are all, in fact, wonderfully understated - quite an achievement considering all the melodrama involved in the tale! My favourite was Amjad Khan as Vatsyayana of the twinkling eyes and 'academic' interest in sexual positions.
I have only one bone to pick with the film - I wish they’d got a more charismatic actor to play Charudatta. Shekhar Suman turns in a very good performance, but he looks painfully raw and it’s a bit hard to imagine that the lovely Vasantsena is attracted to him! That minor nit-pick apart, I love this film (you wouldn’t have guessed that!) - every single minute of it! Why aren’t there more such films?
*sutradhaar - literally ‘holder of all the narrative threads/strings’ and in classical Sanskrit drama, the narrator and director of the play.
*asana/mudra - body positions, in this case, sexual ones
*asana/mudra - body positions, in this case, sexual ones