I saw Maya Bazaar! FINALLY! I knew about it for ages, and then I found a copy for sale on DVD which was rare enough that I wanted to snap it up. And then the DVD sat on the shelf by the TV for months and months and months until finally I gave in and watched it.
I’d heard that this is the ultimate fantasy magical Telugu film, that it was an inspiration for all the Bahubali filmmakers, and I was expecting something massive and mind-blowing and so on. And it was mind-blowing, but not in the way I expected at all.
I went into this film not knowing any details about it. I knew it was a big important movie that all the Bahubali filmmakers had loved. It was loosely related to the Mahabharata. But that was it, I didn’t know what the plot would be at all, what big scenes to look for, none of it.
And it was all a delightful surprise! I was expecting something huge with battle scenes and questions of Dharma and Judgement, along the lines of Bahubali or Mughal-E-Azam. But instead it was just a simple fairy tale story! Young lovers, noble magicians, and it all ends with forgiveness and laughter, not tragedy.
Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t see the Bahubali connections. The prettiness of it all, the perfect gardens and lovely palace rooms, plus the costumes and jewelry and all of that. And the special effects, of course. Totally different quality, not just technically but in purpose, not about huge fight scenes but about small moments of magic. However, the cleverness is the same. The use of these special effects moments not just for spectacle, but to move the story along in a way that could not otherwise have been imagined.
And of course, the elements that come from the Mahabharata. The amazing feats of archery, the happy nobility of the main characters, the simple but cheerful forest folk. Only, in Bahubali, it was not explicitly a Mahabharata story, rather it was a rethinking of it all. Whereas this film is explicitly a variation on the Mahabharata, with the “main story” happening somewhere offscreen for the most part, and instead the focus shifted to this small side story.
I’m writing Bahubali fanfic, much much fanfic, as you know if you have been reading regularly. And the plot of this film kind of reminds me of it. Ignoring the big central tragic story, and instead looking at a smaller story in which we can see our characters acting in different ways, and can imagine a happier ending, at least in this one small part.
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This is the story of Krishna’s niece who was engaged to Arjun’s son as children. But, after the Pandavas were banished and lost everything, her parents tried to break that engagement and instead marry her to Duryodhana’s son Lakshman. With the help of Krishna, the lovers are united in the end, and the parents accept the marriage.
I am pretty sure I saw the Telugu version, which means the main cast were Savitri as our heroine Sasirekha and ANR as Abhimanyu. Another thing that is the same between this and Bahubali is the cross-language release, with about half the cast shared between Tamil and Telugu versions and half different. I am a little disappointed that I didn’t see the Tamil version, just because it featured Rekha’s father and I am kind of curious to see him in something. But otherwise, I am happy with Telugu, because I have this vague feeling that the Telugu is the “real” version.
Anyway, back to plot. From what I can tell from wikipedia and other sources, the whole love story between Balarama’s daughter and Arjun’s son is semi-invented. Maybe it was in some variations of the Mahabharata, or maybe not even that. Which gave the filmmakers a lot of freedom to move things around as they wished.
Arjun was of course married to more than one woman. Subhadra was the most famous of his non-Draupadi wives. She fell in love with his picture and wished to marry him, but her brother Balaram wanted her to marry Duryodhana, his favorite pupil. Subhadra’s other brother, Krishna, supported her desire for Arjun. And encouraged Arjun to elope with her. And thus we have so many many many Indian films with the plot of a) a heroine falling in love with a picture and b) the heroine’s brother being the one who encourages the elopement against the rest of the family.
This film, instead of doing the Subhadra-Arjun story, does a variation on it through the children. Now it is Balaram’s daughter instead of his sister, and Arjun’s son instead of himself. But Krishna is still there to help, and there is still an elopement. And once again, the Kauravas are humiliated and the ultimate virtue of the Pandavas is reinforced.
What making it a variation allows the filmmakers to do is to keep the essential “feel” of the story, so that it is still familiar to the audience, while changing any details that don’t easily fit with their vision for the film. For instance, unlike in the Subhadra-Arjun romance, the couple meets and romances before the elopement.
This romance is so sweet! It starts with the usual childhood play time, happy together as children. But unlike in other films where they never progress beyond that, where they are in love simply because they were engaged, we get to see this couple meet and fall in love again as adults! Through Skype!
Well, through the magical version of Skype. Which also serves as a bit of a character note. Krishna (NTR) brings a magical chest which shows a vision of who you must love who is not with you, or who you most hate. It let’s us see that Balaram still loves Duryodhana as his favorite student. And that Krishna can sense the future danger and hates Shakuni, who will use his dice skill to punish the Pandavas. And it shows that Savitri still loves ANR, seeing him in the chest image when she opens it.
A very nice variation on romantic “first meetings”. It keeps that superficial level of the connection, a brief look and an exchange, where there is the magic of not knowing and wondering exactly what this person is like and dreaming of them. But is also intimate. Because it is a magic image from a chest, it means Savitri is allowed to look at it alone, and she and ANR can come face to face (sort of) without anyone else around or coming between them.
Before they actually meet, disaster! Really really meta-disaster. First, Krishna and his wife Rukmini are watching children putting on a play about Krishna’s childhood. Which is fascinating! Because, of course, these kinds of plays and songs are super common. This movie itself is an example of that, a performance using the character of Krishna. But here is Krishna himself watching the play! And, not only that, in the middle of the play, Krishna pauses to watch a video! Sort of. He senses that there is trouble elsewhere, and suddenly pulls up an image of Draupadi being harassed by the Kauravas, and uses his powers to save her, giving her the never ending sari. It’s picture in picture!
I say all of this kind of joking, Skype and picture-in-picture and all that, but it’s also a little serious. The filmmakers linked in to essential human desires, the ability to see people at great distances, the ability to pause what you are currently watching and switch to something else as needed, it’s all something we want. Technology has given it to us in the 60 years since this film came out, but the desire was already there 60 years ago.
And then they tied it back to simple desires which don’t need any magic at all. Once Savitri and ANR meet for real, all that is needed is a boat on a moonlit night and a young couple in love. And maybe a secret sneaking away to be together against family objections. The Pandavas have now lost all their money and while Savitri’s family doesn’t want to risk offending Krishna by going openly against his close friends, or Subhadra by going against her husband, they are also not eager for ANR to spend much time alone with Savitri. There aren’t many scenes of the young couple together, but they are enough to show us a magical feeling of young love, to make us believe that they have a fragile kind of magical connection to each other. And that this connection should be cherished and protected.
But then they are separated and we go from magic being used to support young love to for trickery and uniting the lovers. And we also go from any fear that the lovers might not come together to surety that they will. The virtue of the Pandavas, and ANR as the son of the Pandavas, is such that it is recognized by the all powerful forest magician S.V. Ranga Rao who creates the titular “Maya Bazaar”. Everything S.V. Ranga Rao does is an illusion (another meta statement on entertainment and film), but it is based on an essential truth, that the Pandavas will win in the end, because it is their destiny. We can all relax and just know that.
In addition to S.V. Ranga Rao, ANR and Savitri also have Krishna on his side. Krishna is the spirit of educated trickery, power and grace and the rules of royalty and society. While S.V. Ranga Rao is wild unruly power, answering only to his own sense of right and wrong. These two powers combine to assist those who are too noble and pure to try such behaviors on their own behalf.
And thus, when ANR and his mother (very interesting that we never actually see the Pandavas in this film) go into the forest, they meet S.V. Ranga Rao who is impressed with ANR’s bravery and skill, and has already been impressed with the Pandava family, and therefore offers to help him elope with Savitri from the very palace of the Kauravas where she has been brought for her marriage to Duryodhana’s son.
Let me hit pause here and talk about how the “real” characters, the main characters of the Mahabharata, are represented. The Pandavas are entirely off screen. The Kauravas are present, but the main focus is on the villainy of Shakuni, and the foolishness of Lakshman, Duryodhana’s son. I think it is because this is supposed to be the light-hearted spin off happy tale from the Mahabharata. If the “main” characters are too present, it would darken the film. Except for Krishna, because he is always kind of light.
In addition, if the “main” characters were present, it would over-shadow this little story. We don’t want Arjun or any of the others stealing focus from the simple love story we are watching. And we also don’t want to feel that this is just one part of a larger story, we want it to feel complete when our couple unites and her parents give their approval.
And because the “real” characters feel so different when they do appear, I am breaking my usual rule and using their “character” names instead of the actors. So, Krishna is Krishna, Balaram is Balaram, and so on. But our young lovers, who bear very little resemblance to their mythological version, get to use their character names.
Back to the film! S.V. Ranga Rao pretends to be Savitri, which allows Savitri to have a real fun time with her performance. Changing her walk and manner to represent a wild forest chieftain, and then changing it again to be a wild forest chieftain pretending to be a young woman.
This is the part that clearly inspired Rajamouli, not in Bahubali, but in Yamadonga. Mamta Mohandas similarly got to play a young woman, and then a powerful male God pretending to be a young woman. And it was super fun! Not like drag or making fun of the woman, or the man, but playing with our perceptions of femininity and masculinity.
It also allows for S.V. Ranga Rao to spread havoc through the palace, which allows the filmmakers to play with their special effects. But remember, this is the Kauravas’ palace. So when S.V. Ranga Rao uses his illusions here, there is an added meaning to it. This whole place is illusion, an incorrect rule. In the forest, where we see ANR and his mother and Savitri having their simple marriage ceremony, that is reality.
And in the end, it is the illusions that reveal the truth. That Duryodhana’s son is a coward, that Shakuni is a liar and a cheat, that Savitri and ANR are true lovers. Only through the use of illusions from S.V. Ranga Rao, and trickery from Krishna, can the truth fully be understood.
Which is a meta-statement on this whole film. Yes, there is magic and special effects. But it’s not about that. It’s about the love story and the lovers who must be united, everything else is just to serve that truth. The most magical moment of the film doesn’t use any magic at all, it’s the song that the lovers sing, Savitiri and ANR, then Krishna and Rukmini, and finally Balaram and Revati, as they row on a lake in the moonlight. This is the real “magic”, everything else is “Maya”.