The list of proscribed and heavily censored Indian films is long. Looking back on the list, it is a miracle that some of these productions were released at all. Exhibit A: Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984), featuring hot-and-heavy lovemaking, the previously unreported story of the making of the Kama Sutra, and a general attitude towards sex as a life force rather than a physical necessity.

Karnad’s sex-and-sensibility romp is set in an indeterminate period in the distant past, which comes off as a better place to be in than 1980s India or even the present. The Hindutva hordes with distorted and fake views on Indian history had not yet infiltrated the public sphere, and Karnad got away with a few cuts and an adult certificate.

Utsav was entirely possibly because of the munificence of its producer, Shashi Kapoor. The numerous tributes to Kapoor, who died on December 4, have remarked on the complexity and diversity of his career – his roles in Indian and international films, and his short-lived but fruitful stint as a punter on difficult themes.

All but one of the six films produced by Kapoor – 36 Chowringhee Lane, Junoon, Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav, Ajooba – are a testament to his taste and vision. Utsav was a commercial failure, but its reputation holds among lovers of films that celebrate sensuality, beauty and tolerance in grown-up ways.

Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984).
Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984).

The movie is based on the plays Charudatta by Bhasa and Mrichakatika by Sudhraka, and involves missing pieces of jewellery, a rebellion against the king, and various lovers trying to go about their business untrammeled. Written by Karnad and Srikant Basrur with tongue-in-cheek dialogue by Sharad Joshi, Utsav has a fabulous ensemble cast led by Rekha, who has never been more beautiful or regal. She plays the famed courtesan Vasantsena, who seeks shelter with Charudutt (Shekhar Suman) one night while trying to escape the guards of the lecherous nobleman Samsthanka (Shashi Kapoor).

Charudutt crumbles before Vasantsena’s beauty. Since his wife Aditi (Anuradha Patel) and son are away, he helps Vasantsena divest herself of the jewellery that holds her robes together. “Thoda kasht karenga,” she asks Charudutt, and with trembling hands, he obliges.

Other hilarious moments include Amjad Khan as Vatsayana, who peeks into the rooms of Vasantsena’s pleasure palace to research new positions for the sexual manual that he is working on, Sajjal (Shankar Nag) and Madanika (Neena Gupta) as a randy couple, and Shashi Kapoor with a ludicrous moustache, a prosthetic nose, and the good humour to be the movie’s villain.

Charudutt’s wife Aditi is disheartened when she finds out about Vasantsena, but her anger melts when she finally meets her. Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s soundtrack includes two versions of a single tune (Saanjh Dhale, sung by Suresh Wadkar, and Neelam Be Nabh Chayee, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle), and the wondrous Mann Kyun Behka. Gorgeously shot in shades of black and amber by Ashok Mehta, Mann Kyun Behka is a duet between Mangeshkar and Bhosle that plays off on the different personalities of the singers as well as the actresses. Mangeshkar sings for Vasantsena, the older and wiser woman, while Bhosle lends her more youthful and playful voice to the innocent and curious Aditi.

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Mann Kyu Behka, Utsav (1984).

Further sisterhood is implied as the women forge a bond over baubles and the love of a good tune. Aditi helps Vasantsena wear her gold ornaments, and in the later part of the song, Vasantsena literally and symbolically transfers them to Aditi. United by their love for Charudutt, the two women resemble siblings – Patel’s resemblance to Rekha surely earned her the part – and their mutual admiration eventually helps save Charudutt from death.

Vasantsena’s tutelage helps Aditi in other ways. It is suggested that Charudutt becomes a better lover after learning at the feet of the courtesan (literally so: he nibbles her toes). In her erotic movie Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), Mira Nair cleverly paid tribute to Rekha’s character from Utsav by casting her as Rasa Devi, an expert in the erotic arts.