Abzee on KATYAR KALJAT GHUSALI and going back to the movies
I couldn’t have asked for a better cinematic experience to return to watching movies on the big screen again than the Marathi language Hindustani Classical Musical KATYAR KALJAT GHUSALI (A Dagger through the Heart). My last outing at the cinemas was the fifth installment of the M: I series on the 27th of August, 2015… before a freak motorcycle accident rendered me put at home, recovering slowly but steadily. To a cinephile such as me, more debilitating than the injury even was being robbed of the almost religious ritual of the weekly visits to the cinemas. Good, bad or plain ugly… there is a certain incompleteness without the movies. And TV just doesn’t match up. Anyways… after watching a dozen or so releases that I was looking forward to come and go, I finally got the green signal from my orthopedist to watch a movie at the cinema hall! My choices were Bajirao Mastani, Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Natsamrat. And then, while going through the listings, one saw that KATYAR KALJAT GHUSALI was still playing… well into its 9th week at a few select screens.
KATYAR KALJAT GHUSALI is an adaptation of the famous Marathi natya sangeet (musical theatre) of the same name. The play had a phenomenal run of more than 1,000 shows back in 1967, most thronging to the theatres to catch the live jugalbandi of Pt. Jitendra Abhisheki and Vasantrao Deshpande, both stalwarts of Hindustani Classical Music. One hears from those having experienced the play back in the day that such riveting and rapturous the experience was that the running time of 4 hours would never be felt. But Marathi theatre is, and has always been, multi-faced.
Marathi theatre has always enjoyed loyal audiences and patronage… more so than theatre of other languages. Even when Marathi cinema was dying in the 80s and 90s, Marathi theatre was thriving. And not just in comparison to its Hindi and English counterparts. One of the reasons for this could be that the theatre-going experience in Hindi and English has always been associated with certain elitism, whereas the audience for Marathi theatre includes your Puneri socialite to the mill-worker from Lalbaug. But this vast gamut of an audience base also means that the medium is wont to pander and play to the gallery every now and then. Like the Hindi films then of a certain period where the bad guy was always Muslim and the unchaste vamp Christian; even during its best times, Marathi theatre has had to deal with the revolting alongside the outstanding. I must bring to mind a scene from Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court in which the middle-class family of the Maharashtrian lawyer go for a Sunday play (an outing routine that is common to most Maharashtrian families) and heartily lap up a crude xenophobic comedy. But for every play such as Bhaiyya Haath Paay Pasari! (The UPite Encroaches!), there exists works such as Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Wada Chirebandi (Old Stone Mansion), a drama about a family coming to terms with the inevitability of its crumbling ancestral house and its warring two brothers, the elder brother who harbours a resentment that he is left behind to tend to the destitute inheritance and the younger brother who is at a loss to explain that his life in the city isn’t any grand as they imagine it to be.
The famous playwright Vijay Tendulkar had written in one of his pieces about how, had he left his Muslim experience only to a certain kind of Marathi theatre (Puneri Brahmanical superiority) that he saw as a child, he would have grown up a man in morbid fear and distrust of Muslims. But just as there are dissenting enlightened voices now, there were back then too. And if nothing else, you can’t fault Marathi literature or theatre for not providing a space to all kinds of voices… from the rigid across to the atheist and the agnostic in between. For every Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (This is Nathuram Godse Speaking) there is a Ghashiram Kotwal (Police Chief Ghashiram)- a historical satire criticizing the rise of the ideological Shiv Sena. I digress.
The original natya sangeet KATYAR KALJAT GHUSALI, like those plays Vijay Tendulkar spoke of, is one of a Muslim betrayal avenged by a Hindu. It must be said in its defense however, that even for its times, it treaded around this mandatory disturbing plot point rather cleverly. The playwright Purshottam Darvhekar would go on to become the Producer of Doordarshan in the following decades and did serials on Pandit Nehru and directed plays such as Tagore’s Kabuliwala. But in the year 1967, Darvhekar had to draw in audiences to what was essentially a jugalbandi between two Hindustani Classical giants. So Pt. Abhisheki played Pt. Shastri, the Royal Singer in the court of the King of Vishrampur at the height of the British rule in India. Impressed with the vocal skills of Khan Aftab Hussain Bareliwale (played by Vasantrao Deshpande), Pt. Shastri invites him over to Vishrampur. Around the same time, the King has an intricate dagger commissioned to be made which he plans to gift to the Royal Singer of his court… an honour that will be conferred upon the winner in a jugalbandi with the incumbent Royal Singer Pt. Shastri. The bearer of the dagger will additionally be pardoned one kill with it as well! Khansaheb and Pt. Shastri thus face each other in a spirited close jugalbandi which Pt. Shastri wins. With every passing year and the same result, Khansaheb’s desire to win grows darker and his resentment at loss sinister. Until 14 years later, Khansaheb stuns Pt. Shastri into shocked silence by singing Pt. Shastri’s words, but delivered in the style of his Barelvi gharana. There lurks an even more evil secret as to why Pt. Shastri retreats into a vow of silence to never sing again which is revealed later. Khansaheb grows in stature as the Royal Singer, his ego nurtured by his own undeniable talent till he is one day confronted by Pt. Shastri’s disciple, Sadashiv. Does the pupil avenge the humiliation of his teacher is what forms the crux of the play. Just as Sadashiv decides to avenge in blood, he is advised instead to use his vocal talents as a weapon to seek retribution and slay an ego. What then of the dagger and the privilege that comes with it? At once then, a play which has at its heart a dagger and a license to kill with it, and one structured around the betrayal of a Hindu by a Muslim no less… essentially ends up being about the folly of an artist who lets his ego dictate him to erroneously presume that he creates that which he is gifted with from within.
The film, thankfully, appreciates the sly irreligiosity of the source material. In actor Subodh Bhave’s directorial debut, music composer Shankar Mahadevan makes his acting debut as Pt. Shastri. Veteran Marathi and Hindi actor Sachin Pilgaonkar is Khansaheb, while Bhave plays the young pupil Sadashiv. I haven’t seen the play, so I don’t know how much of the dialogues and incidents are taken as they are in the play or are innovations added by the team of writers (including Prakash Kapadia who has also penned Bajirao Mastani). Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have said that of the 20 songs in the film, 10 are compositions from the play. These include famous numbers such as Ghei Chhand Makarand (Engrossed in the Nectar), delivered in two styles- one by Shankar Mahadevan and the other by Vasantrao Deshpande’s son, Rahul, himself an accomplished Hindustani Classical vocalist.
The narrative very interestingly subverts its inherent religiously coded identities. So when Khasaheb’s wife (a spectacular Lady Macbeth like Saakshi Tanwar- she’ll be seen as Aamir Khan’s wife in the upcoming Dangal) censures him for doing riyaz when he should be performing namaz, he rebuffs her by saying that his mausiqui is his ibaadat. Contrast this with Pt. Shastri whom we meet the first time as he is dedicating an aarti to Ganesha (Sur Niragas Ho- Let My Tune Be Innocent), and who is later found when thought lost at a Shiva mandir. The seeds of jealousy and drive to be acknowledged as a great singer par comparison are sowed into Khansaheb on the night of Dussehra as he watches a Ravana effigy being burnt, and the voice-over even wonders aloud if the spirit of Ravana had entered into him that night. I was reminded as a corollary of that fabulous line by Javed Akhtar in Swades’ Pal Pal Hai Bhaari song– “Dekh Taj Ke Paap Ravan, Ram Tere Man Mein Hai”. In a sense, from this point onward in the narrative, it is about Khansaheb having to fight the Ravana in him to find his inner Rama. Also interesting is how the pupil challenges him for the first time at a Dargah, his words speak of unquestioned faith in the Ilahi and the fairness in His world in sharp contrast to Khansaheb’s lament of the ills of the world and his own admission of being unworthy. And what is perhaps the film’s single most brilliant choice is to frame this story through the eyes of Khansaheb. When we first see Pt. Shastri sing, we are with Khansaheb, his back to the camera taking in the performance of Pt. Shastri.
If there is a clumsy script decision (and I don’t know if this is true in the original as well), it is the device of using a British officer to be the serpent who engineers the wedge between the Hindu and Muslim brothers-in-song. Also laboured I felt were the tertiary tracks of Pt. Shastri and Khansaheb’s daughters, Uma (Mrunmayee Deshpande) and Zareena (Amruta Khanwilkar)- BFF unto death despite their fathers. Amruta does the best of her screen time however and manages to create a moment or two of quiet romance and steely resolve. The worst offenders in the film are the two people cast as Khansaheb’s shagird. Reinforcing the worst stereotypes of the pan-chewing soorma-eyed Muslim, they are loud and seem to be channeling their inner Ranjeet and Shakti Kapoor. Thankfully, there is very little of them… and even when they are, Sachin Pilgaonkar is mostly around channeling his inner Sanjeev Kumar. I have always found Sachin mediocre and overrated as an actor, if an affable presence. For the first time however, he seemed to be digging into a role and fleshing out a character with all the pomp of a theatrical performance and chewing every scenery around him into delivering a bombast of an act- one of the finest that I have seen. Lip-syncing is never as easy as it looks, and here Sachin lip-syncs perfectly, with exaggerated mannerisms and all, to classical tunes and notes. He doesn’t falter once. Subodh Bhave noticeably slips up at a place or two, but never Sachin. It is a bravura act, and one least expected by me at least. Shankar Mahadevan surprises in an acting debut where he seems to be channeling a Mohanlal-like (blasphemy excuse!) approach of under-acting. He has his limitations of course, and as an editor I would have saved him the blushes in a scene that requires of him to act animatedly which he only ends up hamming in. But he brings a quiet calm to his scenes otherwise, nailing the songs that he has grown up emulating and singing at the concert halls of Matunga.
This is an ambitious debut for Subodh Bhave, and a brave one at that as well. Agreed that he had acted in the stage revival of the play a few years back; but not only are the demands of a Hindustani Classical Musical far too stressful, but to adapt a landmark play at that and tailor it to suit the cinematic medium without compromising on the cultural richness of it is no mean feat. And then he chooses to act in it too!
This is recommended viewing, and a must watch if you are in the slightest bit a fan of Hindustani Classical Music. Just the songs alone are worth the price of admission and more. My favourites apart from the obvious Ghei Chhand Makarand are Yaar Illahi, Dil Ki Tapish, Sur Se Saji and Surat Piya Ki. This return to the cinema hall has been auspicious. Bajirao Mastani and Natsamrat await me.