|Be still, my beating heart: |
Tabu (Sowmya) and Aishwarya (Meenu) in Kandukondain Kandukondain
I'm aware of only three film adaptations of Austen with Indian settings (so please let me know if I've overlooked any). In reverse chronological order, they are:
Aisha (2010, based on Emma), written by Devika Bhagat and Manu Rishi Chaddha and directed by Rajshree Ojha: In my post "Who cares if Tanu weds Manu?: The new Bollywood romantic comedy," I wrote that as Aisha/Emma, Sonam Kapoor "is pretty enough, but blank: her performance suggests that Aisha really is as shallow as she seems."
Bride & Prejudice (2004, based of course on Pride & Prejudice), written by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha and directed by Chadha: Yes, Chadha is of Anglo-Indian ancestry, and this film is primarily in English. It's included here because it is set in India, and because it features Indian actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Anupam Kher and Sonali Kulkarni. But, as I wrote in "A Bollywood Persuasion," it is "fatally handicapped by New Zealand actor Martin Henderson's lackluster Darcy and...Chadha's mediocre script."
Perhaps the first time was the charm. The excellent Tamil film Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It, 2000, based on Sense & Sensibility), written and directed by Rajiv Menon, manages to be surprisingly faithful to its source while believably updating the story to the present. If anything, I found Menon's film to be even better on our recent rewatch than I remembered. (And yes, I know it's a Kollywood, and not Bollywood, product, but I don't yet have a "Kollywood Rewatch" series.)
Aishwarya plays the headstrong, romantic Meenakshi/Marianne, with Tabu as her older and wiser sister Sowmya/Elinor. When Meenakshi (Meenu) meets her future husband, she wants lightning, thunder,
Sowmya doesn't have such fanciful expectations; in fact, as the eldest daughter of a wealthy family, she is facing an arranged marriage:
But as it turns out, both sisters fall in love. Meenu is swept away by poetry-quoting investment banker Srikanth (Abbas), whom indeed she meets during a raging storm. Sowmya, mistakenly thinking that he is the groom that has been arranged for her, finds herself being charmed almost against her will by aspiring film director Manohar (Ajith Kumar). Complicating matters for Meenu is Major Bala (Mammootty), who makes no secret of his admiration for her, but who is twice her age and is a physically and emotionally wounded veteran. Complicating matters for Sowmya is that Manohar has a prior commitment—to his career: he wants to direct his first film before he contemplates marriage. Any resemblance of Srikanth to the untrustworthy Willoughby, Manohar to the unsettled Edward Ferrars or Major Bala to the unrequited Colonel Brandon is entirely intentional.
As does Marianne in Austen's novel, Meenu loves music and dancing; at a party she teases Sowmya about her feelings for Manohar in "Kannamoochi Yennada":
The wonderful soundtrack was composed by AR Rahman, with lyrics by Vairamuthu; K. S. Chithra is Aishwarya's playback singer.
The sisters' lives are suddenly upended when a relative inherits their family home and they are forced to leave. Together with their mother, their youngest sister, and a loyal servant, the now-penniless sisters move to Madras/Chennai, where Sowmya struggles to take on the role of breadwinner. And now both sisters face the loss, not only of their social standing, but of their romantic hopes...
If you haven't yet seen Kandukondain Kandukondain or read Sense & Sensibility, I urge you to do so without delay. You can watch the full movie on YouTube, with English subtitles, thanks to Rajshri films. (Unfortunately, on YouTube you don't get the full richness of the colors or the sharpness of the images of Ravi K. Chandran's lovely cinematography, as you do on the Kino International DVD.) Sense & Sensibility is a free download from Project Gutenberg and Open Library.
There is one issue that I want to talk about with Kandukondain Kandukondain, and it's impossible to do so without revealing the ending. So be forewarned if you haven't read Austen's novel or seen the movie: spoilers follow.
As sympathetic, as honorable, as steadfast, and as sincere as we and Meenu/Marianne find Major Bala/Colonel Brandon, the question of whether she will be completely happy or fulfilled in their marriage remains naggingly open at the end of the film. In the novel Marianne is 17 and Colonel Brandon is "on the wrong side of five and thirty"; she considers him "an absolute old bachelor" (Ch. 7). In the film, Meenu seems to be in her late teens or early twenties (Aish was in her mid-20s, but looks and plays younger), and Major Bala is clearly well over 40 (Mammootty was in his late 40s at the time of filming).
|Excellent advice from Major Bala (Mammootty)|
But more significant than the difference in their ages is the difference in their sensibilities. Major Bala is blunt, no-nonsense, practical, and (literally) down-to-earth, although his choice of profession may hint at a emotional side he otherwise doesn't reveal: he's become a commercial flower grower. Meenu is impulsive, headstrong, playful and romantic, a lover of music, dance and song. Bala is clearly dazzled by her and will take care of her with great devotion; but will that be enough to overcome their differences?
I was reminded of the conversation between Lady Laura Kennedy and Violet Effingham in Chapter 10 of Anthony Trollope's Phineas Finn, in which Lady Laura lists the reasons Violet should marry her brother:
Violet responds,"Because it would save him. Because you are the only woman for whom he has ever cared, and because he loves you with all his heart..."
Should Meenu marry Major Bala? (And come to think of it, is Manohar, who is tied to the glitz, glamour, crassness and shallowness of the film industry, a good match for the the shy, serious Sowmya?)"It seems to me that all your reasons are reasons why he should marry me;—not reasons why I should marry him."
Perhaps I'm guilty of viewing this movie from an American perspective, where we (so realistically!) expect total compatibility in all areas between husbands and wives. But it seems to me that these couples are likely to experience problems down the road.
Or perhaps not. There are (at least) two other Indian films that may have been influenced by Sense & Sensibility that also treat relationships between couples that at first glance don't seem to be well-matched: Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs to You, 1998). Both movies have endings that, while ambiguous, are distinctly hopeful.
In Parineeta, the reserved Shekar (Ashok Kumar) is twice the age of the irrepressible Lalita (Meena Kumari), and has watched her grow up in the household next door. Nonetheless, or maybe inevitably, love blossoms between the two. Misunderstandings and family feuds separate them, and both receive proposals from kind, sincere people that they don't love. Their connection is severely tested,
but—spoiler alert!—ultimately is made stronger for surviving the trial.
In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Aishwarya plays Nandini, the vivacious daughter of Pandit Darbar, a musician (see "Bollywood Rewatch 1" for videos of her spectacular dance numbers from HDDCS). Nandini falls in love with the teasing Sameer (Salman Khan), a visiting Italo-Indian student of her father. But when the Pandit finds out about their romance, he banishes Sameer and arranges Nandini's marriage to the wealthy Vanraj (Ajay Devgan in one of his best performances). Vanraj is several years older than Nandini, and is quiet, reserved, and thoughtful to the point of brooding—like, dare I say it, Colonel Brandon to Nandini's Marianne, or Shekar to Lalita.
When Vanraj discovers that his wife loves another man, he decides to try to reunite them. They go on a journey to Italy (or, rather, "Italy"; the locations were shot in Hungary) and—spoiler alert!—after many difficulties and a near-tragedy, track down Sameer. Nandini is faced with the choice of leaving the kind and devoted Vanraj for the object of her first crush, or staying with her husband. Her decision, and the reasons and emotions that inform it, give us (or at least me) hope for the future of the couple—and perhaps for Meenu and Major Bala as well.
For other posts in this series, please see:
Bollywood Rewatch 1: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's missing daughters