Cast: Darshan, Arjun
Whatever the other achievements of Munirathna Kurukshetra, directed by Naganna, it's probably the world's first film to have its producer's name in its title. The story is based on the 10th-century Kannada poet Ranna's interpretation of the epic, titled Gadayuddha. But Ranna's Kurukshetra or even Vyasa's Kurukshetra would suggest that the point of this production is fidelity to the source material. The point of this production is basically to tell Baahubali: "Mine is bigger than yours." The opening scene shows Duryodhana (Darshan) leave his palace and walk to a throne in an arena where feats of valour are about to take place. His golden mace is huge. His golden crown is huge. His cape is huge. It makes the climax-scene sari that trailed behind Aishwarya Rai in Devdas look like a handkerchief. In other words, the budget is huge. Now you see the point of the title?
Whenever a familiar tale is retold, we wonder: What's the angle? What's the vision? Ranna's text takes care of these questions, for it narrates the story of the Pandavas and Kauravas through Duryodhana's point of view. But if the film is to be believed, the epic is essentially a bromance. When Karna (Arjun) challenges Arjuna in that arena but is denied permission to compete because of his caste, Duryodhana not only gives him a seat on the "Anga desa simmasanam" but also his "idhaya simmasanam". (I watched a Tamil-dubbed version.) At the end — SPOILER ALERT! Karna dies! –Duryodhana gazes at the sky and says he looks forward to being reunited with Karna. A little later, they embrace in the clouds. Wikipedia credits an actor in the role of Bhanumathi, Duryodhana's wife, but I swear I couldn't find her on screen. I suspect she wanted no part of this Brokeback Mahabharata.
The film is proof that money is no substitute for a vision. Girish Karnad, with a budget that would have barely bought Duryodhana's pinkie ring, recreated medieval-era Ujjain with stunning aestheticism. Watch Utsav, today, and you think you are watching the centuries slip by. With Munirathna Kurukshetra, you feel like you are watching a dress rehearsal for the new Jeyachandran Textiles ad. There's not one actorly or directorly moment (though Arjun brings to the part his customary dignity)—there's not one human moment. There is, however, plenty of unintentional comedy. My favourite scene is the one where Draupadi (Sneha) is getting disrobed and we cut to Krishna (V Ravichandran), who is playing a board game with Rukmani in a garden filled with CGI butterflies. Or do I point to the scene where Kunti (Bharathi Vishnuvardhan) finally meets Karna and reveals perfectly manicured fingers topped with silver nail polish?
This is a prestige project for Kannada cinema, but all they've done is rope in big names from the industry. Ambareesh, for instance, plays Bheeshma. But why, pray, summon Sonu Sood to play Arjuna? Wasn't a local actor available? Didn't anyone in the team predict what cosmic giggles would erupt in the halls when Sonu Sood makes soulful eyes and receives the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita? This isn't about Sonu Sood as an actor. It's about how Sonu Sood is the last actor you imagine when a scene involves the line "sambhavami yuge yuge". The war stretches are an embarrassment, though I was pleasantly surprised by the maces. Weaned on TV's Mahabharata, I've always thought arrows were better. After all, they can spit out fire, produce jets of water, turn into snakes…What can a mace do but clang into another mace?
But here, when Duryodhana takes on Bhima (Gadayuddha means "duel of the maces"), we see that a mace can crack the earth, like a quake. It can uproot trees. It can split rocks and cause friction that results in fires. With all these magical properties, I half-wished they could also infuse some dignity into the proceedings. After tearing open Dushasana's chest, Bhima rushes to Draupadi and runs his bloodied hands through her open tresses. (If you recall, she said she would not tie her hair in a knot until Dushasana, who disrobed her, died.) The scene, with a cackling Draupadi, should carry a chill. It looks like a demented shampoo commercial. Moral of the story? Baahubali was about storytelling. The budget was just icing. If money alone made movies, why is there only one SS Rajamouli?