A note on the mythic witnesses of “Kalyug”

The most remarkable aspect of Benegal’s adaptation of the ancient Hindu text is just how “secular” the world here is outside of the obvious underpinnings. It’s not simply that these characters aren’t too overtly played up in reference to their counterparts in the original text, but also that the world of the extended family here seems far removed from any sense of devotion, any religious ritual outside of the suggestion of such. In fact, the film is marked by moments of profound awkwardness or inner turmoil when certain key characters come into direct contact with a “Hindu universe” that is otherwise avoided at every turn. A Kathakali performance depicting a mythic, violent battle scene is cut short when Anant Nag’s character grows bored and impatient with the show. Shashi Kapoor, (playing the Karna analog Karan here, a Rhodes Scholar who likes to listen to Western Classical in his solitude) is frustrated and stuck in traffic during a Ganesh procession. Later, he is intensely torn as he witnesses the immersion of Durga and explodes angrily at a young woman who begs for change at his side.

There are weddings and funerals that occur here mostly in passing, religious “paraphernalia” whirls around the film’s “galaxy” of players,  but there is little actually shown by way of ritual or formal practice on the part of the main characters. Notably, a key wedding is entirely elided (the one between Anant Nag and Supriya Pathak) but Benegal cuts in a scene where the entire family “witnesses” the couple’s engagement video with mixed reactions of awkwardness and quiet inner conflict. This scene alone captures the sense that the characters here, while steeped with references to the Hindu text, are not in any sense comfortable with or interested in the rituals and key moments where religion and family ties rear their heads. It is notable that this home video scene is interrupted by a profoundly awkward moment in which a Swamiji who remains the estranged father of the entire family is treated like a stranger—a walking affront to the secret roots of this family that always seems to lean towards increasingly Western modalities of expression and cultural identification.

The true Kalyug exists perhaps as a period in which, as in the case of this Swamiji scene, the “rooted” is erased. A period in which personal and filial histories become effaced and ancient cultures are lost and found—but lost and found perpetually.

41 Responses to “A note on the mythic witnesses of “Kalyug””

  1. This is phenomenally insightful GF. A completely new way of looking at the film. I feel like revisiting it after reading this.

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  2. I’m glad I finally came around to seeing this, and the film it obviously reminded me of most was “Trishul” because of the mythological resonance of that earlier film along with its casting of Shashi Kapoor, the corporate context, the estranged family ties, etc. I have to say this is also instantly my favorite Shashi Kapoor performance. He’s just exquisite here.

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  3. Great piece , but like Satyam you have chosen to briefly throw light on one tiny aspect , leaving the Junta thirsty for more.

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    • I’ve recently adopted Satyam’s occasional strategy of “notes” instead of full fledged “reviews”. It’s the easy way out, I admit!

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      • LOL!

        But I also think a briefer piece which comes at a film from a very different perspective can enlighten far more (not referring to my pieces) than longer more traditional ones. For example I found your Kalyug piece here more interesting as a window into the film (and otherwise) than anything else I’ve come across on it.

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    • Yes, must agree with Rocky here — hopefully this is the first of a series…

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  4. And having watched this, my interest in Ravana has (hard to believe!) redoubled. Granted this is a thirty year old film from a very different filmmaker and a different text so the lens though which Benegal read the Mahabharata is not going to be identical to Ratnam’s in his Ramayana adaptation. But what’s key here is the idea of popular inversion of a classic text–Benegal doesn’t make anyone in his film the clear good guy, but if he does give us a privileged protagonist it is unquestionably the Karna character played by Kapoor. Benegal’s allegiance seems to lie more with the Kaurava side. This to my mind seems very similar to the Ravana-as-protagonist/antihero strategy employed by Ratnam in his upcoming movie.

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  5. Hmmm, assuming you were not disappointed.
    Thnaks for the notes and while enjoyed them, the film cries out for a little more.

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    • Not disappointed to put it lightly. This was a great film and it certainly calls for more thought, more writing, both of which I’m afraid I’m not equipped to offer!

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  6. I’ll include my earlier even briefer (!) note on this as well:

    https://satyamshot.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/shyam-benegals-kalyug/

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  7. Very interesting post GF. Kalyug is one of my fav Benegal movies for the entire treatment and Shasi’s acting as you have rightly pointed out. I think this film was produced by Shashi if I remember right. Anant Nag has also been a favourite of mine (in the few films I have seen him in).

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  8. Great piece here, GF. There’s much to chew on in this. Thanks. I’m quite surprised that you had not seen this film earlier. One of my favourite Benegal films and undoubtedly a great film.

    I can’t help but recall here how mediocre (and often quite silly even) Mani Ratnam’s interpretation of the Karna story was in Thalapathi. That was a Mani Ratnam film that I loved as a kid for the signature Mani Ratnam style, but found strikingly disappointing when I revisited years later.

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  9. Having said that, (like everyone else here) I’m greatly looking to Asokavanam/Raavan. No two ways about it. I think he’s on to something very remarkable here. We’ve to wait and watch, of course, but I wager that Mani Ratnam is more provocative in (re)telling a Ramayana-esque tale as opposed to a Mahabharat-esque one.

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  10. Isn’t the word ‘secular’ being misused here? Or at least not in the sense meant in India?

    That the characters shun any concern for religion or are awkward with regards to religion is not ‘secular’. Perhaps *that* is Benegal’s interpretation of Kalyug – not secularism.

    One may have many things to say about the word’s political abuse, but I’m not getting into that. I’m just calling a spade a spade.

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    • I don’t think so. The word is being used loosely here simply to describe what in my view was a very clear decision on Benegal’s part to “divorce” overt religiosity from “dictating” the lives of his characters. Simple as that. I don’t think “secular” is entirely an inappropriate term for this decision, especially considering the source!

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    • I am not sure I follow: is the point you are making that GF’s use of “secular” is correct as far as English is concerned, but NOT in terms of what the word means in Indian political discourse?

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      • No, I meant that the use of the word ‘secular’ is as defined in the west where it means ‘having nothing to do with religion’.

        Surely one knows that in India it means
        ‘considering all religions’.

        So IMO Benegal was probably showing a side where he wasn’t leaning too much towards religion rather than being ‘secular’.

        GF’s comment;
        >The most remarkable aspect of Benegal’s adaptation of the ancient Hindu text is **just how “secular” the world here** is outside of the obvious underpinnings.

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        • Re: “No, I meant that the use of the word ’secular’ is as defined in the west where it means ‘having nothing to do with religion’.

          Surely one knows that in India it means
          ‘considering all religions’.”

          Ok, so I think we are on the same page…

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        • ‘having nothing to do with religion’.

          Yep.

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    • This guy is terrific. Always intend to look at his site when I watch a old Hindi film. And I’m glad to see someone else use the word secular with respect to Kalyug!

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      • >I’m glad to see someone else use the word secular with respect to Kalyug!

        I’ve seen this kind of use quite often, that’s why I bothered to mention it.
        Mostly people living in the west do that, forgetting their country’s use of the word, or plain ignorant about it.
        If one living in India uses it in this manner then he/she is most probably a rightist.

        It gives one such a wrong sense of the word – which exists in the Indian Constitution with the other meaning.

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        • We’re going to go around in circles with regard to this use of this word. I’m not denying the use of this word in an Indian political context, never did, but it is hardly incorrect to introduce the other usage in this context. So your unsubtle suggestion that I’m being ignorant about it (leaving aside your presumptions with regard to my cultural perspective, political leaning or nationality) is a little mystifying.

          There’s a bit of irony in your defending the “Indian meaning” of “secular” as meaning something inclusive in a manner that, to my mind, is pretty exclusive.

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        • Not to mention that it is hardly the case that everyone agrees what “secular” means in the Indian constitution (as opposed to what it means in current Indian political discourse). I think Nehru and Ambedkar would probably have assumed the word meant what it does in ordinary English (i.e. it is only in subsequent decades that it came to acquire a different hue) — and the ordinary English is the sense I read GF to mean it in in his piece. It is the Indian usage that is a very particular, specific use of it, and given that the majority/minority, pluralism etc. wasn’t part of this discussion, I had no reason to assume that the very particular, specific sense was intended. One is not condemned by one’s ethnicity/background to use it only in the sense you are referring to.

          And even HAD I so thought, the piece counters such a reading quite explicitly: “The most remarkable aspect of Benegal’s adaptation of the ancient Hindu text is just how “secular” the world here is outside of the obvious underpinnings. …[T]he world of the extended family here seems far removed from any sense of devotion, any religious ritual outside of the suggestion of such.” It is quite obvious that “secular” in its sense of “the opposite of religious” or “godless” is meant.

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          • >I think Nehru and Ambedkar would probably have assumed the word meant what it does in ordinary English

            Not at all. The meaning is very clearly defined in the constitution.

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          • Its meaning in the constitution is, as I read it, that no religion is established as an official religion where the Indian polity is concerned. i.e. a principle of neutrality as between religions, if you will. That’s just not what GF’s piece is about.

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        • Re: “If one living in India uses it in this manner then he/she is most probably a rightist.”

          I disagree with this. I think it might be fairer to say that people who use “pseudo-secular” a lot in Indian public discourse tend to be associated with or sympathetic to the right, but I do not think it’s fair to say that of the usage of “secular” too. Granted this word must be quite tired with all the work it has to do in Indian politics, but there’s no reason to impugn the motives of folks who do use it in a descriptive, and not a prescriptive, way.

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  11. @GF
    No, no. I wasn’t being personal with that remark.

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  12. An interesting discussion on ‘secularism’ within the Indian context:

    http://www.iheu.org/node/298

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  13. My view that I was expressing was more in line with what Amartya Sen expressed in his book ‘Argumentative Indian’.

    Link

    http://www.littleindia.com/news/123/ARTICLE/1312/2005-10-15.html

    Scroll down to ‘Understanding Secularism’ where the first para describes my thoughts and clearly states ‘secularism’ in India doesn’t mean the same as in the west.

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  14. @Qalandar
    >That’s just not what GF’s piece is about.

    Obviously.
    We are now discussing the meaning of secularism in India 🙂

    I apologise for going off topic, but I think that’s sometime the result of discussion – sort of a chain reaction.
    Not a bad thing IMO.

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  15. GF, this was an outstanding piece to say the least. Especially loved ur first para where u talk abt certain events disturbing the otherwise humdrum lives of the characters. Also ur observation on Shashi listening to Bach was spot on. While I still Ankur is Benegal’s best film Kalyug is probably his most profound one. IMO Benegal should have made more films like Kalyug and Junoon rather than ‘limiting’ himself to the arid world of his village based films.He should have followed the Nihalani model

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  16. And i was revisting Bapu’s Hum Paanch (Sanjeev Kumar,Naseer,Mithun,Shabana,Amrish Puri,Raj Babbar,Deepti Naval)- a more direct (the names of the leads are derived directly from the characters of the epic) but a very interesting adaptation of Mahabharat set in a ‘rural context’ where 5 guys (pandavas) revolt against caste and class opression caused by a landlord (Duryodhan). This to my mind is Mithun’s best performance by a mile. And the ‘opression’ shown in the film is gut-wrenching.You should give it a tr

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