Last week, the Hindi film Adipurush did the unthinkable — it made the right wing and left wing sections on social media to agree on something.
Alas, the two extreme groups seemed to concur on the view that Adipurush is a disaster as a film.
The right wing was upset that Adipurush as a film had belittled the epic Ramayana. The left sections, of course, were up in arms that Adipursuh as a film had chosen to (re)tell the story of Ramayana.
In the event, the film and its team came in for relentless criticism and the meme-makers had a field day with some hilarious takes and spoofs.
Those who had seen Adipurush, headlined by Prabhas and Kriti Sanon as Rama and Sita, and Saif Ali Khan as Ravana, themselves felt that the whole film was some horrendous caricature of the beloved epic of many Indians.
Directed by Om Raut whose previous film was Tanhaji, Adipurush felt an unmoving depiction of abduction of Sita by Ravana, and the subsequent battle between him and Ram along with vanara sena. The most dramatic and pulsating part of Valmiki Ramayana comes across as a cheesy sci-fi adaptation.
And this is where the problem for Adipurush lies: It lacks heart.
It is not clear what was the real idea behind making a film on Ramayana, a historical story on which many movies in multiple Indian languages have already been made.
If anything, Dadasaheb Phalke, the man described as ‘father of Indian cinema’, chose for his second movie in 1917 Ramayana as the theme. There have also been countless interpretations of Ramayana in modern setting. Mani Ratnam's Raavan (2010) readily comes to mind. Rajkumar Santoshi's 2001 flick Lajja is another take on Ramayana.
But the beauty of Ramayana (and for that matter the other epic Mahabharata too) readily lends itself for any amount of retelling and interpretation.
At least on paper, Om Raut's ostensible reason for taking Ramayana as a VFX-filled spectacle for the modern generation is not a bad idea altogether. But something seems to have gotten lost in translation. The quality of the computer graphics, considering the amount of money bandied to be spent on the production of the film, seems inferior.
Of course, this is an opinion. But even if you feel okay with the CG work, the film doesn't exhibit the finesse in the narrative to carry off the fantasy effect. Nor Om Raut exhibits the creative idiosyncrasy to come up with his sui generis version of Ramayana.
Mani Ratnam recently showed through Ponniyin Selvan’s two parts what gumption and conviction from a director can achieve. Of course, Kalki's fictionalised Ponniyin Selvan is not Valmiki's epic Ramayana. But the point here is about the choices that an inventive director uses to ingeniously interpret the material available to him.
Anyway, movies based on Hindu epics and theological stories are a genre in themselves, and Indian filmdom, especially Tamil and Telugu industries, had aced them long back.
In the early years of Indian cinema, filmmakers willy-nilly fell back on Indian epics and traditional stories as they readily lent themselves for depiction on screen. Filled with allegorical, symbolic, moralistic and romantic plots, these stories were tailor-made for entertainment too.
To put things in perspective, the first Indian movie to get a premiere in the US was the 1943 film Ram Rajya (1943). Made by Vijay Dutt, it starred Prem Adib as Rama and Shobhna Samarth as Sita.
Epics Need Thespians Of Stature
The thing about making movies based on epics or gods or mythological stories is that even though the essential storyline is well-known, it needs an imaginative reiteration on screen to hold the attention of the viewers.
Take for example the 1965 Tamil film Thiruvilaiyadal, based on the various stories that are told around Lord Shiva and his divine exploits.
Starring Sivaji Ganesan and directed by A P Nagarajan (APN), the film is seen as the gold standard (in Tamil films) in the genre.
It is a film that is widely credited with being responsible for the resurgence in devotional and mythological cinema, since it was released at a time when Tamil cinema was veering towards the godless Dravidian social films.
The director APN, who had earlier worked as the screenplay writer in another tour de force in the genre, Sampoorna Ramayanam (1958), had the nous to not merely use the source material but enliven it with gripping dialogues, enjoyable comedy, riveting music and standout performances.
The songs of Thiruvilaiyadal, set to tune by K V Mahadevan, belong to the Tamil hall of fame. The comedy parts, especially with Sivaji and Nagesh, are still enjoyed across the state — and are still mined for memes (which is the touchstone for its longevity and relevance).
The dialogues of the film, especially the fiery exchanges between Lord Siva (a regal Sivaji Ganesan) and the firebrand poet Nakheeran (played by APN himself) are the stuff of legend in the state.
"Good films based on epics and religious stories have to be treated as commercial entertainers. It is all about packaging," says M Bharat Kumar, a film journalist in Tamil Nadu.
"APN was a past master at this game. His Saraswathi Sabatham (1966) is another master class in how to make entertaining movies out of existing mythological tales”.
Historicals and films based on epics also need actors with thespian quality. It calls for actors like Sivaji, N T Rama Rao, Rajkumar (Kannada), S V Ranga Rao, who have the thespian stature to tower over proceedings.
To look convincing as a god on screen calls for extreme conviction, a belief in one's inner core to convey things with gravitas. Today's acting style that puts a premium on subtlety will work at cross purpose with the qualities needed to pull off a role in such films.
The dialogues (as befitting gods) have to be delivered with pith and power. Modern-day actors don't do grandiloquence well. Most of them can't even pronounce words properly in the language.
Again Ponniyin Selvan is a case in point. The Tamil enunciated by the lead actors in the two-part film was all over the place, the phonetical nuance was butchered. Adipurush's dialogues in themselves were pedestrian and trite and were made worse by near comical delivery.
Contrast this with Sivaji as Lord Shiva when he opens his third eye to scorch Nakheeran (APN).
"The dialogues leading up to this are delivered with amazing heft and great power. That is a thespian in action. Where to get such a performance now?" Bharat Kumar asks.
Karnan Film, And The Story Of Director’s Humility
But it need not be just about convincing acting and forceful delivery of lines. In the 80s and 90s, Tamil cinema had moved to tacky devotional movies Thaai Mookaambikai, Velundu Vinaillai, Aadhi Parasakthi, Aayiram Kannudaiyal, Samayapurathaale Saatchi, Amman Arul, Namma Veetu Deivam, Velli Radham, Raja Kaaliamman, Thaalikaatha Kaaligaambaal and Kannaathaal.
Helmed by the likes of K Sankar (not to be confused with present-day director Shankar) and Ram Narayan, these films did not boast of top-of-the-line actors. But many of them worked because the makers did not build them up as larger-than-life movies.
They were dumbed down ventures, but the directors brought to them honesty and simplicity — two qualities that always strike a chord with lay viewers.
And since the subject matter is god, a certain amount of humility is also needed to understand the underlying ethos and emotion.
The events around the 1964 Tamil film Karnan — another timeless classic — will underscore this point.
The movie's songs, tuned by the legends Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy, are considered classics by fans even today. But one number did not get to figure in the film.
The song, Maharajan Ulagai Aalalaam, is considered a 'discarded diamond'. As it happened, they had even shot this love song on Sivaji Ganesan (playing Karnan) and Devika (his wife Subhangi) at Jaipur.
After the shooting was done, when the director B R Panthulu saw the rushes of the film, he was taken back. He found the romance by Sivaji and Devika was excessive. He understood that such a portrayal did not belong to a film of this nature.
Despite the fact that the song is a beauty (set in Kharaharapriya ragam and the rare tisra thalam) and shot at great cost in Jaipur, the director Pantulu decided to junk the entire song from the film.
That is verily humility, which is just professionalism in other words. An innate knowledge of what will suit the film and what will offend the sensibilities.
It is one quality that seems to be absent from the makers of Adipurush. Hey Ram!
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