2 stars. Kisna. Directed by Subhash Ghai. With Viveck Oberoi, Antonia Bernath, Isha Shervani, Amrish Puri, Sushmita Sen, Om Puri, Rajat Kapoor, Vivek Mushran, Hrishita Bhatt. 
A film from director Subhash Ghai is always keenly awaited. He is known as the “Showman of Bollywood” as his films are always mounted on a lavish scale and so it was with great expectations that I watched his latest magnum opus.

But alas, Kisna does nothing to elevate Ghai’s status as a force to be reckoned with in the Indian film industry. Despite the film being panned by most film critics, I can’t agree entirely with their point of view. Yes, the film had loads of potential, which Ghai never fulfills, but there is a lot to savour as well.

The film is set, for the most part, in 1947. Viveck Oberoi plays the title character Kisna who, as a child, develops a friendship with Katherine (Antonia Bernath), the daughter of a ruthless British Deputy Commissioner. Katherine’s father is totally opposed to this friendship and despite her mother’s pleading sends his daughter back to London to finish her schooling. On her return she rekindles her friendship with Kisna. The third party in this triangle is Laxmi (Isha Shervani), Kisna’s childhood friend who is deeply in love with him. Her grandfather arranges her marriage to Kisna, despite his seemingly lack of interest in getting married.

Kisna’s brother belongs to a group of freedom fighters that are battling to be free from British rule. Their fervour is used to serve the selfish needs of Kisna’s uncle (the late Amrish Puri), who wants the British Commissioner killed in order to lay his hands on his land. Despite the announcement that independence is imminent, the British Commissioner and his family are attacked by the freedom fighters led by Kisna’s brother and uncle. As a result the commissioner is killed. Katherine and her mother are split from each other. Kisna finds Katherine and shields her from the mob hunting her. His mother orders him to take Katherine to a place of safety in New Delhi. This he has to do, despite his wedding taking place in a few days and knowing that this will pit him against his elder brother. However, he readily accepts, as the bond he shares with Katherine is extremely strong.

The rest of the film traces their journey to New Delhi with the mob in pursuit as well as Prince Raghuraj (Rajat Kapoor), a friend of the Commissioner, who wants to make Katherine his bride, but ends up raping her.

While the first half of the film is good with Ghai taking his time to set up the characters and their motivations, the second half is a dismal failure. The only bright spark being the quawalli (classical music) sequence featuring former Ms. Universe Sushmita Sen and Om Puri.

What makes the film weak is the screenplay, which is extremely poorly written. A team of four writers, including Ghai himself couldn’t come up with anything better than rehashing scenes from the infinitely better Hollywood film The Last of the Mohicans. While looking towards Hollywood for inspiration is common for Bollywood filmmakers, one expects more from a director of Ghai’s calibre. He has also edited the film and that is another of it’s weaknesses – scenes are totally disjointed and there is a complete lack of tension in the dramatic sequences.

Oberoi as Kisna is weak, not knowing if he should play the romantic hero or the warrior. He hams it up on both accounts. The supporting cast are average, but it is disappointing to see the recently deceased Amrish Puri cast in a role not becoming of his stature in the industry.

The best aspects of the film is the excellent performance of debutante Antonia Bernath, the agility of Isha Shervani, the sumptiously rich musical score by two great Indian composers, A.R.Rahman (Taal and Swades) and Ismail Darbar (Devdas), as well as the exquisite production design and impeccable casting of the women over the years.

But the cherry on top and ultimately the saving grace of the film is the breathtaking cinematography of internationally renowned director of photography Ashok Mehta. A favourite of many top directors, he has been a long time collaborator of Ghai and the showman can thank his lucky stars that he hired Mehta to work on Kisna. Shot on location in the mountain region of Uttaranchal in Northern India,Mehta ensures that each frame is lit and framed impeccably, making Kisna a joy to watch. It’s like visiting an art gallery and viewing one stunning picture after another. One could very easily pause any frame of Kisna and think that you’re looking at a painting. I don’t have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to do justice to Mehta’s work on Kisna. It’s worth seeing for this fact alone.

It seems as if its back to the drawing board for Ghai, a once great director who has failed to the deliver the goods yet again.

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    Mehboob Bawa is an actor, producer, writer, voice artiste and Bollywood specialist. He covers the Bollywood scene for The Cape Times, the morning daily newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa.


    July 2011