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16 March 2012

Utsav (1984)

Directed by: Girish Karnad
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Vasant Desai
Starring: Shashi Kapoor, Rekha, Shekhar Suman, Amjad Khan, 
Shankar Nag, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Harish Patel, Anooradha
Director Girish Karnad took two Sanskrit plays – Charudutta by Bhasa (300 A.D.) and Mrichhakatika by Shudraka (400 A.D.) – and converted it into a sensual drama that plays out against a backdrop of political upheaval. 

Set in a fictional town in Ujjain under the tyrannical regime of King Paalak, the story moves from the disorderly house of courtesans, and their pursuit of pleasure, to two disparate love stories whose strands intertwine, not only with each other, but with the underground political movement that is rebelling against the tyrant. It is also a very different India, as the sutradhar (narrator) reminds us – an India where courtesans had honour; where kama (passion) and dharma (religion / duty) co-existed with love and gain.

The movie owes a lot to the tropes of the theatre – where the play is ‘staged’ only to dissolve into reality – on stage. The sutradhar makes periodic appearances, as if to reminds us that we are both observers and the observed.

Girish Karnad’s sutradhar (Amjad Khan) will also appear as Rishi Vatsyayana, the author of the celebrated Kama Sutra. At this time, however, he hasn’t completed his magnum opus. He is still discovering new asanas (here, sexual positions), and is in the midst of writing his treatise on man-woman relationships. 

It is spring and the Vasant Utsav is nearing. The town is teeming with activity, even though night has fallen. The sutradhar introduces us to a motley group of characters –the beautiful nagar vadhu Vasantsena (Rekha) fleeing from the lecherous Samsthanak (Shashi Kapoor), the brother-in-law of the cruel King Paalak; revolutionaries, headed by Aryaka (Kunal Kapoor), and his nameless political advisor (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) plotting to overthrow the king; Sajjal (Shankar Nag), a thief, and his beloved, Madanika (Neena Gupta), a slave in Vasantsena’s household; Teli (Annu Kapoor), the royal masseur gambling away wealth that he does not possess; Charudutt (Shekhar Suman), a poor brahmin playing his flute and not listening to his friend Maitreya (Harish Patel) mourning their poverty….
Charudutt’s wife, Aditi (Anooradha), has taken their son Rohit (a young Master Manjunath in his debut), and gone away to her parents’ home after another fight over his dissolute ways – his love for music has seen him go through his savings and her jewellery. Charudutt wants Maitreya to escort their maid Radha (Gopi Desai) to his in-laws’ house. Tired and panic-stricken, Vasantsena rushes into the dark compound to hide, just as Maitreya and Radha step out. Samsthanak, who has been valiantly chasing Vasantsena, mistakenly accosts Radha, whose screams bring Aryaka to the scene. He takes the opportunity to fell Samsthanak with a well-placed blow. 

Maitreya and Radha leave, while Charudutt, oblivious to the tamasha outside continues to immerse himself in music. Vasantsena is ready to leave when he breaks into a song. Like moth to flame, she is drawn into the house. She trips over his son’s toys and Charudutt thinks Radha has returned. Cursing Maitreya for not escorting her to his wife’s aid, he asks ‘Radha’ to get him his shawl so he can escort her instead.
It is only when Vasantsena drapes his shawl over his shoulders that he realises his mistake. As she unveils herself, he is instantly smitten. Vasantsena is no less afflicted, but she masters herself enough to explain her presence. Charudutt offers to escort her, but soon realises that lamps do not light themselves for poor men. Vasantsena is not offended – now that Samsthanak has left the neighbourhood, she does not mind going alone. However, to foil thieves, she leaves her jewellery in his keeping.
It takes very complicated manoeuvres to remove her jewellery, and she asks Charudutt for help. He acquiesces, but the more he tries to remove the various jewels, the more entangled he gets in them. Maitreya returns at this inopportune moment, but conveniently remembers that he hadn’t made an offering at the temple. When he leaves, Vasantsena suggests that it might be easier to remove her jewellery if they lay down.  

The night passes and lovelorn Vasantsena returns home. Vatsyayana is still researching new sexual positions and he makes periodic stops at the brothel for purposes of research, where he explains to the prostitutes (and the film does not balk at calling them that – vaishyas) that he has taken a vow of celibacy in order to advance the cause of science. His disciple manages to spot a new position in one of the rooms; that makes it the 29th position in the book. 

Outside the brothel, Teli is unsuccessfully trying to sell himself to pay off his debts. Aryaka’s nameless friend rescues him, out of the goodness of his heart – or so Teli thinks. But, no. His rescuer has an ulterior motive – as the royal masseur, Teli is free to walk into the palace. With his help, the revolutionaries could stage a coup. Teli demurs. He is no soldier. In his bid to escape, he gives Vatsyayana a glimpse of the 30th asana – only the sage is writing his treatise for the common man, and thinks it better to keep silent.
‘Ma’ (the madam) is scolding Vasantsena for disappointing Samsthanak. Love is not for the likes of us, she tells Vasantsena, and Charudutt is an impoverished brahmin. Vasantsena, lost in love, is in no mood to listen.
In the meantime, Sajjal has found his way into the brothel, and hides in Madanika’s room. When she finds out that he is willing to marry her, she is furious. She is a slave, and will not be let go. Sajjal offers to buy her from the madam. She scoffs, but he forces her to believe him. 

Back home, Charudutt is equally lovelorn. Aditi has returned home, and she is cleaning up. It is Maitreya who reminds him silently that Vasantsena’s jewels are still at home. Luckily, before she picks up the bundle, she is diverted, and Charudutt is reprieved. He hands the bundle over to Maitreya to keep safe. Maitreya goes to bed with the bundle under his head. However, his anxiety does not let him sleep. When he hears Charudutt (as he thinks), he hands over the bundle to him. Only, it is Sajjal who is trying to steal the gold he needs to buy his Madanika’s freedom.
When Maitreya discovers that he had inadvertently given the jewels away, the resultant conversation with Charudutt reveals Vasantsena’s nocturnal visit to Aditi. Upset, she leaves home again, handing over her last piece of jewellery to Maitreya to give to Vasantsena in lieu of the stolen jewellery. 

When Sajjal shows Madanika the stolen jewels, she recognises them as Vasantsena’s and is petrified. She forces him to pretend to be Charudutt’s servant and give them up. They are overheard by another maid, who lets Vasantsena know. After teasing them a bit, she rewards Sajjal for returning her jewels by freeing Madanika.  
As the happy couple leave to get married, they are accosted by the nameless revolutionary who wants Sajjal’s help to free Aryaka, who has been arrested some time before. Sajjal is tempted by visions of making history, and much to Madanika’s ire, he goes away.

Maitreya is quite upset when he comes to Vasantsena. He hands over Aditi’s necklace and informs her about the theft and its aftermath. Vasantsena understands only that Charudutt is alone at home; she tells Maitreya that she will visit Charudutt that night.

Back at the brothel, Ma is trying to teach an old dog some new tricks – how to win a woman in three easy steps. She asks Samsthanak to spruce himself up, to be gentle and courteous, and to woo Vasantsena instead of chasing her up and down the streets. She also asks him to send a covered chariot the next day, and she will persuade Vasantsena to visit him in Pushkar Van.
Unaware that her future is being decided, Vasantsena is meeting Charudutt again. Much to his amazement, she is wearing the jewels that were stolen from his home. She confesses that she had gambled his wife’s necklace away, but is willing to leave her jewels as compensation. This time, however, Charudutt realises that it is not quite as hard to remove the jewellery.
They spend a passionate night together, and come morning, Vasantsena is ready to go back home. Charudutt will have none of it. He goes off to order a covered chariot so they can spend the whole day in Pushkar Van, without Vasantsena being recognised by her adoring public. 

He leaves and Aditi returns, much to Vasantsena’s embarrassment. However, Aditi is not so much offended as intrigued. After all, it’s only the wealthy who can afford mistresses. Now that her husband has a mistress, and such a well-known one, she is proud. Besides, she says, blushing, her husband has changed after he spent a night with Vasantsena. They understand each other, though Vasantsena is cut to the quick when Aditi claims she is not really jealous of Vasantsena because the latter is older, and therefore, not really her peer.
For a while, Vasantsena immerses herself in Aditi’s everyday life, even leaving her jewellery in little Rohit’s clay cart. Soon, however, it is time to go. A mischance makes her get into the chariot sent by Samsthanaka, while Aryaka, rescued by Sajjal, and hiding in Charudutt’s house, hides in the chariot sent by Charudutt. Both chariots make their way to Pushkar Van.
Once there, Vasantsena is horrified to see Samsthanak instead of her beloved Charudutt. Frightened, she flees, only to have him follow. In a fit of anger that she loves someone else, Samsthanak strangles her, and then breaks down in a paroxysm of grief. Charudutt, who had been lost in dreams of Vasantsena, comes there; learning that he is Charudutt, the jealous Samsthanak frames him for Vasantsena’s murder. Before the bewildered and bereft Charudutt can protest, he is accused of both theft (of her jewels) and murder and sentenced to be executed. 

Is Vasantsena really dead? Will Aryaka succeed in his coup? Will Aditi persuade Samsthanak to rescind her husband’s sentence? What about Samsthanak himself? Will good triumph over evil?
I love period films, and when it is as well-made as this one, it’s a bonus. Like all Sanskrit dramas of the time, Utsav too has layers and layers of emotion, courtesans, burglars, musicians, revolutionaries, all overlapping, intertwining, entangling, until you are not sure where one starts and the other ends. Then, like a magician on stage, the playwright shakes his reed and palm leaves, and it all falls into place with a satisfying thud.  Laxmikant-Pyarelal came up with a quietly melodious score, one of their best (especially considering this score released in the 80s, which was the burial ground of melody), relying heavily on the flute and drums, and the lyrics by Vasant Desai matched the languorous mood. 
The acting was topnotch, with Rekha as Vasantsena walking away with the honours. She was beautiful as she always is, but beyond that, she underplayed her role, letting her very mobile face express her feelings – love, fear, terror, hurt, yearning. And for an untrained dancer, Rekha is incredibly graceful in her movements.

Shashi Kapoor and Amjad Khan were perfect in their respective roles and the supporting actors – Anooradha Patel, Harish Patel, Neena Gupta, Gopi Desai, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kunal Kapoor, Annu Kapoor et al – did a wonderful job in maintaining the quiet pace of the movie. Why haven’t I mentioned Charudutta? Because, unfortunately, it was very hard to like Shekhar Suman. He acted well, but had about as much screen presence as the clay cart that appears toward the end of the movie. clip_image002

Producer Shashi Kapoor didn’t stint on the production and it shows in the little touches – the accessories, the furniture, the simple costumes, the language (a very Sanskritised Hindi), the authentic sets, the gorgeous jewellery and elaborate coiffures, even the almost-poetic sword fights, choreographed by PK Gopalan Gurukkal… it is unfortunate that the film lost him a crore and a half, leaving him riddled in debt.

Trivia? Amitabh was supposed to play Samsthanak, only he had the accident on the sets of Coolie, and Shashi stepped in. In an interview after the film’s release, he was told: “Having watched you in that fantastic role, you can't imagine anyone else doing it.” "But I can," Shashi replied. "Amitabh has unmatched comic timing." 

And yes, a glimpse of the young Sanjana...


  1. I never have got around to seeing this one. It was released when I was a kid, so I never saw it then (well, neither did anyone else in my family). And later, somehow it never happened. Though I do remember - as a young teen - reading in a magazine about that scene where Shekhar Suman got to rub Rekha with soap. I'd thought, back then, how shocking that was - we never saw that sort of stuff in Hindi cinema! :-D

    Anu, when are you going to stop reviewing films I MUST see? My to-do list is growing unmanageably long! :-(

  2. Anu, when are you going to stop reviewing films I MUST see? My to-do list is growing unmanageably long! :-(
    You know, Madhu, I thought of you when I wrote this post! It's right up your alley; one of the few period movies that really tries (and succeeds) to be authentic. Lovely songs, all-round great acting, good script, deft direction...
    (And to answer your question: "Never!" she said, laughing evilly.)

    The scene with Shekhar and Rekha is not soap! Tauba, tauba. :) It's besan or chandan or something. Looks it too. It's a very erotic scene - and you're right - we never saw that stuff in Hindi cinema. (To be honest, it was a darn sight more erotic than the skin show we are given in every other film!)

  3. How I loved this movie. I still watch it sometimes. Just Like Madhu, I couldn't watch it since it was given an A certificate. It is so lovely. Moreover Shankar Nag looks so handsome and virile in this movie! Awesome!

    I really liked this movie, though I was really wary of a Hindi movie
    version of the clay cart. During its release I read each and every
    article on the film, I could lay my hands on. For the same reasons like dustedoff, I 
    couldn't see the movie in a cinema hall. And even after buying the VCD I
    needed nearly one year to get over my reservations. But with Girish
    Karnad at the helm, they were unfounded. The ads during those times in
    the newspapers of Bombay read 'Come and watch Vatsyayana's Kamasutra
    with Rekha' or something steamy on those lines. And I was wondering all
    the time, what has Vatsyayana's Kamasutra to do with 'the clay cart'.

    watching Utsav fell in the time when I was reading Wendy Doniger's The
    Hindus (a book highly recommendable). Therein describing the lesbian activity in royal
    harems in Kamasutra, she writes 'the commentary makes this explicit, and
    also helpfully suggests the particular vegetables that one might use:
    “By imagining a man, they experience a heightened emotion gives extreme
    satisfaction. These things have a form just like the male sexual organ:
    the bulbs of arrowroot, plantain, and so forth; the roots of coconut
    palms, breadfruit, and so forth; and the fruits of the bottle-gourd,
    cucumber, and so forth (5.6.2).” One can imagine little gardens of
    plantain and cucumber being tenderly cultivated within the inner
    courtyards of the palace.' (p. 3333-334 chap. Escape Clauses in the
    As I read the above line the song 'man kyu behka ri behka'
    came into my mind, particularly the last part where they are tending the
    vegetable garden.

    A memorable film!!!

    BTW, do read Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar's new translation with
    comments on Vatsyayana's Kamasutra. It gives a deep insight into the
    society and social conditions of those times. It is not only about poses
    and all.

  4. I saw this film in Kerala as a wee child in a theatre which was notorious for showing only English movies and for inserting porn clips into perfectly decent movies - that was also the only theatre in our little town that showed Hindi films that were not totally commercial. They must have bought into those silly ads you mentioned. (I remember them, too.)

    The theatre was packed - with families (probably the first time in the history of that particular theatre). At least in Trichur, Utsav was a hit! :)

    I'm not a great fan of Wendy Doniger. I have a translation of the Kamasutra by Alan Danielou, which is very good. Sudhir Kakkar has always been a favourite (Some of his stuff; others are not interesting to *me*.)

    ps: I don't remember a single film that I haven't seen because it was age-inappropriate. :))

  5. While you were all watching movies and blogging, we have had another stint in the hospital, and have returned, and I am busy trying to get things together again.  Sigh!  When will I ever see these movies and read these blog posts?

  6. Love this Anu ! I still remember being eyeballed and eyebrow-beaten into submission but went ahead, bunking from the boarding school anyway :D Rekha was a goddess, and god help anyone who disputed that !Absolutely agree with what what you have observed about Suman. The man has mightily improved over the years, but in Utsav, he looked like someone OD'd on Novanox. Utsav is a milestone of the 80's  Indian cinema production, no doubt about it. Pssst..we even had looong discussions about that gori, lithe girl in the movie for days ( Sanjana ). But the thrill of watching a forbidden movie, or the memories associated with it did nothing to the feeling I got as I  watched it again a year back. It just didn't strike any chord anywhere. maybe it was  movie destined to happen for that time and then go away :). Thank you so much for this..cinematters

  7. Oh, gosh, Lalitha, I'm so sorry! How is your father now?

  8. he looked like someone OD'd on Novanox.

    Good description of Shekhar Suman, cinematters! LOL. Th eproblem I think, was that he was paired opposite someone as charismatic as Rekha. She had tremendous screen presence.

  9.  Yes, I now think: Whoever wrote that article couldn't have known what they were talking about. Shekhar Suman rubbing Rekha with soap? In ancient India? :-D Must've been besan, I guess.

  10. I had never heard of this film. Since I love, love period films this is a must for me.
    The plot seems quite complicated with many characters. But if the setting is as authentic as you mention I'm definitely going to watch it.
    Thank you, Anu for this detailed review, so descriptive, and so visual (for want of a better word).

  11. More often than not, none of these people even bother to check the facts, Madhu. I'm sure the twit who wrote that article hadn't seen the movie; he/she/it must have written what someone else said.

  12. Thank you, pacifist. You should get your hands on this one. It's wonderfully detailed, and the plot is not as complicated as it seems. Karnad did a great job of pulling in all the disparate strands together.

  13. I have been reading your posts, Anu, with great regularity, but have had nothing to contribute when it came to old Hindi songs - though Rishi and his parents have been playing all ths Suraiya, Shamshad Begum songs. My in-laws were so thrilled to find some old (and as they said, not-so-well-known) songs that they remembered.

    I haven't seen Utsav and your screencaps make me want to. Rekha looks so beautiful, but so does the other actress. Did she act in anything else?

  14. Rekha is so gorgeous in this film, but you know what? I remember having seen bits and pieces of it; it was on television once (unbelievably) and my mom wouldn't let me watch it because it was "for grown ups" hahaha.. she wouldn't mind now though :)

  15. No worries, Tina. :) I'm glad Rishi's parents enjoyed the songs. Do put Utsav on your to-watch list. It's worth it. The other actress is Anooradha Patel; she is Ashok Kumar's granddaughter. She acted in quite a few films, then left to open a finishing school. Ijazat and of late, Jaane Tu, ya Jaane Na come to mind. 

  16. If it was on television, I can guarantee it was chopped mercilessly, Neha, so be glad you didn't watch it then. Do watch it now, though. It's a wonderful film.

  17. This film was a masterpiece, I really loved it wouldn't be wrong to call it a wonderful piece of art, don't you think?

  18.  It's a perfect description for this film, Shilpi. :) That's just what it is.

  19. My father took me to watch this film, and I remember my classmates' saying "Your father took you? It's such a daring film!There was nothing 'daring' about it; it was an exquisitely made film, with lovely, lovely songs!

  20. Ha! My father took me to see this film, much to the disbelief and envy of my classmates. Of course, I don't think he realised there was so much sensuality on display. :)) They showed it here in 2001 as part of a Rekha Retrospective, and I watched it again. Still as good as I remembered. Lovely film, and kudos to Shashi Kapoor for backing something like this.

  21. Did he have an explanation for all that sensuality (as you put it)? Or did he just decide that since he had taken you, he might as well put a good face on it? :))

  22. Lovely write-up, Anu. I remember 'Utsav' being one of the movies that you couldn't exactly own up to watching (let alone enjoying!) as a youngster... hehe, confusing adolescent times! As an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Wonderful music, great casting, costume design... and funny too! The film was like a gorgeously illustrated storybook that sprang into animated action... :)

  23. Welcome to my blog, Lakshmi, and thank you for commenting and the compliment.

    I hear stories like yours and Sridhar's and think to myself that my father must have been unusual - I watched this (and many others) in his company. :)

    The film was like a gorgeously illustrated storybook that sprang into animated action... :)

    What a perfect description! Yes, it was exactly like that!

  24. The tragedy of 'Utsav' is that the movie finally came to be seen as Kamasutra or porn type movie instead of the actual Sanskrit play it was based on but it must helped the producers of the marketers equally well, so maybe it was not such a bad thing after all. The fact that it was a political movie that was critical of the governing body interests me and it's possible that the movie may have undergone censor cuts if it were released say 10 years earlier, during Indira Gandhi's times. 

    It has been shown on TV quite a few times and I remember seeing it then, hoping that the besan-bathing scene gets over soon or is cut but curiously, it was shown on TV and I assume that none of it was censored. Shashi Kapoor was a brave producer and deserved better but then he'll remembered for many of his movies he produced, I suppose..

    It is an interesting star cast with Amjad Khan as Vatsyayana and Shashi Kapoor as Samsthanak. Looking at the frame of Samsthanak in the movie, it would have been tempting to switch the roles. WIll be difficult to think of anyone else but Rekha as Vasantsena and as for Shekhar Suman, there's almost universal agreement on his wooden face in the movie:) 

  25. You managed to escape the catcalls and nuisance values in theatres in Kerala when seeing this? Sangeetha and I saw the new 'Rathinirvedam' in PVR last year and we got into a quarrel with the idiots who had paid 250+ for the tickets but were only interested in passing lewd comments and making an ass of themselves in the theatre, even though there were enough families in the audience. And you'd think that the audience now would be mature enough not to view the movie in the same light atleast 30 years later!

  26. I did, Pradeep, and as I mentioned earlier, it was strange because this was quite a run down theatre and the posters plastered around town had the 'bathing scene' prominently displayed. I think, things are getting worse now.

  27. I don't think Utsav has that reputation any more. If it ever did. As I said, there were whole families in the theatre when my father and I went to see the film. I saw it again in Bombay, during a Shashi Kapoor retrospective, and from what I remembered, there weren't any cuts at all. 

    Why did you want the besan-bathing scene (interesting description) cut? I didn't see anything wrong with it, no, not even when I watched the film with my grandparents. : - ) It was shot quite aesthetically.

  28. Alright, I stand corrected that it no longer has that reputation but I suppose it did once upon a time.

    Aesthetic sense is not exactly directly proportional to watching something not so comfortable at home, I suppose:) Guess, the sooner we were done with the scene, we could have proceeded with the rest of the movie which had lots more in store.

    BTW, was it not surprising that Charudatta's wife was not too perturbed to see her husband's mistress? Ultra-progressive:)

  29. Aesthetic sense is not exactly directly proportional to watching something not so comfortable at home, I suppose:)

    :) I wouldnn't know. But then, we ended up watching Blue Lagoon at home with a full house, including my grandparents, who quite liked the film. We had a very interesting discussion about it afterwards. (I know. Sigh. I must giving people a very weird idea of my family!)

    BTW, was it not surprising that Charudatta's wife was not too perturbed to see her husband's mistress? Ultra-progressive:)

    Not really. In those times, it was considered quite natural for a man to have a mistress; it was a matter of pride.

    Besides, the idea that a husband and wife should mean all-in-all to each other is a very modern idea.

  30. I must be giving people a very weird idea of my family!

    Yeah..totally:) Utsav, Blue Lagoon hmm...calls for a post on the list of all such 'family' movies that you have watched together:)...

  31. LOL. Re: the post - I don't want to slander my family any more than I've already done!!

    I remember my brother bringing home some weird movie which the videowala had given him; as soon as he put into the VCR, ammachan also sat down to watch. The FF button was used to its maximum. My brother finished watching it in 20 minutes flat!


  32. Besides, the idea that a husband and wife should mean all-in-all to each other is a very modern idea

    Ah..those good old times! But seriously, it should also have been allowed the other way round where a woman should have been free to have a lover (what's the male equivalent of a mistress?), a bit like sambandhams...

  33. :) I'm all for that one!

    I don't know about ancient India, but in old England, women were allowed to take lovers as long as they were discreet about it (and of course, as long as they provided their husbands with a legal heir).

  34.  I am quite sure it's besan and I felt that the bathing scene was erotic. The film would lose out if it was cut. But then I watched the movie on TV (late night, uncut and alone), so that was OK. I am a Rekha fan, I feel that even her fingernails are lovely and really couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. 

  35.  I'm a Rekha fan too. But she's a very carefully constructed image. :)


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