NO MORE MR. NICE GHAI
After ‘Yaadein’, ‘Kisna’ is further proof that Subhash Ghai has lost his touch.
JAN 30, 2005 – THE FIVE ODD MINUTES OF THE AA GAYA song sequence tell you what Subhash Ghai is up to in the three odd hours that is Kisna. It’s an engagement ceremony number that’s typically Bollywood – it’s prettily staged in earthy ochres and maroons, the tune is instantly catchy, a number of chorus girls get in step with the customary jhatkas… Then suddenly, there’s a cut to a dancer on a rope, her limbs doing the kind of jaw-dropping contortions you thought were possible only by Apollo Circus acrobats or American porn stars.
That’s Kisna. It wants to give us the experience of a grand desi masala, and it wants to give them… The Great Indian Rope Trick.
You know the ‘them’ I’m talking about – the NRIs, the non-desis, the exotica seekers that Ghai has been wooing ever since Pardes. Before that, his films weren’t exactly high art, but they did deliver a high old time, with routines that could be titled Rishi Kapoor Goes Jogging On Giant Record Disc or Madhuri Dixit Apprehends Deadly Criminal By Using Pelvic Thrusts. That’s why Ghai’s movies were fun, if in a somewhat demented way – he’d orchestrate one spectacular act after another; he was the cinematic equivalent of a circus ringmaster.
Now, suddenly, he’s a cultural ambassador. Pardes, Taal and Yaadein, in one way or the other, intoned that small-town, hill-station India was pure and simple and good and honest, and that forsaking this for a big city (whether here or abroad) would result in your children forsaking parampara for premarital sex. In Kisna, Ghai goes further. Besides his usual character named for The Ganges (here, someone is called Gangotri), he refers to the rivers Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. He has sadhus recite shlokas. He explains that not all British – the film is set in 1947 – were anti-Indian, that some Indians were more anti-Indian than the British. He invokes The Mahabharata, The Gita, the concept of karma… And all this historical and mythical weight suffocates the life out of what is essentially a road movie.
Kisna is about two people on the run. It’s about Kisna (Vivek Oberoi) escorting firang friend Catherine (Antonia Bernath) to safety, far from the anti-British sentiments of newly-independent India – and in order to care about whether or not they make it, we first need to care about them.
We cringe instead, initially, thanks to some embarrassing symbolism that shows him on a black horse, her on a white one. (If you really have to colour-code their ethnicities, shouldn’t he be on a brown mount?) But the dew-fresh Bernath soon wins you over – at least for a while – in a role that has her break down doors, plod through fires, commandeer runaway carriages and even go near-topless in a white sari. She’s part Jhansi Ki Rani, part Mandakini, and she’s so alive that the usually-competent Oberoi, in comparison, appears like a lump of wood having a bad hair day – and it doesn’t help that he’s playing the dullest, squarest, noblest, chastest hero this side of a Rajendra Kumar starrer. (His idea of romantic dialogue is something like, “Pyaar mein poornaviraam nahin hota…” – he should be exploding with passion; he’s instead chatting about punctuation!)
As is customary in road movies, Kisna is littered with colourful characters along the way. A gun-throated, glass-eyed villain (Amrish Puri; it’s touching to see the actor in his final days) is after Catherine, as is an evil maharajah (Rajat Kapoor, who’s so ineffectual as a kohl-eyed fop, his moustache doesn’t seem to have been twirled as much as trimmed, gelled and neatly combed). And Kisna’s going away with Catherine creates tensions with Lakshmi (the gorgeous Isha Sharvani, supposedly playing Kisna’s fiancée, but actually wasted in the role of Girl Who Dances And Dances And Then Dances Some More).
These characters offer plenty of opportunity for drama, but they appear and disappear with such alarming suddenness, you may begin to wonder if they’re actually devas from our mythological movies. (All that’s missing is the cymbal-crash whenever they appear and disappear.) You’ll also be reminded of other movies – Titanic (an old-lady-thinks-back framing device, a mother-daughter scene in front of a mirror), Sangam (a love triangle dating back to childhood), Hey Ram (Hindu-Muslim partition-time rioting) and Lagaan (the rural sweetheart’s jealousy of the hero’s closeness to the memsaab).
The only thing you’re not reminded of is a good old Subhash Ghai movie, despite good music (AR Rahman, Ismail Darbar), good production values, and the occasional good scene – and that’s because the director tries too hard to suppress what comes naturally. He’s a born crowd-pleaser, but he wants to be seen instead as some sort of classy filmmaker, which is probably why he (mis)cast Sushmita Sen as an old-world tawaif who does a mujra. Sometimes, you know, you don’t need a Miss Universe; you just need Aruna Irani.
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