TWIST IN THE TAIL
Everyone’s favourite monkey god returns in an unexpectedly irreverent kiddie-tale with moments for adults too.
DEC 30, 2007 – SO MANY TALES HAVE BEEN BUILT AROUND the major gods and goddesses of our mythic literature that we know them as we would the lead characters from our favourite films. They are the heroes, the heroines, the protagonists of their rousing stories. But the celestial supporting cast is mostly a bit of a blur. We know, for instance, that Narada possesses an enthusiasm for gossip rivalled only by the scribes at Stardust, but little else. (Well, maybe that his neck muscles are surely the strongest in all the heavens, considering he never leaves home without strapping himself to his veena). How considerate then, that Anurag Kashyap’s Return of Hanuman leaves us with this little nugget about how Chitragupta – whose meticulous record-keeping of human actions determines one’s ascent to heaven or consignment to hell – gets his jollies: by flipping open his laptop and logging on to Menaka.com.
I wasn’t expecting to laugh out this loud during an animated feature targeted primarily at children – but there he was, this bespectacled geek, hastily shutting down his browser window as Brahma turns to him with a question. In the West, yes, nothing is sacred – not even Jesus, as the blokes at Monty Python so unforgettably demonstrated – but we’re talking here about an Indian animated film, one where Vishnu bellows, in the best masala-movie tradition, “Bahut ho gaya khilwaad,” and where Hanuman reshapes the faces at Mount Rushmore to resemble the lead characters of the Ramayana. All I could think, in between bouts of giggles, was: “Holy Sacred Cow! They wouldn’t give Paanch a censor certificate, but this they let pass unscathed?” Who knew those esteemed people on the film certification panel had a sense of humour?
You sense the ambition in Return of Hanuman right from the beginning, when a lizard scurries across what looks like a desert landscape. The camera, so to speak, looks up and sets its eyes on a vulture circling overhead, which then flies away to join its brothers (or sisters; it’s always hard to tell with these creatures) atop a hill. Then, as we crane our necks past these birds, we stumble into a panoramic scene of war: the devas on one side, the asuras on the other. With this classical progression from the general to the particular, Kashyap seems to have attempted to shoot his animated feature the way he would a regular one – with the scope and feel of real cinematography – and even with the story, he keeps nudging the envelope. Where the earlier Hanuman – to which, apparently, this film is not a sequel, despite evidence to the contrary – was a fairly reverent recounting of the events from the Ramayana, this installment cooks up a wholly fictitious brew with elements both mythic and modern. (If the older film represented the spirit of Amar Chitra Katha, you could say this one channels Tinkle.)
Hanuman is bored after eons of hanging out in the heavens, and he wants to spend some time on earth for a change. This wish granted, he is reborn as Maruti in the household of a poor pundit, who soon realises that this is no ordinary infant – this naughty child with superhuman strength. (These early portions paint Maruti as a combination of Krishna and Kal-El.) Maruti goes to school, makes friends with Minku (who’s the perennial target of the classroom bullies), and looks all set to work his way through the CBSE system and graduate with honours – when his life comes in conjunction with local bandits first, and finally with the asuras Rahu and Ketu. Did I mention that, somewhere in the middle of all this, there’s a volcano full of seething, black lava that’s some sort of metaphor for how mankind has laid waste the earth through the indiscriminate use of plastics?
The trouble with Return of Hanuman is that it impulsively veers off in various directions – old-fashioned good-versus-evil story, morality tale, environmental fable, pop-culture spoof – and this makes it appear less a coherent movie than a collage of moments. In the theatre I watched the film in, the children seemed to be having a great time, what with shots like the one where Hanuman joins a flock of birds in a formation that resembles an airplane flying alongside. (Cute payoff: The craft actually smiles.) But for grown-ups, the wink-nudge takeoffs – on Ajit, Raaj Kumar, Sholay, King Kong, Titanic, even the Hindi-movie staple of the widowed mother valiantly raising a son all by herself – become wearying after a while. Return of Hanuman loses steam considerably towards the end, but it’s hard to dislike a kiddie-pic that incorporates everyone’s wish-fulfillment fantasy of Osama bin Laden and George Bush getting their just deserts. It’s nice when a film, however fleetingly, fills our future citizens with hope.
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