A Gujarati film starring Sanjeev Kumar.
I am always keen to watch regional films starring people I’m familiar with from Hindi cinema. With (say) Bengali cinema, it’s not too difficult—so many Bengalis (Sharmila Tagore, Kishore Kumar, Biswajeet, Suchitra Sen, Mala Sinha, etc) were big names in Hindi cinema, and managed to do quite a bit of work in Bengali films too, many of which are subtitled. With Punjabi (which I understand enough of to be able to get the gist without having to rely on subtitles) it’s also satisfying, because Punjabi cinema seems to be pretty much completely populated by the same names one keeps running into in Hindi cinema: Nishi Kohli, IS Johar, Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Indira Billi…
But to come to this: I stumbled upon Kalapi completely by accident, and immediately bookmarked it. Because a subtitled version is available on YouTube, here (though I must warn you, the subtitles are pretty bad), and because of Sanjeev Kumar, one of the greatest actors of Hindi cinema. Also, I am on an eternal quest to find old regional language films that are subtitled, and since I’d never watched a Gujarati film before, this would be a first for my blog.
Kalapi is based on a real person: Sursinhji Takhtasinhji Gohil, the ruler of the principality known as Lathi in Saurashtra, Gujarat. The 23rd Thakore of Lathi, Gohil has a place in history not as a ruler, but as a poet of immense standing. Under the pen name of ‘Kalapi’, Gohil produced an impressive corpus of poetry as well as Gujarati translations of four English novels. Kalapi’s poetry consisted primarily of love poems; he was such an adept at the ghazal form that his Aapni Yaadi is considered one of the best ghazals in Gujarati. Since 1997, the annual Kalapi Award has been awarded to Gujarati ghazal poets.
The story of Kalapi in this film begins with the wedding of Kalapi (Sanjeev Kumar) to a Rajput princess (Padmarani). The new bride, waiting for her bridegroom to come, is approached by her young maid Mongi (?). Mongi is all innocence and wants to know why she won’t be sleeping with her mistress tonight. The bride patiently explains that this is how it is; now that she is married, her husband will share her room. Not Mongi.
Kalapi, when he arrives, is loving and passionate and teasing, all at once. He names his new bride Rama and immediately gets down to charming the wits out of her.
The post-wedding romance of Kalapi and Rama is heady: he spouts poetry to her, she is entranced. Real life intrudes occasionally, in the form of the local British agent’s man bringing missives to Kalapi. Kalapi shrugs these off; he’s really not interested in all of this, in ruling and in the work it entails. All he wants to do is write poetry.
This is brought home even more forcefully to Kalapi when the coronation takes place. A reluctant Kalapi, having been crowned the thakore of Lathi, is obliged to sit on his throne, watching as a dancer (Madhumati) sings and dances in front of the entire court.
It’s obvious, from the seething boredom on Kalapi’s face, that he would rather be doing just about anything else. This annoyance bubbles over when Kalapi is back in his chambers with Rama. He complains about how much he hates this, hates the pomp and show, the farce. How much he hates being king. Rama tries to calm him and to point out that he can rule best by being of service to his people; when Kalapi still doesn’t listen, a now-frustrated Rama points out that this is unfair on her: as a Rajput princess, it is her right, her ambition, to be queen; why should his opinions come in the way of her fulfilling her destiny?
It dawns on Kalapi that his beloved Rama has an agenda very different from his own. They may love each other, but Rama’s ambition is not at all what Kalapi wants. She wants him to be king, mostly so that she can be queen; but he only wants to be a poet.
Years pass. Presumably; the next we see, Rama and Kalapi have a little boy named Balu. Balu is much loved by all, and is looked after mostly by Rama’s old and faithful maid Nathi (?). The other maid, the young Mongi, has grown up (and is now Aruna Irani). One day Kalapi happens to see Mongi, and he falls in love with her, naming her Shobhna in the process. Mongi returns his love in full, and there are many moonlit nights, many love poems. Kalapi promises her that they will marry, and that she will be his queen.
Kalapi is not particularly concerned about their romance being discovered; so, though Mongi is leery of attracting attention. Unfortunately, she proves to be right, though neither she nor Kalapi realize it at this stage. Rama has been suspicious; and one day, she calls her faithful Nathi to spy on Mongi and Kalapi. Mongi has gone to the temple, and shortly after she leaves the house, Kalapi too rides out, ostensibly to play tennis.
Nathi, following Mongi, witnesses their romantic rendezvous and reports back to Rama. Rama, jealous and unhappy, sets about trying to scotch this affair and get her husband back.
But will Rama succeed? Or will Rama’s own love for Kalapi come in the way of her jealousy?
The real life Kalapi, Sursinhji Takhtasinhji Gohil, did fall in love with a palace maid named Shobhna, though he had been married, at the age of fifteen, to two princesses, Rama and Anandiba (interestingly, while Anandiba is mentioned in passing a couple of times in Kalapi, she never appears onscreen in the film). Tragically enough, Kalapi died very young, at a mere twenty-six years of age. He is supposed to have died of cholera, but this is disputed, and the rumour was that Kalapi’s love for Shobhna had aroused the jealousy and ire of Rama, who was behind Kalapi’s death. How Kalapi actually died, and of what, is still uncertain.
Kalapi, I would have thought, would take Kalapi’s story to the logical end: to his death, to the culmination of this doomed romance with the maid Shobhna. But director Manhar Ras Kapoor and writer Prabodh Joshi turn this, instead, into something a little different. It becomes a showcase of Kalapi’s poetry (which, I admit, is a good endeavour) playing out against the love triangle between Kalapi, Rama, and Shobhna.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by Avinash Vyas. From what I could gather, most (all?) of the songs’ lyrics were Kalapi’s. For me, the experience was spoiled a little because of the very substandard subtitling, but even then, I could see glimmers of what seemed like very good poetry indeed.
Plus, it’s always a pleasure to watch Sanjeev Kumar act: he’s so natural, so utterly real.
What I didn’t like:
The somewhat ambiguous depiction of Kalapi’s character. In the beginning of the film, before Kalapi falls in love with Mongi/Shobhna, he’s relatively easy to read: a man who would rather be poet than king, a man in love with his wife. There is a slight hiccup in the relationship when Kalapi realizes that Rama has ambitions that don’t quite match his own, and this results in a slight cooling off of his ardour; but he seems to recover sufficiently, and fairly soon, to accept this and to continue to at least keep up appearances.
However, once Mongi/Shobhna enters into the equation, it becomes a little baffling. Kalapi falls blindly in love with her, but why, it’s not very clear. Or, to explain my bewilderment a little: it’s not as if Rama is simply awful, or that Kalapi begins to detest her after realizing how ambitious she is. In fact, even after Shobhna becomes Kalapi’s lover, Kalapi and Rama go on a holiday to Matheran, where there’s a good bit of romance and quality time spent together. Kalapi doesn’t look like a man not in love with his wife (and given Sanjeev Kumar’s thespian abilities, I can probably assume that this is as intended by the writer, not the fault of Sanjeev Kumar). One gets the impression that Kalapi is in love with two women at the same time—not an impossibility, of course, but it’s never really explained, and never confirmed.
On the other hand, Rama’s reaction to her husband’s infidelity is more interestingly handled. Quite naturally, Rama is distressed and jealous of Kalapi’s relationship with Shobhna, and this distress leads her to some rather desperate measures. But (and this is another indication of the fairly realistic depiction of Rama), she doesn’t let her hot-headedness prevail. Perhaps, deep down, her love for Kalapi is so strong, she realizes she cannot bring herself to harm him (or even Shobhna, because harming Shobhna will be tantamount to harming Kalapi). This is a more nuanced character than Kalapi, and one I could understand a little better than I could Kalapi: there was conflict here, and Rama was a woman I could empathise with, somewhat.
(And, by the way: why even mention Anandiba, if she remains just that, a fleeting mention? It’s not as if Kalapi’s other wife even pulls the strings in the background or does and says anything that affects what goes on in this story. She isn’t shown, and she may as well not have been a part of this film, because all that brief mention of her achieves is to make one wonder where she is in all of this, what she feels about Kalapi and Rama and Shobhna, whether Kalapi even visits her now and then, or what).
On the whole, Kalapi was a so-so film. It dragged a fair bit, and I would really only recommend watching it if you’re keen on seeing a Gujarati film about an interesting and important real-life personage. Or, if you like Sanjeev Kumar to the extent of wanting to cover his entire filmography.
Kalapi can be viewed online, with hard-coded English subtitles, here.