There are three heroes in Subhash Ghai's latest opus - Ashok Mehta's cinematography, Ghai's exquisite shot compositions and Vivek Oberoi's understated rugged and implosive performance. All three empower the film, which is an engrossing look at the British Raj with tenderness instead of rage.
Let's turn page, says the sage within Subhash Ghai. Let's not look at our colonisers as vicious villains.
Smoothly substituting vitriolic with vermilion Ghai paints a landscape of valour, idealism and melodiousness that transport you into a realm of undulating and comforting rhythms that nature invented for man to savour as delicacies to nibble.
Nibble on, then, as Ghai transports us to the idyllic idealism of an era that's gone with the wind. Sweeping with panoramic passion through a Himalayan landscape, he makes the narrative breathe the air of untouched unspoilt characters surrendering themselves into the bosom of nature.
"Kisna" is a film of sweet surrender. It details the milieu of a time when the Britishers ruled our country without turning the ambience into a fashion statement. The narrative is suffused in a pungent yet easygoing periodicity that appeals to the heart and stirs the senses.
Forget the plot. Just swim in the tides of the Indian classical notes-based music, the repeated invocation of 'shlokas' and 'mantras' (Sanskrit hymns), the scriptural references especially to the Mahabharata (Hindu epic).... all packaged in an exquisitely irresistible ethnicity.
And then there is Isha Sharvani.... Grace-personified as she twirls and pirouettes in yogic classical postures on mud-caked floors and from atop trees. Though this newcomer doesn't have much scope to act, Ghai makes superb use of Sharvani's extraordinary dancing abilities.
Make no mistake, this is the story of 'forbidden' love between an Indian villager Kisna (Oberoi) and the British daughter Catherine (Antonia Bernarth) of a tyrannical British ruler. Their escape from the fires of the partition in 1947, their journey through strife-torn hinterland, their grand passion (symbolised rather broadly by the trot of two horses one black the other white) and their determination to overcome the brutal prejudices that divide the two sides, form an arresting collage of meditative melody-driven episodes, all shot with a grace that's epitomized by Sharvani's tempestuously twirling toes.
You really can't take your eyes off Ghai's lyrical frames. The way he shoots his characters against fast-flowing rivers and imposing yet misty and mellow mountains, creates a synthesis between nature and its most misguided creation, man.
The director has a canny sense of proportion vis a vis character and location. He allows his lovers to grow in a glow of gloriously conceived sequences.
It's only when the dreaded formulistic designs take over that the film's sheen wears off. Superfluous grotesque characters such as the one played by Amrish Puri and a whole inane and wimpish chunk featuring Om Puri and Sushmita Sen as a Hyderabadi middleman and a pseudo-philosophical 'tawaif' (nautch girl) diminish the narrative's rugged and smooth flow.
The first-half where we see the protagonist as a poet is shot in dusky orange shades. In the second-half when Kisna turns aggressive and war-like to protect his British beloved from the blizzard of butchery, the narrative complexion turns shades less romantic.
Flamboyant or rusty, Ghai knows how to tell an engaging story. The music of ambrosial sensuality (composed by A. R Rahman and Ismail Durbar) and the performances add deep compelling shades to an otherwise-routine romantic triangle featuring the villager, the 'gori mem saab' and the jealous village girl.
The romance across historical-cultural dividing lines may sound like a replication of Ashutosh Gowariker. It's in the way that Ghai has framed the triangle and shot the film through free-flowing wind-swept vistas that make "Kisna" look not only picture-perfect but also heart-felt.
The performances are synchronized with the melody of subtle scents and supple grace. The two debutant actresses, almost replicating the Paro-Chandramukhi axis in "Devdas", do their parts with nimble conviction. Vivek Oberoi's performance is mellow and deep, filled with gestures and nuances that need careful viewing.
It isn't a flamboyant part but a hugely heroic one. He performs it with understated ruggedness, and comes out in a burst of dramatic self-assertion in the expertly staged physical confrontation with his screen brother Yashpal Sharma in the forest.
Two surprisingly engaging cameos come from Hrishita Bhatt and the old Ghai protg Vivek Mushran, specially the former.
Fortunately the foliage of flamboyancy never conceals the film's marked propensity to punctuate the periodicity with a designer-lyricism.
"Kisna" works as a deftly embroidered piece of period-art. It doesn't have too many layerings of emotions. But the drama swims just beneath 'see' level with casual grace. Though there are blind spots in the patriotic pastiche, those are dissipated by the light of the creator's vision, which never disappoint the drama.
"Kisna" is the kind of roomy spectacle that creates lovely spaces without forgetting its reason for existence. You can't take your eyes off the grace, rhythm and melody. They are just too inviting to be rejected.