In a prelude to my review of Makarand Deshpande's new film Sona Spa, I'm putting up a review of his 2003 film Dänav, I had earlier posted on a movie discussion group.
Earlier known as a character actor in films, Makarand Deshpande has been also quite active on the theatre front and Dänav, his maiden filmmaking stint, is an adaptation of his play Basant ka Teesra Yauvan (Third Youth of Spring...?). The film had gained some hype on account of its planned inclusion the Cannes festival Director's section (whatever it's called), which didn't happen because of some technical glitches.
The story takes on the style of the classical Indian plays, similar to stuff Girish Karnad has done:
Raja Sahab (Sayaji Shinde), a royalty figure who believes himself to be a divine authority, defies the mores of his time to acquire a 7-year old girl whom he intends to have as his mistress once she is grown up. Obsessed with his new possession, Raja Sahab gives her an orchard, a gift that is also her prison. Christened Laxmi (Sonali Kulkarni), the girl grows up in all innocence, protected from the gaze of any other man; even the orchard laborers must go blind-folded, and those who defy have their eyes gouged out. Laxmi is enchanted by Raja Sahab's indulgence towards her and freely gives of herself to his desires. Things move in this vein until, in another bid to win her, Raja Sahab brings in a circus for her pleasure.
As word of the circus spreads, the air filled with curiosity about the star attraction, Dänav (Beast-Man), who has the strength to grapple with elephants. Laxmi too is excited about going to see Dänav but her wish is frustrated by Raja Sahab, who, after a preview, decides against her going to the circus. Raja Sahab nurses an inferiority complex over Dänav's strength and fears that Laxmi will be swayed. But Laxmi is already distraught over her wish not being satisfied and Raja Sahab gives in, buying the animal-like Dänav as a slave for the orchard. Laxmi is initially frightened by Dänav's ferocity but slowly develops a bond and without any notion of infidelity towards Raja Sahab shares her body and mind with Dänav. Raja Sahab on the other hand, locks himself in the temple mulling over his generosity towards Laxmi. In course Dänav reveals that he is actually a proper man, Narayan, whose inadvertent killing of a cow forced him into exile in the jungle. When Laxmi fears his brute force, he says that he will sacrifice his strength for her love. Subsequent events lead to a climax of violence and tragedy.
The strong non-hackneyed plot is the main reason to sit through what is a rather unpolished product. Deshpande proves himself to be an adept writer, furnishing potent moral dilemmas for his mostly well-etched characters, and has an interesting blend of ancient and contemporary tradition. Sonali Kulkarni as Laxmi puts up a very credible performance in a difficult role, the best in the film. Now for the caveats: The execution has a lot of unevenness. The main flaw comes in the selection of Sayaji Shinde as Raja Sahab. Shinde, like Sadashiv Amrapurkar, suffers from a limited range and Raja Sahab, who is actually a very interesting gray-shaded character, comes off uncomfortably close to the psychotic villain stereotype Shinde has portrayed in scores of earlier films. Aryan Vaid as Dänav was IMO okay, although his character was more limited. His attempt to have a beast-like shambling gait for Dänav doesn't come off too well, being more in a stiff robotic vein. Deshpande's lack of cinematic flair is unfortunately quite evident in the slipshod technical values for the film; many parts of it look downright tacky. Vishal Bharadwaj's background score has its moments of interest.
In the end, I find this a very welcome and interesting new effort, although it could have done with a LOT more polish to fully realize its worth. A significant portion of the crowd that watched this film (at the Asian Film Festival in 2004) might likely disagree with this review, since they appeared to derive a lot of unintentional humor from the film. Well, to each his own.