Saturday, December 10, 2005

Navarasa & Hanuman 


Santosh Sivan’s Navarasa (Tamil with English sub-titles) has obviously been made for the foreign festival circuit. The foreigners want to see exotic India, right? And for them Sivan weaves a flimsy story about a girl going in search of her uncle—the twist being that the uncle is a transvestite.

Swetha (who also acted in Sivan’s Malli when she was younger) is a chatterbox teenager, the pampered only child of a traditional parents living in Chennai. Her ‘puberty’ is celebrated in full ritual splendour—a bit of exotica for the Western market.

She discovers that her beloved “Chittapa” Gautam (Khushbu) is a cross dresser, and intends to attend a ritual in which eunuchs (following a custom dating back to the Mahabharat) marry Arjuna’s son Aravan, who is sacrificed, and the eunuchs then live as widows.

Of course, Sivan mixes up eunuchs, hermaphrodites, transvestites, gays—all are a bunch of garishly dressed freaks participating in a beauty contest, and then going to the marriage and widowhood ceremonies.

Swetha, with a confidence and fearlessless that belies her conservative upbringing (where even a cute little neighbourhood boy is frowned upon), takes advantage of her parents’ absence, and embarks on a journey to find her uncle. Her travelling companion and protector is Bobby Darling, also going to take part in the Miss Koovagam beauty contest.

Wandering around a seedy town overrun by transvestites and strange men, and later among the crowd at the ceremony, Swetha becomes the conduit through whose eyes, the audience sees the strangely innocent world of the ‘third gender’ captured documentary style. She and Bobby Darling (who can’t act to save his/her life) always have last-minute rescues whenever anything untoward happens.

At the end of the film—one is none the wiser about the problems of transvestites. All that remains in the mind are the visuals of the fashion show, a field of broken bangles, white-clad, ghost-like figures and the one scene in which Bobby Darling has a weeping fit in the bathroom and comes out saying calmly, “I have finished crying.”


At the suburban cinema (almost empty) where Hanuman was showing, a handful of grandfathers had dragged along little grandkids, presumably to get a dose of Indian culture. The only thing that kept the restless kids quiet was generous doses of eats.

Since television and video versions of the epics, plus Amar Chitra Katha comics have already given children a vague knowledge of the Ramayan, what they certainly don’t need is a plodding animated version, studded with bhajans. VG Samant’s Hanuman may be meant for kids, but it would do better if it aimed at a much, much older grandparent age group—the kind who frequent religious gatherings and perform ‘aartis’ in front of the TV set when mythological serials are on air.

The animation is passable – garish calendar figures—but even at its compact 90-minute running time, Hanuman is tough to sit through. With an earnest thoroughness, it tells the story of Hanuman from his birth to the return to Ayodhya after the battle against Ravan in Sri Lanka. But if the film intended to attract kids, it should have been more fun to watch, with less of the jo aagya prabhu kind of dialogue. The antics of the very cute child Hanuman could have been funny, the battle scenes could have been more exciting, and the music definitely needed to be peppier.

Animation is a painstaking process, and all that work is wasted, if the end result is a colourful but uninteresting film.


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