Kurukshetra movie review: The Mahabharta is told more with more focus on flesh, than the spirit
Kurukshetra produces evidence of phony piety floating, of being a Mahabharata of the flesh.
castDarshan, Danish Akhtar Saifi, Sonu Sood, Arjun Sarja, Ambareesh, Srinath, Shrinivas, Sneha, Shashikumar, Ravichandran, Ravi Chetan, Nikhil Gowda
Kurukshetra, directed by Naganna and produced by Munirathna Naidu, a Bengaluru Member of Legislative Assembly, has just opened on Friday. It is a Kannada film based on the Mahabharata but has been released in other languages as well. The film is intended for 3D viewing, which implies that audiences must be prepared to have objects and projectiles constantly flung at them, thickest in the battle scenes, something I found disconcerting.
Mythological films have appeared before in virtually all Indian languages but they have not been alike since they address local contexts. Marathi cinema had the saint film genre that ended in the 1940s while Kannada and Telugu mythological continued till much later. The last Kannada mythological films, to my knowledge, were made in the 1980s. Bhaktha Prahalada (1983) with Rajkumar as Hiranyakashipu and Ananth Nag as Narada was a classic of the genre, not least because of the casting.
Mythological films have a local meaning going beyond religion. As an instance, Sri Krishnagarudi (1958) was about the squabbling for ‘portfolios’ among the Pandavas after the war had been won. A similar thing was happening in the political space in Greater Mysore after the linguistic reorganisation of the states. Why Kurukshetra has appeared today is a mystery since no aspect of the Mahabharata is given particular emphasis and cannot be similarly interpreted.
Duryodhana is the protagonist but that does not mean the story justifies his viewpoint – his sinister, guttural laugh is strongly in evidence, marking him out as an ‘undesirable’. But the Kaurava side gets more screen time and are played by better-known actors than the Pandavas. Clear distinctions are not made between mythology and fanciful ancient history in India. The film is perhaps carrying on where Bahubali left off. The Hastinapura of the Kauravas made reminiscent of Ancient Rome in Gladiator, with its stadium and cheering crowds. When last heard from, the director of Bahubali was advising Chandrababu Naidu on town planning in new Amaravati, and producer Munirathna may have had similar ambitions.
Kurukshetra is based on an epic Kannada poem Gadhayuddha, written in the 10th Century by Ranna, and many of the film’s lines and songs owe to it. The film begins with Duryodhana (Darshan) ensconced in Hastinapur, and the Pandavas present at ceremonial event in which Duryodhana and Bhima (Danish Akhtar Saifi) fight with maces. They are evenly matched but the Kauravas can produce no rival to Arjuna (Sonu Sood). Karna (Arjun Sarja) now appears and effortlessly matches Arjuna’s prowess. The elders, Bhishma (Ambareesh), Dhritarashtra (Srinath), and Dronacharya (Srinivas Murthy), are against a person of unknown birth being admitted into the gathering but Duryodhana welcomes him, and gives him status.
Some other episodes from the Mahabharata in the film are the one in the palace of illusions in the Pandavas’ Indraprastha, where Duryodhana is laughed at by Draupadi (Sneha), the game of dice in which Shakuni (Ravishankar) cheats Dharmaraya (Shashikumar), Draupadi disrobed by Dushasana (Ravi Chetan) but rescued by Sri Krishna (Ravichandran) and Sri Krishna consenting to join the Pandavas. In the Kurukshetra War itself, Abhimanyu’s (Nikhil Gowda) valour and death, Bhishma and Drona’s deaths as well as the final battle between Arjuna and Karna get importance. The film concludes with the ‘gadhayuddha’ between Bhima and Duryodhana when Sri Krishna advises the outclassed Bhima that Duryodhana’s vulnerable spot in his thigh.
The film has a big star cast but none of the actors are comparable to actors like Rajkumar or NT Rama Rao who once played the roles. The older actors were from the traditional theatre, and knew how to essay mythological roles. It was in contemporary roles, like those of secret agents, where they faltered. The new actors have come into prominence through popular cinema. Shakuni here is not different from a thug in a gangster film, and the Pandavas are unimpressive. Dhritarashtra seems to even forget that he is blind. Why else would he shut his eyes when Draupadi is disrobed? Many of the actors have at some time or another worked out in gyms with weights and presses but now, with the lifestyles inculcated in them by the film industry, they all run to podginess. Ravichandran, as Krishna, is even obese. But there was a huge amount of whistling in the audience when Darshan and Ambareesh appeared, suggesting that favourite stars in mythological roles were also a big draw for viewers.
Nikhil Gowda as Abhimanyu also drew shouts although he has only recently taken into acting. He, to those who are not aware, is the son of former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, and the grandson of former Prime Minister HD Devegowda, and he lost the recent Lok Sabha elections alongside his grandfather. Nikhil’s arrival on the screen was met with the term ‘yellidiyappa’, which means ‘where are you?’. During the election campaign, HD Kumaraswamy came up with an onstage gag, wondering where his son Nikhil was – aloud – and Nikhil showing himself in the audience, declaring that his place was with the public. A video of the episode went viral, and Nikhil Gowda cannot appear without being greeted by ‘yellidiyappas’. Nikhil struts with the self-conscious air of a body-builder, his arms not hanging straight downwards but held like bows on either side; one cannot assert that this swaggering Abhimanyu is lovable.
As regards the visual aesthetic, it is well below that of Baahubali. It is closer to that of the earlier mythological films, that did not have the benefit of digital animation but still convinced us through their drama. Baahubali had cast younger actors but many of the ‘warriors’ here are nearly thespians. Ambareesh (who passed away after filming) has difficulty with his breathing after each line of dialogue. The strategy of a large star cast is not a good one since we are not allowed to identify with any of them individually. There is no continuing drama to get us involved, and we have seen more aura surrounding mythological heroes. One also wonders at the absence of anything corresponding to a natural world. There are no forests or pasture land or empty spaces, away from civilisation, and all we are given to see are palaces, stadia and courts. Kurukshetra displays an aesthetic that might appeal to people who, when they see land before them, imagine edifices and complexes to be rented out for profit.
But the biggest problem with the film is perhaps that it does not maintain the respectful distance required from its epic characters. In the first place, their flesh dominates the frames more than it should and there are more close-ups of faces and teeth than might be justifiable. A god like Sri Krishna is not identifiable with flesh but omniscient and unknowable in essence. Unless this distance from the god is preserved the scene on the battlefield when he shows his divine self to Arjuna would become ludicrous. The first episode, involving Sri Krishna in Kurukshetra, begins with his plump blue cheeks vigorously pinched by a scantily-clad damsel. We know Sri Krishna was loved by women in mythology but would this be the appropriate way of representing him? There is a great deal of phony piety floating around in the India today. If anything, the film produces evidence of it, of being a Mahabharata of the flesh. Its financial success should be worrying to film critics since there is little to commend it.
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