I'm sorry, Shashi ji. I'm feeling really daunted. I don't know much about the Mahabharata* - and even less about the works of Shyam Benegal.
Can't we just lounge about on your tastefully-appointed ocean-view terrace and listen to western classical music and talk about art?
Yikes! So disapproving! Okay, I didn't realize you felt so strongly about it. I'll try.
Kalyug follows a brutal struggle for industry dominance by two branches of the same family, Puranchand and Khubchand, each comprising three generations. (Don't ask me what their businesses actually do - I think it's engineering of some kind; machinery and factories are important.) In the process of trying to win an important government contract, each side issues attack after attack on the other, with devastating and tragic consequences. Everyone is a perpetrator and/or victim of the competitiveness - and sometimes both. If you'd like to see who everyone is, I made screen captures of the family trees from the beginning of the movie and notated them: Puranchand and Khubchand. Most of the action is devised by the middle generation, who have both parents and children alive. On the Puranchand side, this consists of the distracted eldest brother Dharam Raj (Raj Babbar),
his smart and opinionated wife Supriya (Rekha),
Urmila Matondkar as Rekha's son.
who obviously should be allowed to participate in the business more than she does, hedonistic middle son Bal Raj (Kulbhushan Kharbanda),
and capable Bharat Raj (Anant Nag).
He reminded me a lot of Shahrukh (only facially - there are no sheer shirts or arm-flinging in this movie.)
Amrish Puri plays Kishan, Supriya's brother, who is linked to the Puranchands both in profession and by family. Dhan Raj (Victor Bannerjee)
is the driving force on the Khubchand side, and he has a very invovled and clever business partner, Karan Singh (Shashi Kapoor).
Look how Karan and Kishan are off to the side a little bit - included, but not as integrated. That happened a lot.
For those of less familiar with the Mahabharata than with modern American epics, The Godfather might come to mind: violent struggles for power and navigating family allegiances with deadly consequences. The Khubchand and Puranchand businesses are legitimate, but their strategies and means sometimes fall far from that status. Power structures begin to become clear during a family celebration; Bharat's wife Subhadra, like Kay, is closed out of the inner sanctum of family grief and planning; and Dhan Raj's brother Sandeep is like Fredo, sickly and weak, unfit to handle what the family must do.
One of the trusted resources I turn to when I see a film and keep thinking "Hmm, I wonder what that was all about" - or just generally want to know more about it before I feel ready to make public my own reactions - is Professor Philip Lutgendorf's philip's fil-ums. (Warning: his review contains spoilers.**) I absolutely concur with his opening remarks that Kalyug is "austere...well crafted, beautifully paced, and superbly and understatedly acted by an all-star cast." Brilliant is the best word for it. Everything about it felt real and immediate - so much so that I often forgot that the basic story is ancient, complicated, and essential to a religion I don't know much about. The murky ethics, the anguished decision-making, the unbalanced priorities in the web of profit, family, and duty: all of these echo as realistic in this setting.
Unlike Prof. Lutgendorf, though, I think the movie works very well even if you're unfamiliar with the Mahabharata. Of course you won't pick up on as many threads and lessons, and you'll probably have a lot harder time navigating all the characters, and you won't see them and their actions through the lens of their original significance. But that doesn't mean the whole thing falls apart. I thought the film stood on its own very well, even assuming that I missed characterizations of particular values, references to famous advice, or even embodiments of the epic-scale worldviews. I would not be surprised to learn that there is commentary about contemporary economic conditions as well; the families include taxes, labor unrest, and foreign ties in their arsenals.
Even if you're meeting these characters (or representations of ideas) for the first time, you can follow their struggles to sort out greed and duty, identity and power.
Karan may be the most tragic figure of all. At first Karan comes off as very much in control - he's steely in his business plans; his organized apartment and fussily over-accessorized breakfast are accompanieid by the ordered, rational melodies of Bach - but there are hints of his sadness over his failed love affair with Supriya before her marriage.
The sophisticated industrialist keeps a photo of a married woman on his nightstand with a small vase of flowers. Who is this guy? As the corporate drama rises he becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and a secret about his past revealed late in the film unhinges him entirely. As soon as his true history falls out of line with his recent actions, he can think of no future path. When he turns to Khubchand for advice and is met with a blunt "Go away. I'm not god; go make your own decisions," he pauses for a moment and says "How about suicide?" Gah! Look how far he has fallen: he can't separate what he has experienced and learned, what his capabilities are, from his newfound real history. To which Khubchand replies "What good is suicide? Karan, if one has reasons to die, one has reasons to live, too." Double gah! I'm not sure if Karan is supposed to be an evil genius or just an incredibly driven executive, but he is also somehow the most human and empathetic person in the story, maybe because we get to know more about his non-work self than we do about the other players. He's the first of the men to actually try to de-escalate the tensions and protect the other side. (Of course the grandmothers and mothers have been expressing grief and feeling the effects of the plots more personally all along.) Khubchand's final advice to Karan is "Son, build a relationship with life"; Karan's reply is "With whose life?" Triple gah!
And I'm not just saying this because Shashi plays Karan. Karan Singh is one of those significant, impressive roles, a person you are suspicious of, impressed by, and hopeful for...and then you grieve.
I have to talk about one of the visual components. Everywhere you look in this movie, there are wheels. Factory machines, telephone dials, tires. Modes of transport are also ubiquitous, with many, many scenes of some family member or other pulling up to a house in a car. I had two thoughts on this. First, perhaps they are references to Arjuna's chariot in the Mahabharata - or, more importantly, to its charioteer? Second, maybe they are signals of the Kalyug - the age of disorder, of machines - or to the cycles of life of which the Kalyug is a necessary stage?
Another question: what's going to happen next? There's been devastation and death. People are moving away. The consequences are known and felt by everyone. Are they left with no will to go on? Or will the families - or their businesses - continue?
As the film ends, Bharat is spent from rage and confusion. Who's comforting him? Not his wife, the young, sweet Subhadra, who has little patience for business matters and has, by this point, been shut out by a more confident, opinionated woman, Supriya.
It's Supriya he clings to, who successfully reaches out to him. She obviously has the brains and determination to make the business rise...if someone will let her in. Oooh! Just like Sarkar Raj!
Though the movie is mostly secularized in its setting - I can't even remember if anyone goes to a temple - art links links the viewer to the historical precedent of the story and to the values and behaviors represented by such well-known icons. I suspect some of the art is also there to show that these are educated people who collect not only because they like the objects but also to show off their ability to acquire and the sophistication and refinement required to appreciate what they have obtained.
PPCC, can you help me with why Buddha is here? Avatar of Vishnu? Duty? Right action? The value of eschewing worldly wealth and a princely lifestyle?
I also felt another effect, namely that the gods were present and watching, even if the people didn't pay particular attention to them. The performing arts comment too.
Bharat isn't interested in this performance; he and Subhadra skip out early and head off to a nice dinner. "Behold! Heed!" the dancers seem to say, but the people won't listen. I don't know what story the dancers are enacting, but you can tell there's death and regret in it just by watching.
One more. One of the cars has a small sticker for Dostana in it. Meaningless coincidence? Or nod to another tale of a rift coming between people who should be close?
I thought Kalyug was completely successful, even if it probably didn't work as much or as profoundly (for me) as it would for viewers who are familiar with the Mahabharata. I was definitely confused at times, but only because I couldn't remember which brothers went together, not because I wasn't moved by their tragedy. As Lutgendorf says, the plot is actually quite straightforward and no real back story is given (or needed). Corporate competition gets really out of hand. That's about it. And even if why is a different question, the effects are clear. Greed destroys. People grapple with personal responsibility, potential, and identity. Commitments are broken. Grief and regret overwhelm. All of this happens, and I felt all of it immediately, yet it's so calm. People inflict one tragedy after another on each other, and the victims continue on. I don't know how a movie can be both gut-wrenching and even-keeled, but there it is. It is a sad, fascinating film, and I recommend it to everyone.
* I have picked up some idea of the Mahabharata over the years, largely through an exhibit I worked on about Balinese Hinduism, and I did some further introductory reading before I watched this film, but what I know and understand would fit on an index card. And of course knowing the sketch of a story is very different from growing up or being otherwise immersed in a culture that has drawn on and been shaped by the text for centuries.
** And if my memory is correct, at the very bottom of the page, he's got a detail wrong about the final stages of the plot. ** Update to post (October 29, 2008): As usual, Indie Quill set me straight on this. To clarify in a spoiler-free way, just know that my read of what he wrote was too literal, and Lutgendorf was probably speaking in a more specific context that I didn't pick up on.