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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Utsav (1984) – festive entertainment!

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


  1. i have to say i always looked down upon this for some reason, i always thought maybe one needed background knowledge of the sanskrit plays to enjoy it fully

  2. I saw bits and pieces of this one a long long time back. Your post has definitely whetted my appetite :)

  3. I was a kid when Utsav was released, so of course my parent - like good Indian parents - wouldn't allow me to watch it. And, strangely enough, I've never managed to watch even once when it's been shown on TV. But this sounds right up my street - historical, with a hint (more?) of crime, and with a character called Madhulika, to boot!! :-)

  4. Love every bit of your review. I'm w/ Dustedoff here- wasn't allowed to watch it when it came out by the 'rents, and have been able to watch only parts of it since. Shekhar Kaur was indeed a travesty here- the only flaw in what would have been a better film without him.

  5. bollywooddeewana, I know nothing about Sanskrit drama, and I certainly enjoyed this and Shantaram's adaptation of Kalidasa's Abhigyaan Shakuntalam (Stree). So give it a try.

    Sharmi, I saw only bits and pieces of it in India, too! I still wouldn't have tried it if it weren't for the fact that it was one of the few Hindi titles that showed up in my public library in Ottawa a few years ago - naturally it was my duty to watch any Hindi movie from such a source! ;D

    dustedoff, it IS absolutely up your street! Do watch it. I don't think it played on DD in the 80s, because I would've watched it then (no censorship in my home). Perhaps DD thought it was too risque, too.

    Shweta, you should make up for lost time. Go get it ASAP. And be prepared to find that you cannot recognise Shashi Kapoor through all those layers of hair and fat!

  6. Woohoo! I love this movie too. My sister had the original play as readings in her Sanskrit class. I heard the story but didn't know what I was missing until I saw the movie.

    The care in all the details (as noted in the review) is what makes this movie so delightful. I think all Girish Karnad's movies are detail-oriented, but this one has a bonus of having the type of ending I like (unlike Cheluvi).

    Although Charudatta is supposed to be ordinary according to the play, Shekar Suman is blah among all the strong actors in the movie.

  7. If they'd had this sort of thing in my Sanskrit class, I might have paid some attention too. Instead they had us memorising dhaatu roop (I'm not even sure what they are!) that I could not make heads or tails of.

    "Charudatta is supposed to be ordinary according to the play" Poor Vasantsena does not get to fall for somebody interesting, even in the play? :(

    I've never seen anything else directed by Karnad! He doesn't seem to have directed much, if imdb is to be believed. Tell me about Cheluvi. Did it have a sad ending? Poor Vasantsena does not get a happy ending here...

  8. @bollyviewer

    Cheluvi was originally in Kannada but dubbed into Hindi I think. I saw it with subtitles.

    It is a story of a poor flower girl who is blessed by a holy-man with magical powers to turn into a tree that gives beautiful flowers. Her secret gets out and some selfish girls try to destroy the tree. So, she is left as half-tree half-human. It is supposed to be metaphoric to our destruction of Earth (or something like that). What I like about it is the attention to detail and the relationships portrayed. It ends with her husband taking tree-girl on a journey in search of holy-man to reverse her state.

    Re: Utsav, I think Vasantasena is more interested in talent than other trappings of fame, money, and heroism. She is a 'nagara vadhu' and supposed to get her pick of men. I guess she was bored with pompous high-status men.

  9. Very informative review! I had also seen the movie in my childhood and vaguely remember it as a not so pleasant movie. But I am now definitely interested and will try to find it.

  10. Lovely review- I enjoyed the screencaps! They echo what I noticed when I browsed through the film deciding if I wanted to watch it or not, that of the warm color tones and feel of the sets/cinematography. I also suspected it to be a very sensual film, which your review confirmed. I think I will have to give this one a watch! Rekha looks stunning...

  11. Very nice review. I love the songs and listen to them often (like yesterday). Ditto with costumes. In 1984 I thought Nina Gupta was daring. I visited India in 1984 and my aunt was doing the premiere of this movie so I was delegated to be the usher. The movie is on youtube for those interested.

  12. Violet, Cheluvi sounds very interesting. I must try to find it.

    As to Vasantsena's taste in men, I would've expected Charudatta to have something attractive about him - not necessarily good looks - an interesting personality or some talents. He is supposed to be a talented singer here, but he gets to lip-sync to Suresh Wadekar whom I'd put in the same class as Shekhar Suman in the charisma and magnetism department!

    Ruchi, childhood memories cannot always be trusted. I remember Junoon as being very dark and threatening, too, and it turned out to be a beautiful film! Utsav is pretty dark (at least in the beginning), but that is because a lot of the action takes place at night, not because it is dark and depressing.

    MinaiMinai, thank you! Please do watch it. Rekha is very, very good in it, and the film itself has so many layers and plot twists that there is no time for your attention to wander!

    Sophy, lucky you! That must've been some premiere!!! Where was it - Bombay or Delhi? Do you remember anything about the premiere?

  13. BV--The premiere was in Delhi--for charity. I remember quite a few things but see I wasn't into Bollywood then so I remember all the wrong things. I was nonchalant about Shashi so you can see the extent of my cluelessness. But yeah, Rekha and Shashi were there.
    (My aunt also did a Mother India showing in the 70s and many others-I only remember Sunil Dutt who I love these days--but did not then.).

    One more thing, I guess I am in the minority but I remember really liking Charudutt. It's because of the bansuri. Later I liked Bharat Bhushan for pretty much the same reason--music/poet type. These days I kowtow to mainstream ideas of hunkiness or maybe it is that Dharam is so dreamy our dreams morph into his exquisite being.

  14. In this era of blog ,we easily get nice & updated information for research purposes... I'd definitely appreciate the work of the said blog owner... Thanks!

  15. For some reason I have always stayed away from Utsav but the more I hear about it with such conviction, the more I tempted to watch it - what other films has the director made and why is that Rekha seems to have been written out of discussions of women in Hindi cinema or am I wrong?

  16. Sophy, Charudutt wasn't completely deficient in the looks department - he just had zero charisma. It didn't help that Rekha was reeking of it! Bharat Bhushan isn't a favorite of mine, but I don't dislike him either. After all, in the right context, the right kind of sensitive poetic types do have their place in cinema - like Garam Dharam in Anupama! :D

    Dissertation, you're welcome.

    Omar, the director - Girish Karnad - does not seem to have made many films. Commenter Violet has mentioned Cheluvi in her comments above. Its a Kannada film he directed and it sounds pretty interesting.

    I don't think that Rekha has been written out of discussions of women in Hindi cinema, although she does seem to be relegated to the box labeled Diva! I think she is much more than that in the wide range of roles she did and how much she brought to the table in terms of performance skills. But Diva seems to be her footnote in Hindi film history.

  17. I really liked this movie, though I was really wary of a hindi movie version of the clay cart. During its release I read each and every article, I could lay my hands on. For the same reasons like dustedoff, couldn't see the movie in a cinema hall. And even after buying the VCD I needed nearly one year to get over my reservations. But with Girish Karnad at the helm, they were unfounded. The ads during those times in the newspapers of Bombay read 'Come and watch Vatsyayana's Kamasutra with Rekha' or something steamy on those lines. And I was wondering all the time, what has Vatsyayana's Kamasutra to do with 'the clay cart'.

    My watching Utsav fell in the time when I was reading Wendy Doniger's The Hindus (a great book). Therein describing the lesbian activity in royal harems in Kamasutra, she write 'the commentary makes this explicit, and also helpfully suggests the particular vegetables that one might use: “By imagining a man, they experience a heightened emotion gives extreme satisfaction. These things have a form just like the male sexual organ: the bulbs of arrowroot, plantain, and so forth; the roots of coconut palms, breadfruit, and so forth; and the fruits of the bottle-gourd, cucumber, and so forth (5.6.2).” One can imagine little gardens of plantain and cucumber being tenderly cultivated within the inner courtyards of the palace.' (p. 3333-334 chap. Escape Clauses in the Shastras)
    As I read the above line the song 'man kyu behka ri behka' came into my mind, particularly the last part where they are tending the vegetable garden.

    A memorable film!!!

  18. harvey, back in the 80s I had a children's book named Vasantsena which I really liked. The story had an unmarried Charudatta falling for Vasantsena in the same circumstances as in the film, but the two get married (to live happily ever after - one assumes) at the end. When I heard that Utsav was based on my favorite story, I was very excited, but the moment I realised Charudatta had a wife in the film, I lost all interest... :D Just as well, since this isn't the sort of film that would appeal to a kid!

    And that seems like pretty innovative use of vegetables - though I am amazed that they were able to eat them too!

  19. the book, which Iread must have been the same as yours. it was the kiddy version!
    hard-boiled as i was from hindi films, the fact that charudutta was married, though shocked, didn't put me really off. i was too much of a Gupta period fan for that.

    As for the vegetables, i presume, that they didn't recycle them! ;-)
    cut and sliced, the vegetables look quite different, thus they could still have appetite for the food.
    sex and food go quite so often together, that this must have been a step more in the 'god knows what' direction.

  20. harvey, sounds like your love of Bollywood overcame your sense of romantic conventions! Single man + Single Woman = Romance; Married Man + Single woman = tragedy (usually for the woman).

  21. I see, we don't share the same romantic conventions! ;-)
    AND I love tragedy. IMHO love stories with happy endings have a tragic end! ;-)
    high time they started making at least (single) man + (single) man = romance films or for that matter (single) woman + (single) woman = romance films!

  22. "high time they started making at least (single) man + (single) man = romance films"

    Just pick up any 70s masala film with buddies in it. The female love interest was usually there just for show while the men tripped along holding hands and singing duets of eternal love! ;D

  23. How about your DVD? Mine was from Eagle and it was one of the worst Hindi movie DVDs i ever had. Many scenes were half-destroyed by blue strings and wires across the screen, especially all the dark scenes. It seriously limited the fun, because i believe there are great visuals to be had in Utsav (and i adore La Rekha).

  24. Another gem of a movie is Anubhav. Again shekhar suman. And if you understand Kannada, watch the Kannada version..... innocent, minimalist dialogues
    and terrific humor.