What these films tend to exaggerate and misrepresent - by portraying selfish Westerners and restricted Easterners - is, we could argue, based on a grain of truth. That is: the relative emphasis of the individual in Western culture versus the community in Eastern culture. For better or worse, Western culture valorizes individual accomplishment and independence. The American dream, after all, is one of breaking free of class restrictions and making your own fortunes. In comparison, Indian culture - at least, what we've been told and shown via Hindu religious legends, Bollywood films and so on - valorizes family, community and dharma (that is, one's role or duty in life). Heck, the brothers in Yuvvraaj just spent so much time moving from a collection of individuals to a single, fraternal unit.
City versus village. Note they're in the middleground.
Virasat, the 1998 Filmfare Critics Award for Best Film, explores the tension between these two fundamentals - the individual versus the community - in a thought-provoking and intelligent way. It acknowledges the ambiguity of "filmi sacrifice" and the complexity of traditional hierarchies. It is, in many ways, very similar to the later Swades. Both films feature a Hindustani hero who, after studying abroad (in America and London, respectively), cooks up big, Western-style dreams. In both films, the hero returns to his village roots and - after being confronted with some tough realities of rural India - ends up settling down and marrying the village belle. The major difference is that Virasat's oomph ends up making even Swades - which we thought was a pretty thoughtful film! - look awfully facile. That is, Shahrukh's problems seem to stretch as far as poverty and economic development. His village is a peaceful Elysium with UNICEF calender-style black-and-white problems; his village belle is an educated firecracker. Poor Anil's got much more to contend with - his village is divided by bloody feuding, his villagers are uneducated, his village belle is illiterate and their marriage is about as forced as marriages can be.
The plot is divided into three distinct acts, each corresponding to about an hour's worth of film. In the first act, our hero, Shakti (meaning power; Anil Kapoor), returns to his obscure village after completing his university degree in London. He meets his father, the village's leader, Raja Thakur (Amrish Puri), who is visibly disconcerted by the Westernized waif, Anita (Pooja Batra), Shakti's got in tow. Indeed, everyone's a little disconcerted by Shakti: his (admittedly horrendous) mullet - described as being "the new style; punk style!" - his silly, tight jeans, his pre-marital cavorting with his girlfriend. Even worse: Shakti intends to marry Anita with or without parental approval, and his dream is to leave the village and open a chain of fast-food restaurants in the big cities. Raja Thakur - who's never even heard of fast-food - can still recognize horribleness when he sees it. "I wouldn't have sent you away," he exclaims, "if I had known all they teach in universities these days is selfishness!"
That may sound harsh, but Raja Thakur has pretty much hit the mark. The village is in complete disarray. A family feud has degenerated into a Hatfield-McCoy-style back and forth of bloody reprisals. Raja Thakur, essentially a progressive, worked very hard back in the day to send Shakti away so that Shakti could be the only villager with some schooling and, he hoped, a solution to these "backward problems". While Shakti certainly feels guilty enough, he's still not very keen to stay in the village - where he feels "suffocated" by the narrow-minded, "animal-like" villagers. It's not until he sees his first intra-village bloodshed that he realizes the gravity of the problem. In a moment similar to Shahrukh's awakening at the train station with the water-wallah boy, Shakti undergoes a painful baptism by fire after witnessing the cruelty and violence in his village. It's the sort of thing he can't turn away from, his ties in the village and - even more so - his humanity drag him in. He vows to stay... at least for a bit.
Shakti's dismal baptism by fire. Note again: he's in the middleground!
Cue the second act. "Some circumstances" have now changed Shakti's "little bit" into an indeterminate stay in the village. The mullet is gone (THANK GOD), Anita is gone to wait for him in the city, the moustache is waxed, and he is ready to assume his role as pater familias and village leader. He attacks the civil war problem head-on, attempting to incorporate the wider system of police and courts. The villagers laugh at him. For a while, it seems that nothing is going his way, until he hits upon a solution: Ah ha! Poor villager Narayan (an unexpected Satyendra Kapoor! YAY!) has the misfortune to live right on the border between the Good Thakurs and the Bad Thakurs. His daughter, beautiful Gehna (Tabu), is unmarried. Shakti decides to use the whole "women get no say/arranged marriage" thing for some low-level politicking: marrying off the Bad Thakur-indebted Gehna to a Good Thakur man and hence assuring peace in the village. Gehna and her father are more than happy to offer themselves up for sacrifice.
Anil looks A LOT better once he ditches the Meatloaf mullet and ruralfies himself. Gosh, so elegant! He should wax his stache all the time.
Cue the third (and best) act. After another bout of "some circumstances", Shakti is forced into another difficult decision. He must marry the village belle himself. This is, the script hastens to note, the ultimate sacrifice - the litmus test of his dedication to the village and to the community. It is the complete abandoning of his Western roots, and it is the beyond the "no going back" point. In a poignant sequence, Anita returns to find this bewildering change of events. For something that could have been easily mishandled, this excruciatingly awkward love triangle is wonderfully captured: Tabu is excellent here.
A carefully-handled scene which was still pretty God-awful to watch. Note again: middleground!
Anyway, just as a tenuous peace has fallen on the village, another bunch of problems come tumbling out and Shakti has to make yet another difficult sacrifice.
Gosh, we feel pretty miserable too now, poor Anil. (Middleground again! Nothing of substance happens in the foreground... not when the individual is small and the community is big!)
In a way, however tenuous, this film resembles Lina Wertmuller's Pasqualino Settebellezze. Both films examine a seemingly "easy" question - How much do you want to survive? How much do you want to help your community? (A lot!) - and follows them to their logical extremes. In both films, the protagonists are required to make increasingly impossible decisions because of that one desire - to survive, to help the village - until morals start becoming entangled and everything goes gray. Virasat's intelligence is in how it forces us, and Shakti, to confront all manner of unsavory concepts - an arranged marriage of convenience, even a murder - without ever allowing us an easy moral conclusion. Unlike Shahrukh's easy peasy decision that "OMG poverty is WRONG!", Anil has to weigh all sorts of ugly consequences in his quest to serve the community. More than once, the Western-educated PPCC exclaimed, "Oh God, just LEAVE, man, LEAVE! Go open a McDonald's, anything's better than this!" From an individualist's perspective, a lot of Shakti's choices seemed terribly unfair. The whole situation seemed unfair. But the film's message was very pro-community, and we had to admit it was interestingly argued: things may be unfair, but a community can't be sacrificed for an individual's needs. The film certainly stacked all the cards against Shakti so that "community" always won, but it also showed how serving the community can, piece by piece, destroy the individual.
Phew. That's a lot of mental exercise. What about the dil, you ask?
Well, taken altogether, we've got to say we preferred Swades. We prefer it for all the wrong reasons. It's not better-filmed than Virasat, it only has marginally better songs (though the whole no-mullet thing is a blessing, pheeeew), it addresses the same issues in a more superficial, facile way. But - gosh, it's just so much easier than Virasat. Virasat - like Pasqualino Settebellezze - takes your noble notions (villages are nice! we should help poor people!) and puts them through the meat grinder. In the end, we felt as exhausted as poor Anil looked. Is simple, no-moral-strings-attached happiness SO MUCH TO FREAKIN' ASK FOR?!
Anyway: kudos to Kamal Hassan for this brain-frying story to begin with, kudos to Anil and Tabu and Amrish Puri for performances that were compelling and charismatic and difficult and real, kudos to Farah Khan for the choreography in the song Sun Mausa Sun, and kudos to Priyadarshan the director for all those lovely compositions we capped. Kudos for a truly, uncompromisingly "Indian" rural story that was challenging and thought-provoking. And kudos, I guess, for showing us that, despite what Rohinton Mistry would have us believe, not all village thakurs are bad.