Shaakuntalam needed more involvement, crisper length

Dev Mohan and Samantha Ruth Prabhu in Shaakuntalam, Photo: Universal Communications 

This is one of the most fascinating love stories in Hindu mythology. The prince Dushyant falls for Shakuntala, the adopted daughter of a rishi (Sachin Khedekar). They opt for a gandharva marriage (based on consensual acceptance between two people, with no rituals, witnesses or family) and later, the prince, having fulfilled his obligations to the commune of the rishis, leaves for his kingdom.

However, Shakuntala, unknown to him, is now carrying his child, and soon, she is so besotted with Dushyant’s memories that she does not heed the hot-headed Maharishi Durvasa’s call. So he curses her that the person in whose memory she is lost in thought will forget her.

When a pregnant Shakuntala goes to meet Dushyant, he not only does not recall her but threatens her with punishment if she does not leave the palace after sullying his reputation by calling him the father of he child. The council of ministers and the citizens too both taunt her. Heartbroken, she runs away from the town, and later, the baby boy and she find shelter in the commune of the kind-hearted Maharishi Kashyap (Kabir Bedi).

Dushyant has given her a royal ring when he was taking leave, but by a stroke of misfortune, the ring has been lost en route to his palace. The ring has been swallowed by a fish, and is found by a fisherman who takes it to a jeweler to exchange for money. The jeweler recognizes the ring and takes the man to the palace. Dushyant is astounded at a royal ring being found inside a fishm, and on holding the ring, the curse is broken and he remembers everything. Remorse-stricken, he searches high and low for his love.

This simple love story is directed and co-scripted by Gunashekar, but the way it is made (I honestly feel that the use of 3D was not really needed, if we can have spectacles like the Bahubali franchise with normal cinematic presentation) there is a sad lack of audience connect.

Let me enumerate the flaws first: the first half plods, though the second half is also slow. The first half focuses too much, I feel, on the flora and fauna in the jungles and the locations (near Kashmir and in the Himalayas), probably to justify the use of 3D.

The dialogues (Hindi ones by Naresh Namdev) are generally too excessive and verbose, and too rich in chaste Hindi. The beautiful use of Hindi words in place of the normal spoken Hindustani / Urdu words is laudable, but not when what is being spoken is unlikely to be understood by children, the younger audiences and those who are not experts in Hindi. This kills interest even as I find that to express what these characters are feeling, this kind of language is not really essential.

The fascinating back story of how Shakuntala was born forms a crucial pivot of the film. She is the love-child of the sage Vishwamitra and seductress Menaka, who was sent to earth by Lord Indra to break his penance, and the baby had to be left behind on earth, as living mortals were not allowed in heaven.

But the other essentials of the story—how Dushyant’s and Shakuntala’s son, Sarvadaman, was finally called Bharat (from whom India has been named), and how Kashmir too was named after Maharishi Kashyap—are not given due weight and importance.

With stories from Hindu mythology being rare now, and even earlier restricted to low-budget B-grade films, here was a chance to deliver a blockbuster in the best Rajamouli tradition while educating Indians on one of our fascinating sagas. The 3D is generally done well, though some scenes look fake, and the cinematography (Joseph V. Sekhar) and art direction (Ashok Kolarath) are brilliant. Also superlative are the costumes by Neeta Lulla, the sound design by Bishwadeep Chatterjee and the background score by Mani Sharma.

Mani Sharma’s songs too are very apt and pleasant, with evocative orchestration. In fact, with the eras of the two subjects being somewhat similar, I found a distinct impress of Laxmikant-Pyarelal and their music in Utsav in the songs Mallika Mallika (sung superbly by Ramya Behera) and Yelelo yelelo. The arrangements and even the musical phrasing were quite similar.

Gunasekhar’s direction follows the traditional cinematic pattern we are used to, and he has extracted good performances from almost all his actors. At a base level, a small nitpick—I honestly feel that Samantha Ruth Prabhu as Shakuntala was a miscast. She is better suited for contemporary characters with her face, body language and persona. Dev Mohan is pleasing but too low-profile as Dushyant. Ananya Nagalla as Anasuya stands out among the rest, along with Mohan Babu as Durvasa. A chip off the not-so-old block is Allu Arha, Allu Arjun’s daughter, who plays Sarvadaman.

The film is 150 minutes long. At 120 instead, it would have been a solid watch, preferably with the other issues corrected as well.

Rating: **1/2




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