We’re somewhere in the ancient past, but things are moving along at breakneck speed for the king Dushyant. He fends off a gang of tigers and then a rampaging elephant, falls hard for the beauteous Shakuntala and battles a hostile army – within the span of a single day.
Dushyant and Shankutala are wed with the gods and a host of animals in the attendance. A low growl from a tiger during the ceremony is an early warning that trouble lies ahead for the smitten twosome. It comes in the form of the bad-tempered sage Durvasa and the annoying tendency of characters to refrain from sharing information that might put the protagonists out of their incoming misery.
Gunasekhar’s Shaakuntalam, the latest adaptation of Kalidasa’s centuries-old play Shakuntala, has been made in Telugu and dubbed into Hindi. The visual effects-heavy film, which also has a 3D version, is set in an ancient wonderland that is like a Disney theme park with idyllic backdrops, domesticated animals and placid humans.
Up until Shakuntala (Samantha) utters the immortal words “tan ki taap” (body heat) to describe her feelings for the hunky Dushyant (Dev Mohan), the movie is doing alright. The animals and birds – many of them computer-generated – are merrily participating in the proceedings. The birds sing along with the morning religious prayer. Predators and prey rub shoulders in perfect formation. The humans move about in a manner for which the English language has the perfect word: they gambol.
The heavily Sanskritised Hindi dialogue – satirised to brilliant effect by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in his 1973 film Chupke Chupke – has already begun evoking giggles that evolve into uncontrollable roars when Shakuntala decides to articulate her ardour. It’s an uphill challenge from then on to remain serious about a 142-minute film that determinedly goes downhill in revealing every melodramatic milestone on Shakuntala’s journey.
Director Gunasekhar, who has a bunch of respectable hits to his name, from Ookadu to Rudhramadevi, keeps his powder dry in the only department that eventually matters. The video game-like visual effects by Alagarsamy Mayan and production design by Ashok Kumar convincingly conjure up the wonderment that is sorely missing in the screenplay.
The acting is mostly workmanlike, except for Aditi Balan as Shakuntala’s spirited friend. Various familiar faces attempt to disappear into Neeta Lulla’s ostentatious costumes, from Madhoo as Shakunatala’s mother Menaka and Jisshu Sengupta as Indra to Sachin Khedekar as Shakuntala’s foster father and Mohan Babu as the cussed Durvasa. With little attention paid to character development, the performances are as plasticky as the film’s look.
The centrepiece of the story is the most underserved of the lot. Shakuntala is never her own woman. Abandoned by her parents on Earth, brought up in an ashram, rejected by her love, cursed by a sage, abused by the king’s courtiers – Shakuntala all too closely fulfils the prophecy that she has been put on Earth for a single purpose: to bear the son who will initiate a golden age for humankind.
That son is played by a girl – Telugu star Allu Arjun’s daughter Arha. Displaying the same attitude as her father’s character in Pushpa: The Rise, Arha steals the movie from Samantha and Dev Mohan. She doesn’t have to try too hard.