Friday, January 21, 2005

Kisna The Warrior Poet 

It’s tempting for any established director to make an epic love story set in the past; it allows for visual grandeur and larger-than-life emotional quality that films set in modern times lack. Subhash Ghai gave in to temptation at last – and though he could have picked any great novel set in pre-Independence times, he chooses a rather trite plot (with some inspiration from Shyam Benegal’s Junoon and Last of the Mohicans), but to his credit gives Kisna The Warrior Poet a magnificent scale and some truly memorable movie moments. Not to forget Ghai’s pet theories about “Indianness”, which, for some reason, he wants to impart in a solemn school-masterish way.

Unfortunately, after the tedious prologue with an old Lady Katherine (Polly Adams) from England coming to India and wanting to visit Dev Prayag, you know there’s a flashback coming and the film’s going nowhere. All you can do is settle back and try to enjoy the circuitous, laboured storytelling. And it takes a great deal of effort!

The hero Kisna (Vivek Oberoi, a sad case of miscasting), rather grandly called a warrior poet, looks like neither-- more like a brainless mama’s boy. Since childhood, he was pals with Katherine (Antonia Bernath), the daughter of an autocratic British officer. When Independence is round the corner, Kisna’s evil uncle (Amrish Puri), kills Katherine’s father (Michael Maloney) and burns their house, though Katherine and her mother (Caroline Langrishe) escape the mob.

Kisna’s mother (Zarina Wahab) tells him it is duty to protect Katherine and take her to a safe place, so the two take off, leaving Kisna’s jealous fiancée Laxmi (Isha Sharvani) fuming.

Ghai bungs in as many crises as he can, Kisna’s own brother (Yashpal Sharma) baying for the British girl’s blood, a wicked Indian prince Raghuraj (Rajat Kapoor, hilariously hammy) lusting after her, Laxmi chasing them, communal riots and the works. Through the interminable journey, Kisna and Katherine wade through obstacles and hair’s breadth rescues with monotonous regularity. Some episodes are boring, some lit up by interesting performers like the one in which a courtesan (Sushmita Sen) and her sidekick (Om Puri) help the fugitives.

In typical Bollywood style, the costumes, dances and music are a kitschy blend, or how could you have a woman doing the rope mallakhamb (the incredibly lithe Isha reduced to an ‘item’ number) in North India in 1947; or women from Brahmin households dancing in public in strapless cholis; or a Broadway style chorus dance as a dream sequence.

Still, Kisna is watchable for Ashok Mehta making Uttaranchal’s rugged terrain look like fairyland. And for Antonia Bernath’s luminous presence. And Ismail Darbar-AR Rahman’s music. And for the valiant struggle of a successful filmmaker to not repeat himself and still find that elusive magic that makes film a box-office hit. Lofty goal apart, Ghai falls between two boats—the ‘masses’ would find the film too slow, the ‘classes’ would pick other holes in it. Whatever it may be, the time for 3-hour-plus marathons is clearly up, unless they are faced-paced and really unusual.


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