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Movie Review - Agni Varsha- The Fire and the Rain

Anu Warrier

Cast : Mohan Agashe ( Rishi Raibhya), Jackie Shroff (Paravasu), Nagarjuna (Yavakri), Raveena Tandon (Vishakha), Milind Soman (Aravasu), Sonali Kulkarni (Nittilai, Raghuvir Yadav (Chief of the Yakshagana Group), Prabhudeva (Brahmarakshas), Amitabh Bachchan (Indra)

Directed by : Arjun Sajnani
Music: Sandesh Shandilya

Adapted from a play by Girish Karnad, and derived from the Myth of Yavakri, a part of the Mahabharatha, AgniVarsha is unusual not only in its subject matter but also in its seeming simplicity. For a period film, there are no ostentatious costumes or ornate jewellery, no heavy makeup or blow-dried coiffures. The grandeur comes from the beautiful ruins of Hampi, the one-time capital of the glorious Vijayanagar Empire, the rich ochre, yellow and saffron hues so lovingly captured by Cinematographer Anil Mehta’s lens and last but not the least, the lyric imagery of the movie itself.

The film opens with striking visuals of a drought stricken land. The ruler of the kingdom has decided to conduct a Fire Sacrifice in order to appease the rain God Indra. Rajguru Raibhya (Mohan Agashe) welcomes the chance to be the chief priest at the ceremonies, but because of the fact that the chief priest has to renounce family and all worldly pleasures until the Yagna is complete - and his advanced age - the honour goes to his son Paravasu. Therein starts the destruction of a family.

Paravasu accepts the honour knowing his father’s ambitions. His rising ambition is in direct conflict with that of his father. His acceptance also sets into motion other conflicts – his duty to his beautiful wife Vishakha whom he abandons after one year of marriage, and his rivalry with his cousin Yavakri who already resents his uncle and cousin. It does not help that Vishakha and Yavakri were lovers before she was married off to his cousin and rival.

When the movie opens, seven years have passed. The Maha Yagna is nearing conclusion. Rishi Raibhya is seething with impotent anger. Vishakha has been living the frustration of an abandoned wife for seven years now. Parvasu’s naïve younger brother Aravasu is struggling with an affinity to the stage, unbecoming in a Brahmin youth, and his forbidden love for Nittilai, a tribal woman.

Like the earth waiting for rain, there is anticipation in each character.

The time is ripe for mischief, and this is when Yavakri returns after a 10 year long tapas in the forest. Armed with the gift of knowledge from Indra himself, Yavakri is bent on revenge. How better than to seduce Vishakha, his old lover and wife of his hated cousin Paravasu? Caught making love to her, his moral transgression sets off a deadly chain of events. Raibhya’s anger bursts forth – he invokes a Brahmarakshas to kill Yavakri.

Vishakha, knowing that the only place that he will be safe from the Brahmarakshas is in his father’s Ashram sends Aravasu to find him, thus delaying his meeting with Nittilai’s father. Meanwhile, Vishakha, searching for Yavakri herself, learns that Yavakri is safe as long he has the pot of water she had collected, and then left behind when they were caught. Much to her despair, she also learns that the seduction was pre-arranged, that it was revenge and not passion that led Yavakri to her. Her sense of abandonment is complete; but she has the means to destroy him. Vishakha raises the pot of water, and even as Yavakri scrambles to save even a drop, she spills the water from the pot in a slow, deliberate motion. Yavakri is devoured by the Brahmaraskshas.

Wandering back home to find that Paravasu has killed their father, Aravasu accepts the charge of patricide laid on him at his brother’s behest and despite his sister-in-law’s pleas. Aravasu is late at the tribal council; Nittilai’s enraged father offers her hand in marriage to the first man who will have her. Bereft, Aravasu wanders to the palace in the hope that his brother will offer succour; instead, he is openly charged with patricide and beaten by the palace guards. Nittilai now leaves her marriage to look after Aravasu, and is helped by a wandering troupe of actors. Tracked down by her husband and her brother, Nittilai is killed for having broken tribal law. Later, in a climax worthy of the ancient Greek Tragedies, the wandering actors along with Aravasu, put on a play within a play, that leads to the denouement.

Agnivarsha is truly an epic tale of raging passions, love, passion, jealousy, rage, grief and sacrifice. Finally, it is the naïve Aravasu who becomes an unlikely hero, sending the Brahmarakshas back whence he came and imploring Indra for rain. In an age where any halfway decent movie has to be plagiarised from Hollywood or European sources, it is indeed refreshing to see a film based on the vast treasure that our mythology provides. Armed with a strong story, debutant director Arjun Sajnani has succeeded in welding the play into an excellent script.

Strong acting from the film’s major characters supports him. Milind Soman brings Aravasu’s naiveté and his unquestioned belief in his elder brother to life with rare élan. After Nittilai’s death, we see the emergence of a man whose grief enables him to derive inner strength; yet, he still needs to take refuge beneath a mask in order to face his brother with the latter’s perfidy. Jackie Shroff has matured into a fine actor; as Paravasu, he is ruthless. He abandons his wife, kills his father and frames his beloved younger brother. All this, with studied understatement, no facial grimaces, no loud dialogues. Raveena Tandon as Vishakha, plays one of the finest roles of her career. Strong and beautiful, she has been manipulated – by her husband, her father-in-law, and her lover. Raveena easily mirrors the pain and frustration of an abandoned wife, and later the anger and anguish of a woman abandoned by the very men she loves.

Sonali Kulkarni brings out the innocence and pain of Nittilai, who loves an upper-caste man, only to find that her love demands the greatest sacrifice. If Aravasu is to live, then she must die. It was refreshing to see Nagarjuna back on the scene as the angry Yavakri, whose thirst for revenge sets into motion an unstoppable train of events. Raghuvir Yadav, Prabhudeva and Amitabh Bachchan appear in well-etched cameos as the travelling Yakshagana player, the Brahmarakshas and Lord Indra.

The songs do not interfere with the narrative. Using the Yakshagana as the base for his dances, the director actually uses the five songs to move the story forward. My personal favourites are Alka Yagnik’s Prem ki Varsha and Ustad Sultan Khan’s Din Andhiyare.

An eminently watchable movie, with a few erotic scenes, and some violence.

Anu Warrier tries her very best NOT to write but is occasionally forced out of her sloth by a well-meaning husband and sundry friends. She lives with the afore-mentioned husband and a nine-year-old son. Hobbbies include reading, movies, music, and trying to fatten husband once a week with new recipes.

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