Utsav is a simply amazing film. Performances by a stellar cast, gorgeous and evocative costumes and sets (like living, breathing sculptures and paintings), songs (Laxmikant-Pyarelal) background score, plot threads, themes...everything is perfect. It is also surprisingly funny, often in the small ways that our day-to-day lives and interactions are. I love that even though it is set long ago in history and draws from ancient plays (according to the credits, it is based on two classical Sanskrit plays: Charudatt by Bahasa, circa 300 CE, and The Little Clay Cart by Sudraka, c. 400), there's very little in it that is not relatable and relevant. Writers Girish Karnad and Krishna Basrur should be very proud for weaving so many people and motivations into the tight tame frame of daily life of one town over a period of just a few days.
It is, however, a little complicated. Like Kalyug, I would have benefited from an explanation of characters and their basic relationships, as well as some research to teach me that the film is introduced by a narrator who lays out some of the passions flourishing in and driving the society in the story, as well as some of the characters, and then himself slips off to join the story. If you've seen it already, by all means skip over my little primer. As for the rest of the post, I didn't quite feel I had the brain power to do a real discussion. Instead, my reactions are presented as they occurred, in a sort of live-blogging approach, which in this case is a way to talk about the film without staying up until 2:30 a.m. putting my thoughts into actual prose. (For better, and my favorite, examples of this method, visit Nothing to Declare). To avoid spoilers, I've left out a few things observations that would give away too much, but I think it's fair game to discuss them in the comments.
Utsav begins with a few minutes of narration by Vatsyayan (Amjad Khan), who speaks directly to the camera as he introduces some people and ideas. As he refers to different people - musicians, thieves, revolutionaries - they appear briefly. Throughout the film, these characters will have proper arcs, so pay attention! (Part of my confusion the first time I watched is that I did not expect that these vignettes would establish actual characters - not just representations of ideas - so I didn't really notice who was what.) Vatsyayan then joims the world of the story (and does not narrate any further) as the author of the Kamasutra doing research at a brothel. Much of the story of the film focuses on Vasantsena (Rekha), a courtesan at the brothel, and her affair with Charudutt (Shekhar Suman), a poor but (to her) irresistible Brahmin musician. (I mention that he's Brhamin because the film refers to it repeatedly.) She, I think, represents love (and this is how the narrator introduces her, though she's more complex than just this one idea), while he stands for both music and some kind of weakness, perhaps selfishness or general lightness of character (though improves throughout the film). Material greed, lust, political power, scholarship/intellectual inquiry, and religion are represented by other characters as well.
The other major plot threads are a political revolution led by Aryak (Kunal Kapoor) and his nameless friend (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). Neena Gupta plays one of Vasantsena's sisters in the brothel and Shankar Nag is Sajjal, the thief who loves her but cannot buy her services. Shashi plays Samsthanak, the king’s brother-in-law, who is repulsive in every possible way and crazy in love with Vasantsena. He and his friend (Anupam Kher) spend most of the movie trying to locate and woo her. Vasansenta and Charudutt's relationship is complicated by his wife Aditi (Anuradha Patel), their servant Maitrey (Harish Patel), their masseur who would rather be an ascetic (Annu Kapoor), and the masseur's boss (Yunus Parvez, whom I'm beginning to think is in every movie I've ever seen).
0:00:10 Prithviraj! Shashi's such a good son. Awww. Getting misty-eyed thinking about how hard he worked for his father's theatrical legacy.
0:00:30 I love this title sequence. The two-color images with certain elements picked out and the WONDERFUL curly, rounded, heavy typeface.
0:00:35 This is probably the oldest script I've seen on film (unless you count Kalyug).
0:01:54 I know he's done lots of other roles before and after Gabbar Singh, but it always unnerves me a bit to see Amjad Khan being anything other than evil, especially when he talks right at the camera in a voice totally unlike Gabbar!
0:02:14 Thank you, helpful narrator, for telling us what Utsav is about: "youth, flowers, love, and color...and the love of Vasantsena, the courtesan. Do not sneer [at her]: we speak of an era in which courtesans were honored." "Not today's India, then," says the actress talking to the narrator. "No," he replies. "It was an age when India was prosperous. India of the 64 arts!"
0:03:18 I love the idea of "a famous masseur" who has been undone by a gambling habit.
0:3:50 This introductory section is very clever. I was so confused the first time I saw the film but as I re-watch it makes perfect sense, especially if I imagine it occurring on stage before the curtains part to reveal the main story.
0:04:22 "There's another art for you: love" as Neena Gupta jumps out of a window and runs off with a thief. "India celebrates the art of love. 'Love' is painted, sung, and glorified in music. [I am] writing a book on the art of love."
0:05:40 Kulbhushan Kharbanda!
0:06:04 Narrator: "I'm the chorus. I start the show - I don't interfere." Heehee! Meanwhile Shashi bellows offstage.
0:06:40 Too bad this first scene is so dark - it's hard to tell who anyone is.
0:07:00 And now that there's light, I see Anupam Kher hanging out with the ugly-is-as-ugly-does Shashi! Their mustaches match the font in the titles!
0:12:00 Interesting that an honest mistake sets off this brawl when later there are many lies and schemes that don't lead to trouble of any kind.
0:14:00 I love that Vasantsena is drawn to Charudatt by his singing/playing before she speaks with him or even really sees him.
0:16:00 Kya lyrics! "The night comes draped in a veil of glow-worms and whispers the fragrance of the night flowers."
0:17:35 Their first interaction is her draping him in a shawl and him noticing her decked-out hands. And it is silent for about ten seconds. He gulps at her jewelry and I can't blame him.
0:20:10 Already the interweaving of the people introduced by the narrator is so clever and integral to the story!
0:20:53 Uhoh. Vasantsena needs help taking off her jewelry. Can you just imagine how scorching this scene would have been with a stronger presence opposite Rekha?
0:25:00 This scene has just the right amount of humor. And I have to love a woman who says, in essence, "Vatsyayan has discovered 28 postures in his research for the Kamasutra and what we're doing right now will be 29" - and technically all they've done is embrace! Yowza!
0:27:20 Vatsyayan: "Your brothel will be remembered as the creative workshop, laboratory where I researched."
0:28:50 Vatsyayan reflecting on the importance of objectivity and detachment in his line of work. And upon getting stuck at only 28 postures, he says "The younger generation worries me by its lack of imagination" while Vasantsena giggles.
0:34:15 Sneaky revolutionaries, planning their attack during the festival when everyone is drunk and distracted.
0:40:00 Vasantsena's mother to Vasantsena: "Your concern is the money, not the man."
0:46:15 Baby bambis in the courtyard of the brothel! Cute!
0:50:03 Hey, that's Anant Nag's brother!
0:57:50 This film had fun in a costume storage area way before Lucky: No Time for Love got to it.
0:59:24 It's nice seeing Anuradha Patel as a sensible but still really pleasant character after hating her aptly-named Maya character so much in Ijaazat (also with Rekha and Shashi).
1:02:41 Heehee servant Maitrey (Annup Kapoor) hands the jewels right to the robber, who can hardly believe his good luck. Shankhar Nag is fantastic as Sajjal, the sassy, sexy, smart thief.
1:09:10 Exciting historical dishoom-dishoom, complete with scary slashing swords and clanking shields.
1:15:15 And now the thief has a chance to redeem himself by busting the revolutionary out of prison, even if on the surface the job is just a desperate appeal to his ego by the person with the more noble cause. Two more threads of this society and three more characters woven together.
1:17:51 "His wife?" And my heart breaks once again for the filmi courtesan even though she takes the news as a challenge.
1:31:10 I'm not sure what to make of the friendly collegiality between Vasantsena and Aditi. Part of me is relieved there is no silly woman-vs-woman fight when the man is actually the worst-behaved of the bunch; on the other hand, I wouldn't want to pal around with my husband's mistress, especially when she's with him for love despite being in the oldest profession. And of course the courtesan wants what the wife has (a son). Is the loan of her professional accoutrements an attempt at a barter for that precious commodity? Or is it just another form of sisterly bonding?
1:38:20 Aha! A discussion of why Aditi does not resent Vasantsena! Aditi thinks rich men should have courtesans, and Vasantsena's presence makes her feel rich. And Vasantsena has made him a better lover! BWAHAHAHA!
1:50:40 Oh Shashi. Don't. Shashi NOOOOOOO!
2:00:00 Finally the festival!
2:03:00 And the revolution!
2:04:50 Everyone's favorite crazy-haired bit actor Rajesh Vivek!
2:08:17 This is one of the most off-putting Shashi characters ever. He's greedy, rash, simple-minded, violent, and cowardly. He is completely untempered by the sophistication and big-hearted-ness that Shashi's characters generally have. I've read that Amitabh Bachchan was originally going to play the role but had to back out, leaving Shashi, as producer, a bit up a creek, so he decided to do it himself.
2:11:35 Moral and emotional order are restored on the civil and personal scale! These classic plays are pretty filmi, na?