I was going to skip this one, but then people in the comments said it was not to be missed, so I gave it a shot! I’m glad I did. It isn’t my favorite-favorite, or one that exactly hit the sweet spot of what I like, but it was definitely interesting and different. And it got me thinking about the Mahabharata and how Indian film acting builds on a classical tradition, which is always a good time!
The opening credits, and my DVD box, trumpet that this is a French and Indian co-production, and that is how it felt while I was watching it as well. This is definitely a movie for the European market, although still recognizably Indian in form. What I mean by “for the European Market”, is that it removes the fantasy song sequences, uses realistic acting, is dialogue heavy, and the mise-en-scene is more “realistic” than just flat out beautiful. And most importantly, it makes no references, explicit or implicit, to the greater history of Indian film. Self-referentiality is arguably the defining trait of Indian film. But on the other hand, it still uses the side stories and building of multiple relationships and personalities around the main characters which is another trademark of Indian film, and the biggest Indian touch, it uses Hindu mythology as its backbone, in some ways allowing the mythology to replace film history as a common touchstone.
Since it is Malayalam, a film industry I am still getting familiar with, I think some of the things that I think of as “European”, might be more common in that industry? The few films I have seen seem to have a more natural acting style, more complex dialogue (probably because there is an assumption that most audience members will be fluent in the language spoken, a luxury not afforded to the Hindi industry), and more “realistic” costumes, make-up, and locations. I’m not sure if that last is an artistic decision or an economic one, but either way it does appear to be a standard part of film-making in Kerala. But on the other hand, the few films I have seen have still included elaborate song sequences and plenty of references to other films and pop culture in general, as well as the occasional off the wall fantasy or comedy sequence, none of which was included in this one.
The biggest difference is, this was definitely a film I had to pay attention to. Usually with Indian films, I can kind of zone in and out and still pick up what is happening, because they are structured in a very circular and yet also episodic way. In this, it was a series of small episodes, but they each built on each other and I needed to watch closely to find the connections. And it was definitely not circular, all of the characters move forward through each episode, so if I miss something, they won’t be coming back to it.
As for the rest of it, I had wikipedia open the whole time, because there were all these references to Kathakali dance and the Mahabharata and Kerala culture and history, and I was completely lost! I’ll have to come back to it once all that knowledge is more integrated within me so I don’t have to keep pausing and getting out of the film just to read up in another source and understand what just happened. But all of that reading and learning made me think a lot about the underpinnings of Indian film in general, which is my favorite thing to think about!
First, the Mahabharata story they keep returning to is the marriage of Subhadra and Arjun. I knew this story in a general way (thank you Amar Chitra Katha comics!), but had never really thought much about it. However, thanks to this film, I did. And it is so filmi! The specific story of a woman falling in love with a man through reputation to the point that she is ready to marry him comes up in Anamika, Aaina, and many other films that do not start with “A”. And then the other part of it, our hero going against society to kidnap a woman, but doing it with the blessing of her brother (Subhadra’s brother Krishna in the original) so it isn’t against the family, comes up to some degree in Hero (the original, I still haven’t seen the remake so I don’t know if they kept that part), and it comes up in a big way in Koyla.
Actually, all of Koyla is Subhadra and Arjun! I’ve always found that film fascinating for the way it re-interprets the husband-wife relationship as something that is created through the wife’s worship, not by the husband’s choice. But once I started thinking about it as a Subhadra-Arjun story, everything else fell into place. Shahrukh (Arjun) is somewhat reluctant to marry her, until her brother forces his hand. She is completely devoted to “Arjun” based purely on a picture, to the point that she feels already married to him. The escape together, and in some ways it appears that he has “kidnapped” her, but in reality it is more complex.
I always attributed the woman falling in love from a distance plots more to the Parvati and Shiva story, and some of them are definitely more in that direction (Dips in the second half of Om Shanti Om, for instance), but many of them fit Subhadra and Arjun a lot better. And I always thought of the kidnapping romances as just a kidnapping romance and nothing more. Kidnapping a bride or an unmarried woman with or without her permission is a consistent narrative in most cultures. But once I started to think about how often that comes in Indian films with the added touch of the brother agreeing while the parents/society still disapprove, the parallels all fell into place.
Learning about Kathakali was also an eye-opener. My first and biggest connection to it, was just from the brief glimpse in the song from Chennai Express, where it is all mixed in with elephants and lungis and tiger dancers and other stuff. But, reading the full wiki article, it definitely connected to traditional Indian film acting!
I already knew that Rasa theory underlines all of Indian film. But I hadn’t thought before about how it ties in to set expressions and gestures, as used in Kathakali. Because those series of set expressions and clear gestures is also how most traditional Indian film acting works. It is more noticeable with actresses, especially trained dancer actresses like Sridevi or Madhuri, but actors do it as well. It is easy to describe an actor’s performance in a scene just through shorthand like “dimple-frown-raise eyebrow-half smile-head tilt”. I’m not saying this is bad acting, actually it works great for a film industry in which much of the audience may not be fluent in the language spoken, and in which Stars are so well recognized, that their standard mannerisms become a familiar shorthand (think Shammi’s “surprised and intrigued” head tilt, or Rajesh Khanna’s “charmed and touched” hand wave).
At some point in Vanaprastham, someone describes Mohan Lal’s character’s Kathakali performance as managing to add depth without going off the set gestures. That’s what the best traditional Indian film actors do, they use their set gestures and facial expressions that the audience can easily recognize, but make subtle alterations and personal touches for individual characters or scenes. And the proof that this is just an acting style, not an acting limitation, is that the best actors can drop their mannerisms entirely depending on the film. For instance, Mohan Lal in this! The actor I had seen in Adiverukal was completely gone, it was all just very simple and gentle expressions and gestures, nothing formulaic about it.