Girish Karnad’s Utsav is that Rare Bollywood Film that Both Sensualises and Empowers its Women

Bollywood

Girish Karnad’s Utsav is that Rare Bollywood Film that Both Sensualises and Empowers its Women

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In a scene from Girish Karnad’s Hindi film Utsav (1984), Vatsayayana, played by a snippy Amjad Khan is asked by a woman in a brothel, “Maharaj in dino koi naya asan mila ho toh uske bare mein btaiye na. (Sir, tell us about a new position if you have discovered.” Khan slinks his head in disappointment, and disarmed, he replies “Kya btaun devi, wahi 28 ke 28, 29 ki pratiksha mein hun. (I am still stuck with the 28 I have, waiting for the 29th.)” Unexpectedly charming in this avatar, Vatysayayana is of course talking about the many sexual equations he wrote about for what is known as “The Kamasutra”. In Utsav he is introduced as a voyeur, yet chaste man who peeks into the rooms to analyse and study copulation. “Prem mere liye bhog nahi, chintan hai. (Love is not food for me, it is thought),” he says. Though Karnad’s Utsav was based on the Sanskrit play Mrcchakatikā (The Little Clay Cart), he adapted it to Hindi cinema by disrobing it of white bread orthodoxy that Bollywood had come to clog culture with. Utsav is a whimsical yet beautiful ode to the golden age of sexual and social freedom. An age that now seems a thing of the future.

Set roughly in the 4th century, Utsav tells the story of Vasantsena – played here by the imperious Rekha – a wealthy courtesan in Ujjain who while running away from her stalker Samsthanak (Shashi Kapoor) happens to hide in the house of a lowly married Brahmin, Charudutt. Smitten by her beauty, Charudutt (Shekhar Suman) crumbles, unable to resist temptation that Vasantsena is the living embodiment of. After they spend a night together, the two separate. When a thief steals Vasantsena’s left-behind ornaments from Charudutt’s home, their affair comes to the fore. Irate, Samsthanak, the king’s brother, chooses to kidnap Vasantsena and in a frenzy of anger, perceptibly, kills her. To escape he pins the murder on Charudutt who is saved by a political uprising that usurps the king. Eventually, Vasantsena accepts an apologetic Samsthanak while Charudutt returns to his wife and kid.

Even for 21st century India the original Sanskrit play might be too inquisitorial, exploring themes where it shouldn’t, decking trays where the food cart no longer serves. That because India’s cultural machinery has regressed to the point that its past now feels like an image of the future. Both “The Kamasutra” and the play Mrcchakatika existed somewhere around the 3rd or 4th century. Karnad’s imagination brought the two together as the devices of the former entered the designs of the latter.

Sex in Utsav is neither gratuitous nor dutiful. Vasantsena is curious, but not slutty. Charudutt’s simplicity does not cajole his sexuality into inexistence, neither is he pitiful. Everyone is a sexual being, their skin laced with desire just the way society is laced with morals. Even though the affair initially upsets her, Charudutt’s wife warms to her reinvigorated husband, despite his passion having been reignited by the love of another woman. In a scene, late in the film, she thanks Vatsayayana for injecting life into a deadening physical alliance. What must love be without “making” it? Tenderly, the two, come to care for each other.

Utsav was odd in its time, perhaps a nail sticking out of the bedside, a space that Bollywood colonised with socio-cultural paranoia by creating morally combative scripts.

In terms of proportion, morality takes a definitive back seat in Utsav. It doesn’t drive men or women. Similarly, the film put women’s agency, their desire first. Vatsayayana holds court in a brothel rather than in the company of cocky men. He trusts women to understand the tenderness of his work, the complexity of how one must make sense of love first and sex later. From Charudutt’s wife Aditi to the courtesan slave Madanika (a raw Neena Gupta), women seek pleasure, unfazed by the coordinates of their social and moral situation. Importantly, none of it is foreshadowed by the snobbery of a ponderous, judgemental musical score that Bollywood would rather have you listen so you sweat your socks, torn between sin and sensuality. There is purpose to everything. ‘“Chori bhi toh kala hai (Theft is also an art),” Vatsayayana says.

Utsav is incredible, because it is historic yet thoroughly modern. Karnad always tried to meld the two, showcasing India’s capacity to be both traditional and progressive. It is a rare film that uses some old parts to build a machine that is new, the kind we think is ahead of its time.

Set roughly in the 4th century, Utsav tells the story of Vasantsena – played by the imperious Rekha.

Utsav was odd in its time, perhaps a nail sticking out of the bedside, a space that Bollywood colonised with socio-cultural paranoia by creating morally combative scripts. The ’90s followed with saas-bahu soaps and Sooraj Barjatya films and that was the end of that. But in Utsav, libido was an active ingredient deciding both love and life for its many characters without trampling it under the farce of incorrectness. Lust exists unto love, the films say.

Utsav treads the impossible path of sensualising and empowering its women in the wake of well-known male actors of the time. It is rather misread as a provocative skin-fest. Instead, it just accords them the right to desire, to lust and talk openly about sex. So much so, it believes the brothel is the temple of desire. “Ek din itihaas tumhare iss adde ki taraf ungli utha kar kahega, ke yahi who prernabhoomi hai, yehi who karambhoomi hai jahan Vatsayayana ne Kamsutra ki rachna ki thi. (Someday history will point its finger at your door and say this was the land of inspiration, the land of devotion where Vatsayayana wrote the Kamasutra,)” Vatsayayana tells women of the brothel. The film broke boundaries without really breaking any. It only admitted that pleasure was indistinct from love, and in doing so, is years ahead of Bollywood’s cautiously erected walls even today.

Art is most significant when created against the grain of its age. Utsav is just one example. Girish Karnad spent a lifetime doing so.

Comments