Shashi is in his brainy specs, ready for a serious discussion of Shyam Benegal's 1981 retelling of the Mahabharata set in two wealthy industrial families in contemporary Bombay.

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 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 accompanied 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 Bishamchand 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?" 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 Bishamchand replies "What good is suicide? Karan, if one has reasons to die, one has reasons to live, too."  
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.) Bishamchand's final advice to Karan is "Son, build a relationship with life"; Karan's reply is "With whose life?"
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, 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.


Rum said…
I really like this movie, though at first my mum told me it was about the mahabharata, i freaked out coz their are many brothers and family storylines! but thankfully the beginning family tree helped me out! I really thought it worked as a pre-Sarkar kind of power-struggle movie, I wished now as a upcoming movie journo i had the expertise and analysis of prof lutgendorf but anyway your explanation smoothed my what and huh moments of the movie! Shashi was a great as Karan, so serious and so always standing at the terrace! and anant nag must be a distant relative of SRK, and i always notice in a Shyam Benegal one of the key actors has a buzz or near baldy cut!
gebruss said…
Oh, the Kalyug write up you have been talking about. It sounds good but a little bit scary to me. I might need company to cope with it.
Anonymous said…
I first saw this movie as a young 'un and had no idea it was based on the Mahabharata and I liked it just fine on its own merits. of course, i liked it even more once I understood the context. And I think your instinctive grasp of the story is remarkable if you didn't know the backstory. It's been a while since I last saw it so I'm a little rusty but let's see if I can answer your questions:

1) Kathakali (the dance performance they were watching) is always based on The Mahabharata. At least I've never been to a performance that wasn't based on a story out of the Mahabharata. I don't remember which scene they were enacting in the movie but given the entire epic is about human folly, you were probably spot on in your characterization of it. By the green paint on the face of the dancer in your screencap, it's one of the good guys (Arjuna probably) lamenting some action.

2) The Buddha in the background is a subtle parallel to the character of Bheeshma in the Mahabharata. Although they follow wildly divergent paths to enlightenment, they were both royal princes who removed themselves from contention to the throne and followed ascetic principles. The difference between their journeys is that the Buddha's was the journey of a man lived out in the world, while Bheeshma was a celestial being who lived his path to repentance amongst mortals.

3) In the Mahabharata Subhadra is the name of the wife of Arjuna, but she was very much the younger wife coz Draupadi (Supriya in Kalyug) was always the dominant force who drove the Pandavas. She loses her only son to the war but her grandson is the sole survivor of the extended clan and heir to the kingdom of the cousins once the Pandavas set off with Draupadi for Heaven.
Anonymous said…
Amrita, has done a great job of responding to ur queries - so I won't reiterate.'Mahabharata' indeed is an extremely complex story - but it should not be looked at as utterances of god cast in stone; it has gone through several interpretations/ adaptations as the story has travelled across Asia.U wud be amazed to know of the sheer volume of derivative literature on Mahabharata.

The Wikipedia entry can be a good starting point to grasp the basic story of Mahabharata. For some of the derivative literature/ discussion, pls refer to the following links: http://www.prempanicker.com/index.php?/site/C52/ and http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2008/09/bhimas-story-thoughts-on-yudhisthira.html

Ur understanding and review of the movie is spot on - though personally I remember being kinda underwhelmed by it. I thought Mr. benegal undertilized the dramatic potential of the 'Mahabharata' storyline - it was a grt attempt nevertheless. 'Karna', the role played by Shashi in the movie is one of the most complex and talked abt characters in 'mahabharata' - Shashi did a good job in portraying it
Amey said…
From your descriptions (and feelings) of Karan, I think the character might be based on Karna:

It is indeed one of the most complex, and most gray-shaded character in the Mahabharat story filled with all shades of gray.
Anonymous said…

Great analysis of the movie...I remember seeing this years ago, and disliking the "Realism" of the movie - I like my movies escapist and silly! ;-D

Amrita has covered your questions, but Subhadra is also Krishna's (the god) sister, and she is specifically Arjuna's wife, not the wife of the rest of the Pandavas.

Anonymous said…
I am so glad Shashi was able to persuade you to discuss this one in insightful detail!

It is an interesting movie even without the Mahabharata connection (like Amrita, I too liked it long before I realised its relationship to the epic) but knowing the epic adds an extra layer of appreciation and everytime I watch it I have fun discovering new Mahabharata aspects in the movie. (If you're interested in exploring the story of the epic, try Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's novel Palace of Illusions for a modern retelling.)

"at the very bottom of the page, he[Philip Lutgendorf]'s got a detail wrong about the final stages of the plot."

What is it? Re-read his review and didnt catch it.
So you finally wrote it out! I think you have a very apt analysis of the movie here. I find this the most intriguing of Benegal's work- he usually makes me weep a lot, which he did here too, only not in the usual copious quantity.

Does it appear to you that Bharat and Supriya have an affair later in the movie? I wasnt sure if that was indicated or not. Shashi of course carries the movie- he beyond amazing here- acting wise + looks.
Thanks everyone for your kind words and thoughtful answers!

Rum - Agreed all around, it is totally wonderful (as is Prof. Lutgendorf). Shashi does love his terrace here, doesn't he? I think I would too, if I had an outdoor living room and an ocean view.

gebruss - You can do it! Bravery and cunning!

Amrita - I'm trying to imagine seeing this as a kid - I'm sure I would have been lost beyond repair. And THANK YOU for these answers! The only kathakali I've ever seen was on the Mahabharata also; I think I remember someone being clubbed...and other people being sad. Just like what's here, actually. I would never have figured that out about Buddha and Bheeshma! Smarty! As for Subhadra, I really liked the character here. She was so sweet and positive - and clearly she was getting in way over her head.

Sudipta - I'm sure I would :) Thank you for the links - I'll investigate. I think I see what you mean about under-doing the dramatic potential - for as much that happened here, there could have been a lot more, and certainly the reactions, reflections, and clearer representations of simple good and evil (Lutgendorf mentions that, I think) could have been included.

Amey - I'll take a look. Karna is not someone I know anything about.

Bitterlemons - Yeahno, there's no escaping here. And as all of you are helpfully adding information for me, I want to go back and watch again, now that I know more!

bollyviewer - He is v persuasive. Thank goodness he uses his powers for good rather than evil, no? :) I can only imagine the clue-hunting one could do with this film. It seems like very rich ground. And thanks for the novel recommendation - I'll try it!

As for the detail I'm wondering about: he says that Parikshit (Dharam Raj and Supriya's son, played by Urmila Matondkar) is the only one of the youngest generation to survive the story - but don't Dhan Raj (Victor Bannerjee)'s daughters survive too? Or did I forget something awful happening to them?

Speaking of which, I think the actors playing his kids are in fact his daughters - they look just like him and are as cute as buttons.

Shweta - I had a ton more I want to talk about, but I had to stop somewhere :) Thanks so much for your kidn words. It really is a great movie - as you say, very intriguing. I have only seen Zubeidaa and Junoon, the latter of which also really impressed me.

Yes, I do think that their affair is being alluded to at the end of the film (though I think it is being foreshadowed - it hasn't happened yet, but it's implied for the future). There is something not entirely in-law-y about their situation and postures...and they're on a bed, even. What really made me think this, though, is that his actual wife is closed out - clearly she is thought not to be able to really understand or help him, and that his real soul mate is not her.

Shashi is SUPERB in this. He has so much to do and is so subtle and effective. And sad. Ohhh so sad. I cried and cried at the end and said "Noooooooo!!!!" to the screen.
Anonymous said…
Beth - LOL! Clubbed sounds like the slaying of Duryodhan. Death of the anti-hero.

Karna is my favorite character in the Mahabharat and Amey's right re: Shashi's character being modeled on him. In fact, it's a pretty straight parallel in how the story works out (including the bloodline factor) except that in the Mahabharat, the attraction between Draupadi and Karna is never really explored.

the detail I'm wondering about: he says that Parikshit ...is the only one of the youngest generation to survive the story - but don't Dhan Raj (Victor Bannerjee)'s daughters survive too?
Ahem, you forget: only boys count. No penis, no cash.

As for the affair thing that Shweta mentions - I always thought Bharat and Supriya were kind of like Bobby and Jackie Kennedy in their relationship.
Amrita - Hee! I wish my photos of it were better and I could report back with certainty.

And silly me - thinking girls are people.
Unknown said…
I have watched this movie ages ago. Don't remember much. Added to Netflix :)

The Kathakali scene seems like Arjuna lamenting the death of Karana at his hands. In the Mahabharatha, only after Karana's death, Arjuna learns that he was his brother. He is very grief sricken, and curses his mother that that day forward no woman should be able to keep a secret.
Unknown said…
Oh no! This one is not available on Netflix. That was some other stupid Kalyug there!
Vatsala - Netflix doesn't have it? BAD NETFLIX. I only recently realized there was a new, non-Benegal one as well: someone asked me what I had thought of so-and-so's performance, and I had to think really hard, but despite there being 8 zillion people in this Kalyug, that actor was not among them.

And I am so glad to have an excuse for why secret-keeping is so peskily difficult!
Anonymous said…
Slightly unrelated, but given ur fondness for Shashi, u may try watching this movie called "In Custody" - I think its a merchant-Ivory production. Of course this has Shashi in his extremely corpulent version as a fading Urdu poet
Anonymous said…
i neever seen this one but all the brilliant actors are there. i hope to watch it some time.thanks for bringing some good movies for reviewing. it was a good reading
Sudipta - Oh yes, I would love to see that. I think my local video shop has it; that and Siddhartha are next on my to-rent list. Of course, my pile of unwatched and unreviewed DVDs is might high as well :)

Anon - The actors are indeed wonderful in this! I hope you get to see it. Thank you for stopping by and your kind words.
Anonymous said…

It's Anant Nag..
Temple said…
Hi Beth - I know bugger all about the Mahabharata but I still enjoyed, well no not enjoyed, but found this movie really engaging. Shashi's performance was very restrained and yet the layers of the backstory were conveyed (his feelings for Rekha, the lack of family). Yes there were wheels within wheels in this film, and I found that I had to keep going to the end. I was so sad for Karan and all the younger characters at the end. He didn't deserve what happened, and the kids would be warped by their experience of growing up in that family environment. Rekha's character was scary - she had that icy determination ,knowledge of how to manipulate those around her and ability to size up and choose who to hook up with, from what I recall. Thanks to everyone who has posted explanations of the classical parallels, it has added a lot to my understanding of the character motivations. But will I watch this again? No probably not. It was a bit too grim and I had to grit my teeth and remind myself of my completist gene that forces me to finish things.
Anonymous said…
Hi Beth

I am glad you managed to see "Kalyug" at last and as usual have done a great review.

This is one of my favourite Shyam Benegal Movies. Sashi was awesome and had a good role to play ie Karna of Mahabharata as all others have pointed out.

Keep the reviews flowing.


ectp - Oops! Thank you and duly corrected.

Temple - I love the expression "bugger all" - it's one of the things British English has that I covet but eel would be too pretentious to co-opt. Anyway. Yeah! Really engaging! And Shashi is just so very, very good in this. I want to see it again just to watch him handle all those layers, as you point out. I'm not sure how soon I would be ready for it again, but that time will come, grimness and all. I think my parents would like it, actually.

Meera - Thank you! And it's always good to hear more praise for Shashi. :)
Anonymous said…
True, you can enjoy Kalyug on its own without knowing the Mahabharata. But really, there is so much referecing to that epic that you can't appreciate the finer nuances of the film without reading the Mahabharata. Things like Shashi's relationship with the family appears to be an oddity, unless you know about Karna and Kunti's giving up of him as an infant. Just recently, the film Billu Barber was a modern look at the story of Krishna and his friend, Sudama. Krishna plays an incredibly important role in the Mahabharata - no Krishna, no Bhagvad Gita. And while you're at it, you should also read the Ramayana, as there are so many references to that scattered throughout Hindi films. Like that godawful film, Hum Saath Saath Hain.

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