A slice of Indian exotica, music that plunges the depths of deep, dark crevices of human emotions, and locations and costumes that transport you to the 10th century BC -- that is Amol Palekar's Anaahat for you.
And yes, Sonali Bendre has never looked so good, so sensual. I will not be surprised if husband Goldie Behl demands a second honeymoon in Hampi, Karnataka.
Just as a small group of journalists got together on Thursday evening at the Eros preview theatre near the Churchgate station in south Mumbai for a press screening of the film, the real action was someplace else in Pune, where the film was being premiered.
It's a Marathi film, so what better place for an inaugural show than Pune, the cultural capital of Maharashtra?
When one says it's a Marathi film, it's a reference to only the language used in the film. It could easily be Hindi or Kannada. But Amol Palekar decided it sounded better in Marathi. Why not?
It's the story of the king of the Malla kingdom, played by Anant Nag, his wife, played by Bendre, and a well-meaning but little stuck-in-the-mould Senate of the state.
The film is an adaptation of a play by Surendra Verma -- Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak.
Palekar staged the play in the early 1970s and now attempts to adapt to a bigger, more lavish set-up of a feature film.
Does he succeed? One can't say because one hasn't seen the play. But one thing is sure -- to compare the two would be an exercise in futility.
The king is impotent and thus incapable of having a heir. But the disability does not come between him and his queen from sharing a good relationship -- a bond strengthened by their love for music. The king is more adept at expressing his feelings through a raga than the spoken word.
But the Senate has other ideas. It resolves that the queen must follow the then prevalent custom of niyog -- a practice described as selection of a mate for one night for a woman incapable of conceiving a child from her husband.
Uday Bhawalkar's dhrupad vocals and the beats of the mridangam form the backdrop as the king and the queen try to come to terms with the turmoil in their lives and the bureaucracy gets busy arranging the big night.
The king feels betrayed by his Senate, by the queen, and by himself. The queen blames the king for being pushed into doing the 'unthinkable' act of spending a night with a stranger. Why could he not oppose the Senate's decision? Isn't it his duty to protect his wife?
And yet, she seeks strength from him to perform her raj dharma. She seeks an audience with the king before proceeding for niyog. The king -- ashamed of his helplessness -- says no.
The night of niyog is an unending one for the king as he lies awake sharing some of his deepest fears with his childhood friend and chief maid Mahattarika -- memories enlivened by the fear he saw in the queen's eyes while handing over to her, in the last ceremony before niyog, a garland for her uppati.
He narrates to Mahattarika an incident from their childhood when he had gone hunting with his father. His father killed a deer, the arrow pierced the poor animal's heart, and it lay bloodied on the ground, its body twitching, its eyes full of fear -- light gradually fading out of them -- focused on the king.
"Then the light vanished from his eyes... he was dead, gone," the king says as he collapses crying at Mahattarika's feet.
'Why would anyone deny Anaahat?'
Welcome to Palekar cinema, Sonali
New questions it brings as the queen walks into her chamber languorously, a little dreamy eyed, dismisses all her maids, and drops her shawl revealing to Mahattarika love bites on her neck, shoulder, back...
The story is a journey through a night and it imposes some restrictions on the pace of the narrative. It could have done with at least half-an-hour more. The part after the niyog night is dealt hurriedly with and leaves one a little uninformed, a little dissatisfied, a little confused -- especially the king's reconciliation of the queen's new awareness of her needs and identity.
The director has tried to sharpen the focus by keeping out the man the queen spends the night with. In the play, the man is somebody from her past and naturally adds another dimension to the story.
In the final reckoning, it's a simple story simply told. The camera works efficiently. The actors, for the most part, have just been allowed to be themselves.
The film -- shot in the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire in Hampi, Karnataka -- exudes an honesty, an authenticity.
Now, if only it had spent a little more time exploring the questions the queen brings back from the one-night stand and the answers that the king and the Senate must find to them.
Those are tough questions and remember, it's the 10th century BC, when women were not expected, even allowed, to discuss anything more intimate than the weather.
PS: If you are wondering what that vessel full of water with a smaller vessel floating in it is doing hanging to the title, here is the answer: It's a clock. The smaller vessel has a tiny hole in it that allows water in. When the weight of water pulls the smaller vessel down, it's a prahar -- three hours.
Cast: Anant Nag, Sonali Bendre, Deepti Naval
Director: Amol Palekar
Producer: Mimesis and Saarth Production
Screenplay, Dialogue: Dr Sameer Kulkarni and Sandhya Gokhale
Art Director: Nitin Desai
Costumes: Jayoo Patwardhan
Cinematography: Debu Deodhar
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