Monday 24 November 2008

Virasat (1997)

While oodles of films have addressed the East-West cultural divide, few have done it in a very thoughtful way. Western films often suffer from latent or blatant Orientalism: glamorizing and misunderstanding things, often - to our eyes - conflating socio-economic with cultural issues (e.g. the difficulty in accepting that middle-class Indians are as liable to speak Hinglish as pure Hindi, the labeling of some technologies such as highways or the Internet as "Western" or "capitalist", the glorification of the rural and traditional at the expense of the modern, etc.). Consider the Merchant-Ivory, Love Guru, Memoirs of a Geisha, Silk fare. Similarly "Occidentalizing" are Eastern films - mainstream Hindi cinema has certainly suffered from its fair share of obese, caricatured Americans, shrilly dismissive NRIs and so on. Consider the "evils of the West" in Purab aur Pacchim, Jab Jab Phool Khile and Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

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.


eliza bennet said...

Yet another excellent review, thank you PPCC!

I simply can't get into Anil due to a silly thing that is too long and ridiculous to explain.

Anonymous said...

Two difficult fillums in a row!

Time for a masala break, methinks! Glad to see you back writing so furiously though :-)

Filmi Girl said...

Yay! Two Anil write-ups in a row!

You've talked me into viewing this one, as well, despite my preference for sparkly masala.

(And mullets = awful! Who on earth was convinced that they looked 'punk' in those?!)

a ppcc representative said...

Eliza - No Shashi, no Anil, nooo! What's the "silly thing"? Oh pleeeeease tell.

Memsaab - Gosh, I think so too. I don't think my gray matter can handle any more exercise.

Filmi Girl - It's totally going to be a WAVE of Anil in the next few days, yay! I'd be very interested to see your thoughts on this one - especially about the whole unsavory arranged marriage bit. Re: the mullet, I chortled at the "punk" comment - the Sex Pistols never had no mullets!!

Anonymous said...

One of the few mulletted Anil Kapoor movies that I really liked. But I was too chicken to sit through all the violence and always abandoned the movie after the beginning of what you call the third part (Westernised gf's sensitive acceptance of his marriage)!

For some light relief with Anil Kapoor you should try Chameli Ki Shaadi - the mullet is there but the movie is hilarious and he is super good.

Rum said...

I love Virasat soo much better than Swades, I think its more unifying and Anil is better as a conflicted guy than SRK could ever try to be!
I love the song where Amrish sings "Ek tha raja" that song is sooo overplayed in my house,
Lol i remember seeing this in the cinema in england and saying damn my anil is soooo good!

Anonymous said...

The original tamil version of this movie with Kamala Hasan was much better. Revati did a fine job in the original too. Even Tabu acknowledged Revati's brilliant acting in one of the interviews by saying " I only copied what Revathi did in the original tamil version".

Tabu got the filmfare aware for best supporting actress for this film. In fact Tabu bagged 3 awards in a row that year - best actress telugu (ninne peli adtha), Best actress National award for her hindi film Maachis and flimfare supporting actress award for this movie

eliza bennet said...

PPCC, the problem I have with Anil is his nostrils. I know it is shallow but I can't seem to get over the nostrils and actually watch his performance. I have only seen him in Taal and have been avoiding his films since then because I can't seem to stop focusing on the nostrils.

Actually I even hesitated while clicking on the Yuvraaj segment in the related entry but I forced myself and as soon as I saw him, I zoomed on the nostrils.

And it is a problem since I actually don't hate the guy (for instance I have a dislike for Saif Ali Khan which I can't describe but not enough of a problem to avoid the films he is in and nothing to do with the nostrils - you'd think that would be more of a problem with Saif right? But no.) Anyway I really want to watch Nayak since I heard only good things about it, also I want to watch Slumdog Millionare (Memsaab's recommendations are always reliable as far as I'm concerned) but because of the nostril problem I never gave Nayak a chance.

Your Anil film reviews are good and convinced me to try Nayak out(Rani's presence hopefully will do what Akshaye and Aish's couldn't - distract me from the nostrils)
And actually Virasat seems a film I'd like a lot.

Hahaaa, now you regret asking no?

Shashi I don't care for because I don't think he is a good actor. And while I wouldn't consciously seek his films out, his presence doesn't create such bizarre diversion.

a ppcc representative said...

Bollyviewer - Aww, you missed the - to my mind - best and most interesting part! I keep seeing Chameli ki Shaadi staring at me in the movie store... I'm wary because of the mulleted, 90s aesthetic horribleness, but perhaps I'll be brave. You be brave too and finish Virasat!

Rum - Yeah, I have to agree: Swades is polished and pretty, but it doesn't have the same depth that Virasat does.

Anonymous - Yes, remakes often lose something. Considering how well-considered Kamal Hassan is everywhere, I think I might have to start checking out his stuff! (And wow, that was Tabu's year!)

Eliza - I think that is perhaps one of the funniest things I've heard. What is it about the nostrils that's so offensive? Too much flare?

And you tell the PPCC you don't like Shashi?!! GASP!!! That's like telling Col. Sanders you don't like chicken!!! (Though I am actually a little liable to agree with you - Naseer, Om Puri, Raj Kapoor (on his good days) and now Anil have actually impressed me more, actorly-wise, compared to Shashi. That said, Shashi is like a pulsing beacon of pure charisma and aesthetic delight! And that definitely counts too, apart from the technical skill of mimicry.)

About Me said...

Stunning piece here...and I'm loving this blog too! Have added it to my blogroll and looking forward to getting in to some of the reviews!