Shaakuntalam: Spoof of Tragedies
Star Cast: Samantha Akkineni, Dev Mohan, Madhoo, Gautami, Aditi Balan, Ananya Nagalla, Mohan Babu & Sachin Khedekar
Cinematography by Sekhar V Joseph
Edited by Prawin Pudi
Music Composed by Mani Sharma
Directed by Gunasekhar
Before getting down to how is this film or how gorgeously it’s made or how good it is, I would like to clarify one thing – I am not judging someone but I am judging someone’s work only. The comments made are about their work and not them. While stating facts one cannot be diplomatic. Please understand that fact as well.
So, what is Shaakuntalam? In one line – Death of a great play. Bad films and failures in storytelling by once great filmmakers are common, as they age, or at times people do fail in their approach. Their intent to make a good film never dies, it keeps showing itself in the bad narrative too. But this kind of taken-for-granted approach leaves us with horrendous memories at theatres. Examples of bad or uninteresting narratives yet great intent – Ravanan, Cheliya or Katru Veliyidai, and Govinda Govinda. In Ravanan , the love-less romance and uncanny love story had to be shown in order to make it work. The protagonist is falling for her but heroine wants to be free from him. This kind of story needed a forbidden romance to blossom, a friendship to blossom, or a concern for the man to blossom from her side. Mani Ratnam went for extreme visual storytelling with the character being explored as we go. Hence, the narrative feels like a stitched-together effort while visuals speak volumes about the effort they have put in. In Katru Veliyidai , he wanted a conversational film about a protagonist who is good at self-destruction and has to come out of that to love someone truly. While concentrating on his side more, the director forgot to connect us with the heroine side of romance. Still, the effort to show another uncanny, uneasy romance is astute. Govinda Govinda  falls flat in taking us into the romance after beautifully establishing the connection between the leads and the main plot point. This is not a box office analysis and hence how much they did or why couldn’t they do are not at all important.
Coming to Shaakuntalam, this review, or thoughts sharing, feels more like a postmortem rather than an analysis. Yes, a postmortem because right from the first frame, a murder has been executed till the last frame without any redeemable quality. We may call some encounters judicial murders yet the right thing to do, but this is a broad daylight encounter of an innocent adolescent romance. Shakuntala is a tale narrated in Mahabharata, to explain the greatness of the lineage of Kauravas and Pandavas. Not a simple tale of a single mother in Vedic or ancient times, whichever – science or mythology you believe. Dushyanta is not a cruel-hearted or heartless King with 1,000 wives. He ruled righteously with the intent to serve people. After Bharata joins his father, he becomes more righteous and a person of power. Hence, today’s India got a Bharata Desam name. His rule made people aspire to greatness rather than desires. His rule made India a friendly, tolerant, humble piece of land with riches. His story is told to every King coming from his lineage to make them as aspirational as he once ruled the land. But his birth had a tragedy. His mother went through a graving tragedy yet he turned out righteous. Bheeshma takes his inspiration to take that oath that he came to be known for. No, this story is not about a single mother and women empowerment but a star-crossed love couple reuniting and their son, re-writing every existing norm, law, and class in society with his rule.
If any woman tries to state it otherwise or any filmmaker looks at it from another angle, it needs a lot of conviction and proper connectivity. Shaakuntalam tries to take Abhijnanashaakuntalam’s play and while telling it as is, tries to shoot a women empowerment arrow too. Mahakavi Kalidas wrote it as a love story. His paras explaining Sage Kanva’s love towards his precious daughter, Shakuntala makes even stones cry (metaphor). His look at adolescent romance and the line between lust and love, makes us wonder about his maturity in understanding human emotions. His way of creating chaos and making Dushyanta, a King with a righteous attitude leaves us wondering how can a King of that magnitude fall into a curse trap. Makes you wonder if ever you’ve fallen prey to such curses. Mainly, Shakuntala trusts her love and her heart more than anything else. Hence, giving birth to a baby in a tiger cave doesn’t scare her. When she does one wonders about the courage she mustered while living at a hermitage not being exposed to worldly cruelty. Her naive, innocent self-belief makes us take note and put a step forward in our lives too. Abhijnanashakuntalam while being a play, also delivers so many life lessons, that it makes us wonder about the greatness of the characters, about the writer. Hence, Mahakavi Kalidas, in his ego, even passed a sly comment on Veda Vyas. He learned his lesson from that and left his ego aside. Gunasekhar should have learned from him rather than taking his great work and making an egoistic self-centered mock copy or spoof of Baahubali.
Mani Ratnam openly thanked Baahubali maker SS Rajamouli for giving him the opportunity and courage to make Pooniyin Selvan, his dream project. But did he try to showcase fights or character emotions like how Rajamouli did? He made his own film – you love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it or state it as a copy of Baahubali. Taking inspiration means being your own yet borrowing an idea from another person to get your idea out. Gunasekhar just thought when he is known to be a pioneer in making VFX-oriented films, even though Hollywood inspired, how can his 10 years junior, SS Rajamouli make a such world-class film when he is still around? Again this is not a personal comment, this is a comment based on his admission and the movie produced. Why should Dushyanta hunt animals / fight with an wild animal like the Baahubali sequence? In fact, in the original story, Dushyanta reveals his identity only to Shakuntala and goes to a hermitage as a common man. He feels so humbled by Sage’s place that he decides to leave all his worries and stay at the place forever. His capital gets affected by Asuras and hence, as a responsible King, he leaves the hermitage. His people constantly demand him to get married but he feels a commitment should be wholeheartedly and not by “need” or “desire”. Hence, when he commits to Shakuntala, it feels right. When he tells her he is in love, you feel he is speaking the truth. Baahubali-1 established Amarendra Baahubali well enough for us to jump into the love story of Baahubali and Devasena. Dushyanta is a new character for people watching in 2023, he needs to be established. He cannot walk into a frame and say he is in love. And Shakuntala to be able to accept him, needed a stronger reason than lust. Why she liked him needed to be much more established than being fallen for his beauty. She needed something new to be seen and felt for a stranger that she never felt at her home and for her people. We get nothing of that sort. Gunasekhar in Okkadu  showed the difference between lust and unsaid love. While you might attribute it to Stockholm Syndrome, but love between the young couple and the lust of the villain have clear differentiation. Even the villain appears to be in lust-based love than just being in lust. Here, in a romance, the hero and heroine seem to be in lust.
What changed in him? Then his penchant to tell a story came out. Here, his penchant to match another director’s vision overpowered him. He is also a director who believes more in visual brilliance and visually sound storytelling than dialogues. But that same aspect has cost him in Shaakuntalam. Trying to bring out a love-at-first-sight sequence with such a cringe dialogue and then trying to give backstories of Sage Durvasa and Kalanemi with dialogues and animation, doesn’t work at all. Sai Madhav Burra tried to imitate Samudrala Sr and Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry with a touch of Ramana. They all respected Pingali Nagendra Rao and that style humour filled dialogue writing could’ve at least salvaged this tale. For example, in Durvasa sequence, “Vishwamantha Kopam ayane ke undi antare..” “Ante naa kopam nee kopam kooda ayyana ke vasthunda?” “Challe nee Chaloktulu … aayana mundu ilagae vikralu pothe ee kurupi ga no kappa ga no aipo ani sapinchi chakka pothadu.” While this is a very very humble and respectful way to try and imitate his writing, this is nowhere close to his greatness. But here, I tried to give some humour to the scene and a characteristic of the friendship of both women while they share the fear. His and the above-mentioned great writing would be much better and close to the description. Sai Madhav Burra in trying to imitate them wrote dialogues that would be the first draft of a 10-year-old who writes a story after reading the Shakuntala story. On top of that, Gunasekhar chose to just give visuals to play that rather than writing a screenplay.
A screenplay involves character establishment, motivation, aim, and then the journey at a basic level. What is the motivation of Dushyanta? What is the motivation of Shakuntala? What is the motivation of the entire story? Everything boils down to love. As per Mahakavi Kalidas. He tried to state how women should be not abandoned or used for their needs but respected and treated with dignity. A short story in Mahabharata became a Classic EPIC play in his writing. Dushyanta looking for a person to share his life falls for the beauty of Shakuntala and her righteousness without any malicious thinking. He likes how she is been protected from worldly cruelty. On the other hand, Shakuntala wonders who would be her husband and what would be her life if she has to go away from her father Sage Kanva. Their love fulfills their life purpose of building a great bridge of values, ethics, morals, and righteousness when cruelty, selfishness, ego, and desire look to succumb them into an abyss or a bottomless pit.
Their son, Bharata, becomes the man to infuse morals into the public and hence, he became the greatest King to have ever lived. If such aspects are not even touched or shown and you’re asked to feel for Samantha because she dubbed herself in a car break screeching voice, will it suffice? Without understanding a tale, if you fill it with visuals that too borrowed from Raghavendra Rao’s lens and Rajamouli fights, will that suffice? You need a perfect amalgamation of visuals and dialogues to please audiences with such a tale. At least you should show intent to show a bright new idea. Aishwarya Rai in Ravanan tries to jump off a huge cliff and Ravanan , who is introduced by jumping off a cliff, fears for her life. A fearless man or a man who desires to overcome fears has seen a woman do the same to escape from him or kill herself and he is astonished. This gives a different shade to Ravana falling for Sita for her courage to not succumb to his pressure. Show me one such intent full scene in Shaakuntalam. Shakuntala loses her jacket knot looking at Dushyanta. Is that how a loving couple meet each other? At least, how an epic romance is depicted? This movie has the most cringiest line ever written by Sai Madhav Burra. If that’s level of creativity then showing a big moon as Rajamouli showed before in “Kanna nidurinchara Song” won’t help your cause. Why do you bring Baahubali so many times? Because this film is an egoistic statement by Gunasekhar that he can also match visual-to-visual with Rajamouli’s vision. Or it might be also his way of apeing people who inspire him.
His Bala Ramayanam  has Bapu mark “Seetha Kalyanam” and “Sampoorna Ramayanam” visuals in it. Laati , Manoharam , and Sogasu Chudatharama  have Mani Ratnam meets Ram Gopal Varma style filmmaking sensibilities. Choodalani undi  and Okkadu  feel like Shyam Benegal meets Raghavendra Rao and Kondarami Reddy style visual palette, and writing. They all worked as the filmmaker still tried to make a serious story-oriented visual film. His script and screenplay had moments that work. At the same time, he had misses like Arjun  and Mrugaraju  but some moments even though Hollywood inspired had merit to them. From Sainikudu  he seems to be not finding the right inspirations and suddenly Baahubali sent him on an ego trip, “Why can’t me? I made VFX-oriented films a long time ago and Bala Ramayanam 17 years before Baahubali. Then, Why not I should try similar high-budget VFX films?” Rudhramadevi  had such lust-not-romance in the first half. The film somehow made some money and decided that should be repeated with Baahubali kind of visuals. You can only just say, being original costs more than duping something. An original frame would’ve suited the story more than such horrendous battle shots. There are many to state. Gunasekhar seems to have gone on an old film library trip and tried to copy them in dialogues and visual storytelling, that’s why this looks like a spoof. He thought he should make an adapt play like a play on screen like they did in the 1930s but missed their sensibilities. Everything, every bit looked artificial right from the first shot of Samantha being surrounded by butterflies. This is not the Gunasekhar, we knew. This is some replica of that man who balanced his vision with budgets and not with egos. May be too late to realize.
Samantha doesn’t suit every character. She might be good as an actor but cannot pass for a teenage girl in her 30s. Sridevi could and only Sridevi could. Right from Madhuri Dixit to recent Nayantara, all are accepting the age gracefully. Shakuntala is naive and innocent because of her age too. Needed a young actress for that role. King Dushyanta is a mix of righteousness and royalness. Someone like NTR or ANR could’ve pulled it off easily on the large screen in their heydays. Dev Mohan needs to learn how to perform in close-up shots. All others have been wasted and their age is audible. Mainly, Mohan Babu, one of the best actors with unique dialogue delivery, struggled to even speak lengthy lines. Madhoo did not look fit for the Menaka role. Menaka or Urvashi or Rambha don’t age. Mani Sharma scored for Interstellar but someone used it all for this film. VFX or visuals or even simple lighting techniques all scream low production cost and to at least give some realistic feeling, Gunasekhar did not even opt for outdoor indoor matching. Radhakrishna , a mythological series in Hindi, did create a much better illusion of Dwaraka with outdoor sets and indoor sets matching daylight shots with closed indoor shoots. The intent that of a TV series director has been lacking for Gunasekhar. Well, to conclude a rather long one, all I can say is respect is earned and ego snatches it away from you. If you demand Good Morning from everyone because of your ego, then you’ll end up like that comedian LB Sriram character in Aadi film. If you gain respect because of your behavior, you’ll end up like Prakash Raj in Seethamma Vakitlo Srimalle Chettu. Both get mocked but many genuinely respect Prakash Raj-type people and as they can’t be like them, they mock them. On the flip side, the Aadi film character is because of a false ego. Gunasekhar once was Prakash Raj from SVSC. His ambition was to make another Pan-India Baahubali-type film but he ended up making a Spoof of a Tragic love story that spoofs stage plays in production values and spoofs old films in dialogues and spoofs acting with non-actors. Swasthi _/\_