Writers: Sai Madhav Burra, Gunasekhar, Naresh Namdev
Cast: Samantha, Dev Mohan, Mohan Babu
Shaakuntalam’s shoddy VFX is not its most grievous fault. Nor are the performances. It is the lack of artistic intention, of directorial vision, that undoes this mythological film. This should be surprising, given that this is from the director that made one of the quintessential masala classics, Okkadu in 2003 (endlessly remade in multiple languages, but never equalled), and followed it up with the ambitious, if uneven Arjun (2004).
It is instructive to compare this Samantha-starrer to Okkadu, despite belonging to a vastly different genre—there too, the Charminar was recreated with a marriage of VFX and sets. But the romantic sweep of the scene in which Mahesh Babu and Bhoomika banter while lounging atop the structure—a scene which made a new generation fall in love with the monument— finds no counterpart here, in what is supposed to be a romantic story. How are we supposed to believe that their love is something more than a momentary attraction if we see no dimensions to these characters?
Shaakuntalam is unconvincing, and consequently, interminably boring. The old Telugu mythological stories stemmed from theatrical plays, and worked because of their commitment to pitch and genre (even if they sometimes contained multiple genres in the same film)— Mayabazar (1936) was a comedy, Lava Kusa (1963) was a melodrama. Actors like NTR, Savithri, and SVR came through these traditions and were unafraid to go big on these emotions, infusing them with earnestness.
It is evident that most actors in Shaakuntalam are struggling with the blue screen environment, and hence, unable to locate the pitch to go for with their performances. But I think it also has to do with a lack of conviction in the melodrama—you can almost see them thinking, like the students in Rang De Basanti (2006) trying to understand the conviction of the historical figures that they’re playing, ”how do I make this work in 2023?” Samantha Ruth Prabhu is an exception, and almost redeems the film with her performance, which has a palpable weight to it—particularly with the internal conflict when she begins to fall in love with Dushyant and the pain of betrayal when he rejects her, though even she seems to be struggling with some of the mythological-speak.
There is an attempt here to straddle the line between the assertive Shakuntala in the Mahabharata and the passive, demure Shakuntala in Kalidasa’s Abhignana Shakunthalam, but the film quickly undercuts any artistic intention by cutting away to unengaging sequences of war that seem to have unclear stakes. The environment design—particularly Dushyanta’s big city—is unconvincing because the size of every gate, statue, and expanse is blown up to a scale where subconsciously, you know it would serve no function to its citizens, that this is not a world that exists independently of our experience of it when the camera turns away.
And then there’s the anachronism—at what is supposed to be the highest moment of passion, Dushyanta tells Shakunthala that he “wants to be born to her, be raised by her, and then rule the world”. At the end of the film, after her enormous trials, she is told that her purpose of existence was to give birth to the heir of the kingdom. That the film ultimately reduces Shakunthala to a vessel for propagating a dynasty speaks to the fact that the primary object of interest isn’t her, but the mythological milieu being evoked by the film. In the world-building, there is some promise early on—scenes of animals (well-realized in photorealistic CG, in contrast to the rest of the film) coexisting peacefully with each other, prey and predator, along with humans—but these are only sparks in what is mostly a dull affair.
There is one scene in Shaakuntalam where I could catch a glimpse of a film that could have worked—when she, heavily pregnant, gets on a boat helmed by Sarangi (Prakash Raj) to be taken to Dushyanta’s kingdom. There isn’t a single line exchanged between Samantha and Prakash Raj, but he breaks out into a song, ‘Yelelo Yelelo’, in which he hints at the tribulations that await the young, hopeful woman. There is a real pathos to the song, helped by Prakash Raj’s commitment to melodramatic song-acting, that plays on our knowledge of what awaits the innocent Shakunthala. It works, despite the bad CGI. This is what the rest of the film needed.