While the visual detailing, music and production design are spectacular, the film loses steam in its dramatic moments
Last Updated: 03.59 AM, Apr 14, 2023
Shakuntala, daughter of sage Viswamitra and an ‘apsara’ Menaka, is abandoned in a forest and raised by a hermit Kanva. The flora, fauna and the company of her good friends Anasuya and Priyamvada are integral to Shakuntala’s existence. When Puru dynasty king Dushyanta comes hunting in their forest, he’s instantly smitten by Shakuntala, who also reciprocates his love. However, a rude shock awaits them just as they plan to formalise their relationship.
When a mainstream actress like Samantha commits to a epic drama, it isn’t just another project, it’s a statement and it comes with responsibility. The fate of such a film can go a long way in deciding the future of a largely-abandoned genre in Telugu cinema. Gunasekhar is a rare contemporary filmmaker who has the acumen and the flair for epics, historicals made on a grand canvas.
With Shaakuntalam, the main challenge remains to engage audiences with heavy-duty drama besides liberal doses of romance, action and a hint of fantasy. Simple story cut short - does the filmmaker deliver? It’s a yes and a no. In terms of resources, capable cast and crew - he has it all and he chooses his team well, scoring big on the technical front. Yet, it’s the one-note storytelling that curbs this from being a wholly engaging cinematic experience.
Good things first - Shaakuntalam is certainly proof that Gunasekhar has learnt his lessons from Rudhramadevi well. He makes a valiant effort to draw audiences into the universe of his characters, gives their backdrops - the forest and the Puru kingdom in Hastinapur - a certain personality. The aesthetic sense is rightly matched by the scale, detailing and poetic cinematography.
The visual detailing in and around the hermitage where Shakuntala is raised is captivating. Even the birds chant vedic mantras, the tree branches respond to human signals and the flora and fauna in the forest have a poetic sense too. Nature is so integral to Shakuntala’s world and is also a mute witness to her blossoming romance with king Dushyanta.
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Meanwhile, the film gives Dushyanta ample time to flex his muscles and prove his heroic qualities - the scenes are basic but effective. The efforts to establish Shakuntala’s camaraderie with her pals - Anasuya and Priyamvada - are jarring and stick out like a sore thumb. Even the ‘epic’ romance isn’t as magical as the filmmaker imagines it to be.
The first hour only thrives on a handful of ‘moments’ - focusing mostly on the shringara rasa - and has very little to tell in terms of a story, lacking a strong hook to keep you invested. The director uses this space to share the backstories behind several characters like Ugranemi, Kalanemi, Durvasa and views it as an opportunity to educate viewers but goes overboard in the process.
The decision to discuss the birth of Shakuntala through voice-overs and animation is slightly surprising; a live sequence could’ve worked better in showcasing her roots. The crux of the drama is preserved for the post-intermission portions, where you expect a director of Gunasekhar’s calibre to go berserk and lend the film the depth it richly deserves.
Disappointingly enough, only the micro detailing works - the costumes, the architecture and the set of the king’s court are pitch-perfect and a feast to the senses. Despite the supremely effective background score, refined dialogues and the larger-than-life appeal of sequences, Shakuntala’s trauma and Dushyanta’s delayed realisation don’t affect a viewer.
The narrative is a tale of two extremes - the first hour is obsessed with the minutiae and the latter focuses more on the broad strokes. While the technicalities in the film are very today, the old-school storytelling alienates the viewer considerably. The war sequences don’t contribute much to the film and they feel like a director’s attempt to make this epic drama a complete package.
There’s hardly any cinematic relief in terms of humour and subplots. Even the best of storytellers in mythology - KV Reddi and Kamalakara Kameswara Rao - built effective subplots to substantiate the drama in their films and gave the audiences some time to breathe beyond the core premise. The atmosphere here is so dramatic and information-heavy and the songs turn out to be the only respite.
To give credit where it’s due - the hook to each of the songs is set up with great taste. From the quintessential romance number to songs where Shakuntala dreams of her future with Dushyanta, the latter reminisces about their past and a boatman describes the couple’s relationship over a journey. - the ideation and visualisation are brilliant. It’s not surprising that Mani Sharma is at his best here - Rushi Vanamlona and Madhura Gathamaa are a delight to the senses.
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Samantha is flattering in her diva-like appearances across multiple avatars, perfectly complemented by Neeta Lulla’s costumes. More than the romance segments, she gets the pitch of her performance right with the melodrama (a surprise). One couldn’t have asked for a better choice than her to portray resilience on screen - all she had to do was to borrow it from her off-screen persona.
Dev Mohan has the authority, the commanding screen presence of a king and isn’t too bad with dialogues though he could’ve made a more earnest attempt to internalise his role. Allu Arha is a natural on the screen but the makers go overboard with her dialogues. Even while you take note of her charm, the indulgent one-liners overpower every other aspect.
The likes of Sachin Khedekar, Gautami, Kabir Bedi, Jisshu Sengupta are impactful in their limited screen presence. Madhoo’s aching portrayal of Menaka in an extended appearance strikes a chord though the real show-stealer is Mohan Babu. The veteran is effortless with his diction, screen presence and his actor counterparts in the film needed more of this firepower and conviction.
Sai Madhav Burra is a writer par excellence, yes, but his dialogues work more when he doesn’t try hard to showcase his prowess/impress. Veteran Ashok’s production design, Sekhar V Joseph’s cinematography and the music are the lifelines of the film. While the director’s intent to re-introduce viewers to their cultural roots is appreciable, the treatment is found wanting.
Shaakuntalam is a half-successful attempt at an epic drama. Though it’s technically brilliant in terms of visual detailing, music and production design, the emotional impact is amiss in the film’s crucial moments. If Samantha anchors the film with her restrained act, it is Mohan Babu who steals the show in a special appearance.