Finding The Roots Of Mani Ratnam’s Geethanjali
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Who would have thought that a romantic drama would open with the line, “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” What sort of a stone-hearted person would do such a thing? Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970) didn’t just go on to become a blockbuster in the United States, it also travelled across the world and inspired many up-and-coming writers and filmmakers. Erich Segal’s book, upon which the movie is based, is considered a milestone since it makes the idea of love live longer than the people who embody it. 

Well, love can certainly reside in the rooms that are occupied by tragedy. But to kill one of the darlings in a work of fiction that circumambulates the coming together of a young woman and man requires a special kind of skill. As much as Love Story pours love into every cell of your body, it gives you a warning signal, too, by telling you that life is a fragile item. 

And despite being aware of the fact that Jenny (Ali MacGraw) and Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) won’t be able to spend several decades in each other’s arms, you’d still want to watch the film because it’s a delightful delicacy. There’s almost everything that you expect from a warm-natured rom-com – pleasant laughs, excellent chemistry between the leads, and dialogues that you can quote in the letters that you wish to write (example: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry!”). 

Until the birth of Love Story, Indian directors were apprehensive about eliminating protagonists in the name of romance films. They, of course, had the chance to do that within the Devdas genre, though. But those plots involved a typical Indian setting. The parents of the principal characters didn’t allow their respective children to get married (due to caste and class differences).  This point of contention seemingly made the hero acquire the kinship of intoxication. 

Numerous movies, in numerous languages, have been woven around Devdas, and, yet, unrequited love continues to be a subject of national interest. But when I think of Love Story, it unlocks a plethora of photocopies. “Photocopy” may not exactly be the term that I’d like to use here. It’s more like a source of inspiration. It’s the “Aha, I know what to do next” sort of a wake-up call that makes the screenwriters put pen to paper. 

When Mani Ratnam made Geethanjali, in 1989, it created a sensation at the box office. Awards and grand words of appreciation followed the moviemaker and, to this day, the Akkineni Nagarjuna and Girija starrer remains a benchmark in Telugu cinema. It can either lavishly put a smile on your face, or come across as a tear-jerker. It has both love and loss in equal measure. And, more importantly, it’s holistically optimistic about weathering the storm. 

As soon as Geethanjali begins, you can see Prakash (Nagarjuna) dancing to his own tune and meeting with an accident. He’s then told by a doctor that his physical injuries may heal sooner rather than later, but the disease that’s eating him up won’t let him live for a long time. Naturally, this new piece of information saddens him and he moves to a hill station to confine himself to a solitary existence. And there, while burying himself under bitterness, he chances upon an antidote – the carefree Geethanjali (Girija). 

Though Geethanjali, on the outside, appears as a person who counts rainbows, she also suffers from a fatal disease. But she doesn’t let the illness define her. She wants to live her days to the fullest even though they are short in number. Her philosophy manufactures an aura of positivity and that, in turn, breaks Prakash’s somber mood. 

Ratnam didn’t look towards the West to come up with Geethanjali; he merely glanced sideways. Shankar Nag’s Kannada movie Geetha (1981) is a resplendent offshoot of Love Story in which the eponymous lead (played by Akshatha Rao) breathes her last in the closing scene. And, if you dig deeper, you’ll realize that the main villain in all these films is cancer.  

Don’t you think Ratnam’s drama bears a great resemblance to Nag’s film? The chirpy attitude with which Geethanjali speaks and behaves is also partly borrowed from Geetha’s colorful joie de vivre. In spite of the glaring comparisons, nevertheless, the best thing about these gems is that they’re all original in their own ways. And perhaps that’s why they’re still remembered and adored by scores of movie lovers. 

And Geethanjali, unlike its filmy siblings, ends on a buoyant note by permitting the couple to embrace togetherness. Prakash and Geethanjali do not die on-screen and, thereby, Ratnam offers a closure that’s in sync with a happy ending. In recent years, Kannada films, such as Dia (2020) and Love Mocktail (2020), have taken the Geetha route and gotten rid of one half of the lead couple. The deaths have become a regular facet of romantic tragedies now, and, hence, the shock factor seems to be drying up fast. Maybe, we should ask ourselves if we really need another Love Story in the first place. 

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