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22 September 2011

Agni Varsha (2002)

Directed by: Arjun Sajnani
Music: Sandesh Shandilya 
Starring: Mohan Agashe, Jackie Shroff, Nagarjuna, Raveena Tandon, Milind Soman, 
Sonali Kulkarni, Raghuvir Yadav, Prabhudeva, Amitabh Bachchan
Adapted from a play (The Fire and The Rain) by Girish Karnad, and derived from the Myth of Yavakri, a part of the Mahabharatha, Agni Varsha 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.
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The film opens with striking visuals of a drought stricken land. The ruler of the kingdom is conducting a fire sacrifice in order to appease the rain God Indra. Raj purohit Paravasu (Jackie Shroff) is fully immersed in the ordeal, when he is asked if a drama troupe can perform a play that will entertain the gods. The catch? The lead actor is his brother, Aravasu (Milind Soman), who has been thrown out of caste for committing a heinous crime. The king is not sure, but Paravasu agrees.  
And the fates move inexhorably forward.  


Aravasu remembers the train of events that brought them to this pass. He has always looked up to his brother, has always been scared of his father. Aravasu is struggling with an affinity to the stage, unbecoming in a Brahmin youth, and his forbidden love for Nittilai (Sonali Kulkarni), a tribal woman. 

Her father has invited him to the tribal council so they can fix his marriage to Nittilai. But before that his cousin, Yavakri (Nagarjuna) has asked to meet him. 

Yavakri, who had left for the forest ten years ago, to do penance and please the gods. He has come back to the news that the woman he loved, Vishakha (Raveena Tandon) is married to the man he hates the most. Despite herself, Vishakha is drawn into conversation with him. 

Two years after Yavakri left, Vishakha was married off to Paravasu; she had put her past behind her, and for a year, was blissfully happy.  Then, Paravasu becomes the raj purohit, a position that had been coveted by his father, raj guru Raibhya (Mohan Agashe). However, the man who becomes the raj purohit has to renounce family and all worldly pleasures until the yagna is complete; that, and his advanced age go against him. From such tiny events start the destruction of a family. 

Paravasu's rising ambition is in direct conflict with his father's, and his acceptance of the honour sets into motion other conflicts - that of his duty to his beautiful wife Vishakha (Raveena Tandon) whom he abandons after one year of marriage.  

Seven years have passed since then. The maha yagna is nearing conclusion. Rishi Raibhya is seething with impotent anger.  And Vishakha has been living a lonely life, engrossed in her own world, abandoned by her husband, yearning for someone to talk to... 
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The time is ripe for mischief, and Yavakri has returned. 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? 

For Vishakha, Yavakri's presence has brought back to life all the emotions that she had so carefully suppressed.
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Aravasu, along with Nittilai, sets out to meet Yavakri;neither are prepared for what they see there.  
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When Vishakha returns, her father-in-law is waiting for her. Bitter at having to have taken second place to his son, jealous of his son's influence, and incensed at Vishakha's moral transgression, Raibhya's anger bursts forth - he invokes a Brahmarakshas to kill Yavakri. 
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Learning that the only place Yavakri will be safe from the Brahmarakshas is in his father's Ashram, Vishakha sends Aravasu to find him, thus delaying his meeting with Nittilai's father.  
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Meanwhile, Vishakha, searching for Yavakri,  finds him in the caves, and begs him to take refuge in his childhood home. But he has been waiting for this moment for ten years. And the sanctified water he has in his pot is all the protection he needs.   

When Vishakha learns the truth, she is shocked and grieved; then roused to fury. Hell hath no fury indeed, like a woman scorned. 
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Slowly, deliberately, she...   26

… and Yavakri’s tapas cannot outrun his fate.


When Aravasu, after cremating Yavakri comes to Nittilai's village, he has no idea what is in store for him. Being late to the tribal council has had serious consequences.

Nittilai's enraged father has offered her hand in marriage to the first man who would have her. 

Wandering back sadly, he finds that his brother has come home. In the middle of the night, they are all forced to face certain bitter truths. There will be murder committed there...  
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How will Aravasu react? What is the sacrifice that his brother demands of him? And what about Nittilai? Will society, and its immutable laws allow them to live? And love? 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 naive 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 naivete and his unquestioned belief in his elder brother to life with rare elan. When tragedy strikes, his grief enables him to derive inner strength; yet, he still needs to take refuge beneath a mask in order to face his own demons. 
32 Jackie Shroff has matured into a fine actor; as Paravasu, he is ruthless in his approach to his goals. He abandons his wife, treats his father with contempt, and has no qualms about framing his brother. The end justifies the means. It is a quiet role, understated, subtle, and the actor succeeds in becoming the character. 

Raveena Tandon as Vishakha, plays one of the finest roles of her career. Strong and beautiful, she has been manipulated - by her husband, by her father-in-law, and by 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. 

And yet, it is her character who drives the narrative into its multiple tragedies. If she hadn’t sent Aravasu to search for Yavakri, he may have reached in time for the tribal council. If it weren't for her impulsive need for vengeance, Yavakri wouldn't have died. If she hadn’t provoked him, her husband may never have taken that final step. Hers are the actions that cause the effect, but can anyone say she is not victim herself?

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 makes him a victim of the web he spins to destroy Raibhya.

Raghuvir Yadav, Prabhudeva and Amitabh Bachchan appear in well-etched cameos as the travelling Yakshagana player, the Brahmarakshas and Lord Indra respectively.

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. Unfortunately, none of the songs are available on YouTube.

An eminently watchable movie, but close your eyes during the ‘tribal dance’ sequence. I did. In pain. This is when I wished that I had an editor’s scissors and the right to use them. However, a DVD player’s fast forward button has the same effect. 


  1. Did you also write this review earlier for Lokvani? I remembered having read something about this film and was searching for it when Google pulled this up. Nice screen shots. :)

  2. Good catch. Yes, I did write a shorter version of this for Lokvani back in 2002, I think - when this movie had just released. I just pulled that up - in fact, I'd even forgotten that I'd reviewed this film - and used that as a springboard for this (longer) review.

    Yes, the screen caps - I liked them myself. :) Had plenty more, in fact. I forgot to post one of Amitabh's in that crazy gold cardboard crown. Now that crown was such a disappointment!

  3. I didn't like this movie much :( The second half moved with all the speed of a tortoise with arthritis. Though after reading your review, I'm wondering what I missed. I agree about the cinematography - the colours were so bright, and I really wanted to visit Hampi after that.

  4. LOL @ 'tortoise with arthritis'. I agree it was slow, but I got caught up in the story. But then, you are really not a period film fan, so I can see how it can get annoying when you want the story to move forward.

  5. I remember having heard the name of this film - but by the 90s (and ever since then), I've been so selective about watching new films that I've ended up watching only stuff that has been recommended to me by people who's judgement I trust. (And, to admit another truth: the name Agni Varsha sounded to me like one of those 'Vengeance is Miiiiiinnne!!' kick-ass angry hero movies that I don't really like. But this sounds right up my street. Will add it to my wishlist right now!

  6. "'Vengeance is Miiiiiinnne!!' kick-ass angry hero movies"

    Gosh, now why didn't I think of that?? :) This is a movie worth watching, Madhu. Truly. Even though I think the director did lose his grip on the pace in places (that was Ruhi's complaint). I liked the movie *a lot* - and that is saying something. My tolerance for movies began to reduce by the mid-nineties. And this, after going through the hell that was the 80s. (It's amazing that I can forgive much when it comes to the older films.)
    But do watch this; and let me know what you think. It's faithful to the play - very much so.

  7. Milind Soman looks scrumpilicious! Why haven't I come across him before... :( Haven't seen this movie either - hadn't even heard of it, actually. And I love period films, and this one is particularly apt as I am in the midst of reading Ramesh Menon's Mahabharata. Rishi is going to India next month, so I've already given him a list of movies based on your reccos. I'll add this to the list.

  8. Milind Soman is scrumpilicious. :) He hasn't acted in many movies. Well, 'acted' is a stretch, but he was great eyecandy. I think you will like this, since you like period films. It's quite faithful to the play, though the play was not that faithful to the legend.

  9. I have been intending to watch it since I read the review on philip's fillums, but have never been able to lay my hands on it! maybe I just didn't search enough! ;-)

    Milind Soman looks good enough to bite! Does he act as well or does he stand around looking good and wears a mask when he has to act?

  10. It's readily available, and Cinebella makes great DVDs. I wish they would make more. Good production values, excellent sub-titling, great packaging, and very reasonable prices. I honestly don't mind paying if I get a great product.

    Re: MIlind Soman. Hmm, that's a tough question. You see, when he was on screen, I wasn't really looking to see if he was acting. But come to think of it, he did a competent job, and no, the mask didn't help him act. (ROTFL at that statement of yours, by the way.)

  11. will search for it when I'm in india again!


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