I got this DVD from Netflix and watched it a while back, and much of it went over my head. But what I could appreciate was the cool things it was doing with story structure and visuals. So that at least I can talk about!
From what I can tell from The Internet, this is a variation on a known story. So the ending, which surprised me, should have been known by the viewer. But the beginning and middle parts, which did not surprise me, should have been unknown. Very confusing!
It’s also kind of a nesting doll of a story. You know Cloud Atlas? Like most people in the world, I didn’t actual watch it. But I read discussions of how it did what it did and why it did what it did and how it failed or succeeded compared to the book and so on and so on.
(I also read a lot of discussions of race-bending/yellow face, but I am not going to get into that yet)
What I heard was that the book has a fascinating structure, in which a character reads a story about a character reading a story about a character reading a story. Each narrative gets to a halfway point and then pauses for the story-within-a-story. Until finally the middle tale goes straight through to the end, at which point we return to the character reading that story and follow him through to his conclusion, and then pull out to watch the character reading that story and so on and so on until we finally conclude the last story. And then what I also heard was that the film isn’t quite able to capture the same narrative style. And this is a movie by the Wachowskis! Makers of The Matrix, masters of narrative bending. But they couldn’t handle the idea of easily conveying a complex story within a story, something which can sometimes be so simple on the page, but so hard onscreen.
And here is a Telugu movie from 1957 which did it handily! We go from a legend to a storyteller telling the legend to new characters seemingly unrelated to the legend, and then we end with a vision of the temple where this story is repeated and the items related to it worshiped. And it all feels seamless!
Not to mention jumping between the land of miracles and Gods in the opening, to social drama in the middle, and then to a new level showing an interaction between the two for the ending. And making it all feel naturally! I am just super impressed with the structure.
I want to quickly break it down point by point, which means SPOILERS, I guess? Even though it’s a legend which a lot of people might know already? So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We open with a story about, if I am remembering correctly, Indra being cursed by Shiva (or Krishna?) to be a stone until he is touched by someone pure of heart, or something like that. I was confused at this point, trying to figure out how it would relate back to the plot description I had read elsewhere, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.
We see this all happening, and then suddenly we cut to a Priest/storyteller telling this story to a rapt audience at what looks like it might be a temple. It’s very similar to what Mirzya was trying to do and was only semi-successful at.
And then the Priest/storyteller suddenly changes his story to tell of a chaste couple with a wild son. This is where it feels like we are watching a standard social drama, just like Devdas or Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam or any of those where the problems of a representative family reflect the problems of society.
The son, NTR (hey! I saw his grandson in Yamadonga!), is a flirt who is recently enraptured by a newly arrived dancing girl. There is a whole fascinating dynamic between himself, the dancer, her pimp, and her servant. The servant is encouraging the dancer to view their relationship in a more romantic light, and the pimp is doing the same to NTR. But over the course of the film, this glamour of romance is peeled away until we see that the pimp is heartlessly using both NTR and the dancer in order to suck as much money out of him as possible.
His parents, a pious couple, are distressed by NTR’s actions. They decide the solution is to send for his wife. I was just talking about this in one of my Monday Morning question posts, how in the olden days there would be childhood “marriages” which were really more like childhood binding agreements to marry. The kids wouldn’t live together until they were both fully grown, and there would be a whole second series of parties and events to mark the moment that the bride “came home”. We see that here, a beautiful young woman arrives, dressed in jewels, to be welcomed to her home and to have her special “nuptial night” with NTR, who has never met her before.
Again, we could have a whole other movie just with this part. How he flirts with his pretty bride, just like he does with the dancing girls, and how she gives back as good as she gets. How he is taken with her, just as his parents predicted, and forgets his dancing girl. And it is only when the pimp comes to him and tries to sell him a story of “love”, how his girlfriend is pining away for him, that he goes back to her.
So, we have the idea of love versus marriage, that there can never be love in marriage. We have the idea of a child marriage and an adult meeting. We have the idea of generational difference, with NTR being luxurious and shallow and his parents being humble and self-sacrificing. All of this is well within the bounds of the social dramas of the time.
(Very similar to this, from the Hindi industry just 5 years later)
And it continues for quite a while on this social drama tack. NTR steals some of his wife’s jewelry to give a gift to his lover. She finds out, and blames her in-laws, throwing them out of the house. And she herself leaves her husband, returning to her parental home, once she discovers that all her jewelry has been taken. Again, fascinating ideas here, the idea that the daughter-in-law is the keeper of the family “wealth”, in her jewelry, but at the same time has no power to protect it. Just as she is the keeper of the family honor within herself, but has no ability to defend it if, for instance, her husband is unfaithful and her in-laws refuse to punish him.
His wife returns to her family home, only to be taught the lesson that there is nothing worse than leaving your husband, it always always always means that it is your fault. She has brought shame to her family, she has no future, she has committed a sin. This is the same lesson we still see today, marriage above all, and it is ALWAYS the wife who must bend and accommodate. And it is ALWAYS the fault of her failure to do so if the marriage founders.
Although, on the other hand, while the woman is blamed for everything bad that happens, it is her husband who suffers more once she is gone, taking all of the “luck” of the household with her. Not just in this movie, but in all movies. NTR has now given all his wealth to his dancer. And in order to get out that last little bit of money out of him, the pimp shows his true colors, attacking both NTR and his dancer, and throwing them both out. Don’t know what happens to the dancer, but NTR ends up wandering the forest.
Which is when suddenly we leave the realm of the social drama and return to the religious. NTR flirts with a group of beautiful women, who turn out to be nymphs serving a sage in the forest. Affronted at the insult, the sage curses NTR to lose the use of his legs until he finds his parents and washes their feet with his tears. And, in a long song sequence, NTR does.
Thanks to the intervention of the sage, the family is reunited, and NTR is now happy to simply serve his parents, living in poverty in the forest, for the rest of his days. His wife soon tracks them down, and adds her willingness to serve her husband and his parents as well. And, in return for their devotion, Krishna decides to appear to them.
And this is the part of the story that I guess is a well-ish known legend? Krishna called on NTR to come worship him, and NTR refused, because he was serving his parents. But, he pointed out, it is said that to serve your parents is to serve God, so in fact he is already serving Krishna. In reward for this piety, Krishna agrees to take the whole family, mother, father, NTR, NTR’s wife, into himself for bliss for all eternity. And in the end, their friends and relatives arrive to find their lonely cottage empty of humans, but with a new glowing Krishna statue inside, which is now worshipped in a temple, and the film ends with newsreel footage of real life worshippers at that temple.
Okay, re-winding a bit. Remember way way back at the beginning when Indra (I think) was cursed to be a stone? His stone self happened to be located outside the cottage where our little family was staying. And so, when Krishna arrived, Krishna touched him and removed the curse. Which means, viewed from one perspective, this entire story of the flirtatious NTR and his saintly parents was merely there in order to get Krishna to touch this stone and free Indra. All of our human problems are simply paths for solutions to Godly problems.
But then, on the other hand, what if the Indra story is the meaningless one? All of the Gods with their curses and feuds are missing the greater story of humanity. This is an equally valid reading of the narrative we have just seen.
Or, what if the purpose of everything is worship? At the end of the film, before the newsreel bits of the temple, we see a song in which the entire life of Krishna is described and shown to us, birth to manhood. Is that what this film is all about? A parable to help us understand the humanity and greatness of Krishna? All leading up to this telling of his story within a context that gives it greater meaning?
Or what if it is about the importance of place? To help us appreciate why this temple and this statue within it have meaning to Indian society, to relate it to issues like marriage and parental reverance and all of that?
I can’t answer the question of the deeper meaning of this story. Possibly no one is supposed to “answer” it, maybe it is different for every viewer. But I can admire how this film was constructed to leave this question open, to let us have a variety of entry points to the story, and a variety of exit points.