Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bollywood Rewatch 3: Kandukondain Kandukondain

Be still, my beating heart:
Tabu (Sowmya) and Aishwarya (Meenu) in Kandukondain Kandukondain
I'm not sure why there haven't been more cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen novels in India, unless perhaps it's because Austen has a leading place in the literary canon of the British oppressor. Her books would seem to lend themselves perfectly to filmi treatment. They concern the plight of women in a male-oriented society and the economic, social and emotional barriers to the love of the heroine and the hero. In every Jane Austen novel the key question is whether the correct couple(s) will be united at the end. And even though we know the answer to that question in advance (except, perhaps, in Persuasion), the pleasure of the resolution is undiminished.

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,

and a godlike man stepping forth out of them

Sowmya doesn't have such fanciful expectations; in fact, as the eldest daughter of a wealthy family, she is facing an arranged marriage:

so why should I choose my husband?

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.

Opposites Attract
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).

Don't confuse mercy and love
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:
"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..."
Violet responds,
"It seems to me that all your reasons are reasons why he should marry me;—not reasons why I should marry him."
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?)

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.

Two counter-examples
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


  1. I love Kandukondain Kandukondain, and it was one of the first filmi I saw. I think I need to watch it again!

    B&P was another one I saw early on, and I agree with your assessment--I think of it as a decent gateway drug, but it just doesn't measure up once you get to see some really good Bollywood movies.

    1. Jean, your "gateway drug" comment is exactly right. For each of us the gateway drug to Bollywood was different (for mine, see The Top Ten Shah Rukh Khan movies). But (as in life) objects of our early infatuation don't always withstand a later and more sober reconsideration. I remember being brought to tears early in our Bollywood viewing by English Babu Desi Mem (English gentleman, Indian lady, 1996), a Shah Rukh Khan and Sonali Bendre vehicle. When I rewatched the movie not long ago I had a somewhat different reaction (although I'm still a fan of both actors).

      That's why I started the "Rewatch" post series on E & I: to see which films held up to repeated viewing. I haven't seen B & P again, but I remember it as having some charming moments (mostly featuring Aish). I have a strong memory, though, of it being weighed down by the stolid Martin Henderson, who (in my view, anyway) didn't have the necessary charisma for Darcy—especially in comparison to, say, Colin Firth (who, of course, played Darcy in the superb 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, which I first watched around the same time). Too bad a Bollywood P & P wasn't made in the 1950s or 60s— Bollyviewer has come up with the perfect casts.

      Thanks very much for your comment!

    2. Oh, yes, Martin Henderson isn't much as a Darcy--though I think few actors could measure up to Colin Firth! B&P does have some very nice moments and a couple of cute songs, and I like how they treated the Wickham/Lydia subplot pretty well. But overall it just doesn't hold up all that well.

  2. I didn't have KanduKondain KanduKondain at the top of my watch list (nor even in the middle) before this, for two reasons. And those two reasons happen to be two movies--both of which I hated: Aisha and Bride and Prejudice.

    I saw Bride and Prejudice around the time it came out years ago, when my friends sat me down for a showing. That one showing was my first experience with anything Bollywood-related, and because of how much I disliked the film, I was effectively turned off to Bollywood for about 8 or 9 years.

    Aisha was also early in my real-Bollywood watch experience (free on Hulu! So I was suckered in) but didn't do anything except waste my time, as I had already seen enough good Bollywood to know not to judge the whole industry by one bad egg (Even if it did have Abhay Deol being delightful as usual).

    However--that said--after seeing your screencaps of KK alone, I think I need to give the Jane Austen filmi adaptation another go. After all, something so pretty can't be a total loss ;) (Tabu and Aishwarya unapologetically exoticized in Kollywood locations? Count me in.)

    I'm also even more interested to see the SLB film mentioned above than I was before. Maybe I should move that up the queue as well.

    As to your excellent thoughts above:

    I, too always find the Sense and Sensibility ending problematic. Not that I love Willoughby (despised the fellow from the start) but I feel like Marianne loses all her life by the end of the story, and almost grows old before her time. Hence, perhaps, why she is suddenly a better partner for Col. Brandon. But maybe that is indeed, too modern a way of reading the story.

    I'm also kind of mystified that Jane Austen hasn't found more of an obvious place in Indian cinema, given the Victorian-esque ideals espoused in many of the popular narratives. I am not crazy about all Jane Austen (more of a Bronte fan), but my friends ARE. So I've sat through more BBC and Hollywood adaptations than I can count. For me,I think that the regency-period could really be livened up by some Bollywood song and dance--without ever losing it's original social themes or commentary.

    My pick for the next adaptation? Personally, I'd like to see a version of Northanger Abbey. Star-wise, though, I don't know who I'd pick. When I think of the current star line-up, I cringe at most possibilities. Maybe Abhishek and Amitabh as the Tilney father and son pair, and Amrita Rao as Catherine.

    Unfortunately, the casting is more likely to be Ranbir Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, and Anushka Sharma . . . and if so, I probably would just skip it.

    In general, whether it's a Hollywood remake, or an literary adaptation--the casting and the writing is key . . . Classics can't be re-imagined with star power and popularity alone.


    1. I would love to see an Indian version of Persuasion. That strikes me as a wonderful plot for a Bollywood treatment! NA could be fun too. Austen plots really do fit filmi well.

    2. Miranda, many thanks for your thoughts on Austen and Indian movies. Your comment on the ending of Sense & Sensibility made me think about the number of times a young woman is chastened by experience in Austen's books. Marianne Dashwood is one of the more extreme examples, but Elizabeth Bennet, Emma, Catherine Morland (in the delightful Northanger Abbey), and Anne Elliot (in Persuasion) also learn the unpleasant news that they've been mistaken. (Only Mansfield Park's Fanny Price has the mixed pleasure of discovering that she was right all along.)

      It's all too human to make mistakes, of course, and it's one of the things that makes Austen's characters so vivid and so endearing. But as you say, Marianne seems to lose, as well as gain, by her experience.

      That's the ambiguity in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, as well. Nandini loves music and dancing—they seem to be an essential expression of her nature—and we can't help wondering at the end of HDDCS whether she will continue to perform. I don't have the same concern in Kandukondain Kandukondain, since Major Bala (in another hint, perhaps, at a deeper compatibility with Meenu than is apparent on the surface) gives Meenu a tambura to encourage her musical studies.

      I think you'll find HDDCS very much worth watching for its visual sumptuousness, the performances of Aish and Ajay, and the wonderful musical numbers (the soundtrack was composed by Ismail Darbar). However, be forewarned that Salman Khan's Sameer can be hard to take.

      As for your suggested cast for an Indian Northanger Abbey (which has one of the most sympathetic leading couples of any of Austen's novels) I'm so glad you mentioned Amrita Rao—I think she would be a perfect Catherine.



    3. P, I was inspired to follow up on your post and finally watch HDDCS and KK. I wasn't disappointed by either, and I definitely see the links between them--particularly regarding the "chastened by experience" character Aishwarya plays in both films.

      HDDCS was pretty painful I felt for the first hour or so. From other films I've watched of SLB's, I am starting to realize that he has absolutely no idea how to show humor, or for that matter, happiness. When he tries to depict "normal" happy folks, he creates this rapid bipolar tone that's apt to give one a whiplash. (Like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's happy characters on steroids . . . with none of the delicate themes or dialogues to save the scenes.) Salman certainly doesn't help matters, and the ADR is of that manic 90s category that drives me nuts(where everyone's voices don't match their lips, and has not been corrected in post-production for proper ebbbs and flows/dynamics of normal speech). However, that said, the film got better as it went along, and the tone evened out more and more as the characters got more miserable and conflicted in their motivations (something SLB IS very good at portraying). Ajay Devgn pretty much saves the film, and there are enough scenes in the rest of the film between him and Aishwarya that really bore the weight of the whole story. Without their interactions, I think this would have just been an early version of Saawariya. As it was, I was surprisingly moved by the end.

      Kandukondain Kandukondain was not at all the mixed bag of HDDCS. It turned out to be the very first adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that I have actually liked and would choose to re-watch. Of course, it's a pretty film, and has some lovely songs. But I've never had a problem with the production quality in S&S adaptations. As I said above, in most versions, I feel Marianne becomes a shell of her former self . . . which just doesn't sit well with me at the end, and I have trouble cheering for her "happy ending."

      But in this, she is not beaten down by her experiences, but rather she just wises up. Instead of going numb, she gets smart. I liked Meenu more and more as the story went on--esp as eh comes into her own self power and self knowledge by the end. The final romantic choice is the same as always of course, but how this version chose to frame her journey towards that choice, and the woman she grew into--felt so different to me. And I agree with your assessment--the Major and Meenu are a match that will face issues, but also seem to be surprisingly capable of facing those issues head on. Side note: I also liked the egalitarianism present in both major relationships by the end. If I can dare to say it . . . I might even stamp this movie with my feminist approval.

    4. Miranda, I'm very glad you watched both Kandukondain Kandukondain and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and enjoyed them. I hadn't noticed the synchronization and dynamic problems in the rerecorded vocals in HDDCS, but I think Sanjay Leela Bhansali's style of filmmaking—his camera is often tracking in and among the characters as they move through the sumptuous sets—may make recording live sound difficult. SLB is also justifiably famous for the striking look of his films, but I think his focus on visuals may mean that he pays less attention to way his actors deliver their lines. That may partly explain Salman's jarringly manic performance, which seems to have been spliced in from Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!.

      I'm glad you found KK to be as delightful as I do. Both Meenu and Sowmya are tested by experience, and have become stronger and (as you say) wiser by the end. Your point about the egalitarianism of both relationships is also well taken, and it's not only an emotional equality. Unusually, as they enter their marriages both women are economically independent (Meenu with her music, and Sowmya with her software designing). It's another reason to have hope for the future of both couples.

      In terms of other Sense & Sensibility adaptations, I remember quite liking the 2008 BBC version with Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Charity Wakefield as Marianne, and Janet McTeer as their mother. I haven't seen it in several years; perhaps I should give it a post-KK rewatch.

      Now, where's that Indian Persuasion?



  3. Hi everyone! I am trying to analize this movie for a paper that I have to write for my university. But I have a problem... I can not find the movie script and I really need it. Do you guys have any idea where I can find it?

    By the way (and the most important part), I really like to know that there is more people out there focusing on the Indian movie industry. That makes me really happy.

    1. I don't know where you can find the script for Kandukondain Kandukondain, but as I mention in the post, thanks to Rajshri Films you can watch the film with English subtitles for free on YouTube; perhaps that will help.

      Good luck with your paper!