Even 40 years after its release, Shyam Benegal’s ambitious film remains a compelling watch despite its shortcomings.
Revisiting Kalyug (1981): An intense inter-generational film reconfigured for modern times
New Delhi - 24 Jul 2021 14:30 IST
In popular culture, one recalls BR Chopra’s television series Mahabharat as being the definitive version of the eponymous epic. But before this largely precise, dramatized version, filmmaker Shyam Benegal and actor-producer Shashi Kapoor came together to undertake a modern adaptation of the lyrical poem. Kalyug (1981) marked the second collaboration between Benegal and Kapoor, who acted in as well as produced the film.
A big star at the time with landmark films under his belt, Shashi Kapoor first made a foray into the behind-the-scenes business in the 1970s with Vidushak Arts, a company that rented out film equipment and cameras to filmmakers. The famous editing machine, the Steenbeck, was among the coveted film equipment available through the company.
Along with this, he dabbled in film distribution, most prominently with elder brother Raj Kapoor’s film Bobby (1973), when the latter had been left in financial ruin after the disastrous run of Mera Naam Joker (1970). Although Bobby was a huge box-office success, Shashi Kapoor did not make much money from it for several reasons.
In 1976, he set up the production company Film-Valas to produce the kind of films that resonated with him creatively. Although the films made under his banner were among the more critically acclaimed, as a financial investment, it came to nought.
The first film made under the banner was Junoon (1978), marking the first collaboration between Kapoor and Shyam Benegal. Next came Kalyug (1981). A modern re-telling of the Mahabharat, the film is set in an industrial society and takes us into the cut-throat world of corporate India, where two industrial families, the Khubchands and Puranchands — who are cousins — vie with each other for business contracts and a larger share of the money pie. The stellar cast included Kapoor, Rekha, Raj Babbar, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Amrish Puri, Victor Banerjee, Supriya Pathak and Anant Nag.
A reflection of urban reality, Kalyug, written by Benegal and Girish Karnad, depicts the devastation wreaked upon families in the blind pursuit of power. Investigating the Indian family structure, Benegal rips open the fault lines to lay bare the hypocrisies, deep-seated jealousy and greed that lie behind the veneer of respectability.
Although the cousins are busy plotting the devastation of the other, they come together for family functions, maintaining propriety. The characters are complex, and despite the large number of people in the story, one manages to get a glimpse into the personalities of each one. In fact, the film begins with a family tree, explaining where the characters fit into the saga.
Kapoor’s character Karan Singh, inspired by Karna, of course, is undeniably the most compelling. Suave, incredibly handsome and sophisticated with sharp business acumen, he is the reason for the meteoric rise of the company that is like a thorn in the side of their rivals. However, all his sophistication cannot mask his ruthlessness and conniving ways when it comes to business.
When Karan learns about the identity of his mother, the Kunti character played by Sushma Seth, he is devastated and his emotional state is signified by him curling up in bed in a foetal position. In the book, Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star by Aseem Chhabra, filmmaker Dev Benegal, who was on the Kalyug unit, narrates an anecdote related to this scene.
“After the scene was done, Shashi came out and asked if it was okay," Dev Benegal recalled. "I told him he was absolutely brilliant and set the mood perfectly. Shashi grinned and said, ‘Well, you know what I was thinking about?’ ... and said, ‘I was thinking, I hope my wife is not making baingan (aubergine) for dinner tonight. I hope there is something else to eat’.”
At the other end of the spectrum from Karan is Dhanraj, played by Victor Banerjee, whose brooding, intense character is driven by an unrelenting pursuit of power. Tightly coiled and on the edge, he will stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve his goals, but his rapacious persona hides a deep loneliness which takes a devastating turn.
Amongst the women, Rekha as Supriya is the Draupadi-like figure who effortlessly navigates the space of playing the sensual woman who is a loveless wife in love with her brother-in-law (Anant Nag, modelled on Arjuna). Her commanding presence betrays her desire for power and in the world of men it is her sensuality that can enable her to access it.
There is no doubt that the film was ambitious in what it was trying to achieve. The narrative works at a fast pace, with never a dull moment, as we are taken from one incident to another. This is understandable, since there is so much ground to cover, but one still wishes there was more insight into the characters, to get into their machinations, unspoken desires, thwarted ambitions, lust, blinding jealousy — the motivations that propel them.
The characters are beautifully conceived but we are only allowed glimpses into them, which effectively thwarts the magnitude of the tragic consequences of their actions, leaving both families in a state of ruin.
The film also assumes that the viewers know their epic and one ends up playing match-the-characters to their counterparts, to fully absorb the import of their role. One isn’t sure if an uninformed audience would be able to get as much from the film.
Despite the effective performances and an ensemble star cast, the film flopped at the box office. Although with the cost of Rs10 lakh, the financial setback was not as bad as that of Junoon; it was a setback nonetheless.
As producer, Kapoor was involved in the process of making the films and insisted upon discipline on the sets. Benegal has said he has never had a better producer than Shashi Kapoor, but despite the formidable creative collaboration, the film did not work with the audience. Benegal is also on record saying he was not satisfied with the way the film turned out.
Looking back 40 years after the film’s release on this very date in 1981, it remains an impressive delving into the themes and characters of the epic, making it a compelling watch.