When "Yaadein" was released close to four years ago, it had become quite apparent that Subhash Ghai had let his desperation to please crowds cloud his better judgment as a filmmaker. Up until that point, GhaiÂ´s oeuvre had been characterized by an overly apparent inner conflict; critical analysis of his 1990Â´s successes "Khal-Nayak," "Pardes," and "Taal," seem to suggest that they all represent careful bargains between Subhash Ghai the filmmaker and Subhash Ghai the businessman. Each of those films had scenes of uncompromised integrity and artistry, but such rare moments were carefully balanced with unabashed commercial ingredients to increase mass-appeal. Then "Yaadein" happened and all but declared the triumph of the economist over the artist. Ghai didnÂ´t direct that film, he assembled it; he signed the most commercially viable stars, opted for the most saleable storyline, and glossed over the lack of create charge with high production values and shameless product placement.
Unfortunately for Ghai, his equation for success didnÂ´t quite pan out. "Yaadein" was unanimously rejected by critics and audiences alike, and the haunting memories of its colossal failure forced Ghai to distract himself from direction and focus on producing other directorsÂ´ projects through his Mukta Arts Banner. Occasionally, rumors of GhaiÂ´s next directorial venture were heard and, at one point, it even seemed that a project called "Motherland," with a massive star cast was going to take off. After "Motherland" revealed itself to be a false start, Ghai approached some leading technicians, including A.R. Rahman for yet another star-studded project. Once again, it failed to take off.
So when "Kisna," with its small star cast and off-beat theme was finally announced as GhaiÂ´s return to direction, it came as a shocking surprise. Pouring loads of money, as Mukta Arts did, into this period piece was a massive risk - and, to say the least, quite uncharacteristic of a shrewd businessman. Would this film mark a return to form for Subhash Ghai the filmmaker? Now that the film has finally released, we find the answer to that question is, unfortunately, a resounding "No!"
In what is a clear take-off of James CameronÂ´s "Titanic," GhaiÂ´s "Kisna" begins in the present day, with an old, wealthy British woman visiting India. SheÂ´s visiting to donate millions of dollars towards the establishment of a school in small town called Devprayag. When a couple of hounding news reporters accuses her of being ignorant about "the real India," the woman begins to tell the story of her childhood.
"Titanic" takes a backseat, and Ashutosh GowarikerÂ´s "Lagaan," makes a brief appearance, followed by Micheal MannÂ´s "The Last of the Mohicans." The year is 1947, and sentiments against the British Raj are running high. An understated attraction between a young Indian man, Kisna (Vivek Oberoi), and a young British woman, Catherine (Antonia Bernath), becomes problematic when the young man is engaged to a village belle, Lakshmi (Isha Sharvani). Shortly after the engagement, a mob of anti-British Indian nationalists storm CatherineÂ´s house. Kisna saves her, and takes on the responsibility of transporting her safely to the British High Commission in Delhi. Along the way, a villainous prince and KisnaÂ´s own uncle and brother attempt to murder Catherine. Sequences lifted from a number of cinematic (Sanjay Leela BhansaliÂ´s "Devdas") and literary sources ("The Mahabharat," "Bhagavad Puran") continue to unfold until a climax reminiscent of Martin ScorseseÂ´s "Gangs of New York" brings the film to an end.
"Kisna" represents yet another thoroughly unoriginal, uninspired effort from Subhash Ghai. Instead of borrowing elements from safe commercial successes (college romance, family films) â€śshowmanâ€ť Ghai opts to lift scene after scene from more ambitious, risky productions ("Lagaan," "Devdas," etc). What Ghai fails to realize is that copying from a good source wonÂ´t make his own film any better. "Kisna" plays like disorganized, incoherent jumble of scenes from different films that donÂ´t quite belong together. The elements that actually are original are ridiculous and insult audience intelligence (Kisna disguised as a wealthy Arab, concealing his identity with sunglasses). The film has no discernable central theme, no defined protagonist or antagonist, and no real sense of danger since we know that Catherine survives to retell her story.
Ghai claimed that this was a story deeply rooted in Indian philosophy and religion. Having seen the film, this reference falls just short of insulting. There are few parallels between the real story of Krishna and the story presented here. Sprinkling poorly written dialog with words like "dharma" and "karma" doesnÂ´t make a film deep or philosophically significant, Mr. Ghai.
"The Warrior Poet," is an apt, contradictory tagline for the film, as the writers cannot seem to decide whether the film is an action epic or love story. The filmÂ´s tone and approach shifts drastically time and time again as the narrative unfolds and, in the end, we are left with neither a satisfying action film nor a compelling romance. Is Kisna, who is never really shown as any sort of legitimate "warrior," supposed to become one at the end of the film? If that was GhaiÂ´s intention, itâ€™s shortchanged by the fact that Kisna hardly fights any battles throughout the film. Even in the climax, he and Catherine are saved more by external forces than by KisnaÂ´s own heroism. Or was the point the love story? Once again, lack of development renders this track uninvolving and an inexplicably self-sacrificial conclusion to the love story undermines what little build-up the film managed in the first place.
Poor character development plagues the film. The title character is not shown as either a warrior or a poet and is, for the most part, relegated to the background as the film proceeds. He is never developed or compelling enough to serve as a real protagonist. There are times, however, where Kisna looses track of Catherine, and then the audience knows only as much as he knows. This is an awkward choice since Catherine is the one recalling the story, and she could not have possibly known certain details. Another extremely awkward decision is to have a news-reporter narrate the story for Catherine. Who is this reporter? She is portrayed in a somewhat negative light at the beginning of the film, so why are the flashbacks being framed by her? The film abounds with many such inexplicable directorial decisions. In any case, CatherineÂ´s character is a little more developed than KisnaÂ´s, but her attraction to him is inexplicable. Why the two central characters are in love remains a mystery throughout the film and, as such, we never quite care if they end up together or not. Lakshmi, as the third wheel, is the worst written character of the film. The manner in which she helplessly loves Kisna when he treats her like rubbish borders on absurd.
Performances fall short of expectations. Antonia Bernath is charming and brings a certain depth to her character, but her opportunities to showcase talent are severely limited by the script. Her opportunities for skin-show, however, are maximized. Ghai, in a superbly hypocritical move, has her expose her entire backside in a completely gratuitous rape scene. Shame on you, Subhash Ghai - we expect this sort of exploitation from sleazy films like "Murder," not films masquerading as religious allegory. Isha Sharvani is given very little to do except contort her body in the dance numbers, and even this serves no real purpose in the film. Her skills are initially impressive but by the umpteenth time Ghai has her drop into a frame on a rope, her presence in the film is exposed for what it really is - just a novel gimmick posing as abstract art.
Supporting performances range from adequate to interesting, but nothing more. Amrish Puri is sadly wasted in his final villainous role, as is Om Puri who serves as comic relief. Vivek Mushran and Hrishita Bhatt manage to be quite endearing in their short roles. Rajat Kapoor overacts like mad and ruins significant portions of the film with his hamming.
Subhash K. Jha describes Vivek OberoiÂ´s performance in the film as "...mellow and deep, filled with gestures and nuances that need careful viewing." Ghai made a big deal about signing Oberoi over more established stars like Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachchan but, having watched the film, one wonders if those stars would have ever signed on to a role such as this. Oberoi, despite getting top-billing, gets the most thankless role of the entire production. He is asked to portray an unwavering hero - someone who does the right thing invariably, without much inner conflict. Conjuring up conviction in such a role is undoubtedly difficult but, in the end, a convincing performance still ends up looking bland and uninteresting. Jackie Shroff played this role in "Khal-Nayak," and Akshaye Khanna did it in "Taal," and in those films, Sanjay Dutt and Anil Kapoor stole the show, respectively. When a role calls for no inner conflict, whatÂ´s an actor to do except go through the motions? Oberoi does as much with his role as he can, and deserves much credit for standing out as a plus point in this mess. Sadly, the film wonâ€™t do much for his flagging career. The man can act (â€śCompany,â€ť â€śSaathiya,â€ť â€śYuvaâ€ť) but needs to learn how to choose scripts.
Ashok MehtaÂ´s cinematography, which is consistently breathtaking is another plus point in the film. This film doesnÂ´t deserve such a forceful visual impact - the composition of nearly each shot is so compelling that one wishes there were some meaning to read into them. Even more disappointing is that the film wastes some of the finest music Bollywood has heard in years. A.R. Rahman and Ismail DarbarÂ´s inspired and intricately crafted music is criminally wasted throughout the film.
The awfulness of the editing merits a special mention. This is probably one of the worst editing jobs ever seen in an Indian film. Sequences are cut together abruptly, with no consideration for pacing or coherence. Portions of the film where characters should have been developed are sped through, but inane sidetracks such as the one involving Om Puri and Sushmita Sen plod along at a snailÂ´s pace. Make-up and costumes are also quite bad. KisnaÂ´s many disguises look tacky and undermine the gravity and sophistication of the film (not to mention it simply defies logic that a poor man from a village would be able to find enough money to obtain these disguises or know how to act once wearing them). The girls and the villains wear pounds and pounds of make-up that are overly visible on their faces, once again, rendering the film more laughable than convincing.
â€śKisnaâ€ť is a pretentious film in the truest sense of the word; itâ€™s a film camouflaged as art that is actually another business venture by Subhash Ghai. The film pretends to care about its characters, pretends to have some significance, and pretends to be intended to make some sort of statement. In reality, itâ€™s another effort on Subhash Ghaiâ€™s part to cash in on box-office trends. At the end of the film, Subhash Ghai makes his trademark cameo; this time, heâ€™s seen in silhouette pointing to a car as it rides of into the sunset. Ghaiâ€™s pointing is his way of congratulating himself, saying, â€śI made this.â€ť This is likely the emotional apex of the film - few scenes in recent memory have so effectively evoked pity. Hereâ€™s a director who still thinks heâ€™s got it all figured out when, in reality, heâ€™s not in touch with audiences and lost his touch as a filmmaker. Some inner conflict as to what to do, so utterly lacking in Kisnaâ€™s characterization, would do Ghai well - as he clearly hasnâ€™t learned much from the â€śmemoriesâ€ť of his last disastrous endeavor.