Film makers in Hindi cinema have mostly dished out period films from the Mughal and British eras. Many of these like Taj Mahal, Umrao Jaan, Pakeezah, Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, Jodha Akbar and Mughal-e-azam have not only tasted success at the box office, but also have stood the test of time. Ancient India has seldom been touched upon and even when someone has come out with anything substantial, it has hardly tasted success (Amrapali, for instance). Utsav was one such attempt at presenting the society of the classical period.
The story begins with Amjad Khan (playing the soothradhar and Vatsayan, the author of Kama Sutra) introducing the characters to the viewers. He shows Vasantasena (Rekha), a prominent courtesan, running away from the lecherous and stupid Samasthanak (Shashi Kapoor), the brother-in-law of the king Paalak. She lands up in the house of a poor musician Charudutt (Shekhar Suman), who is indifferent to the bad times that have struck him. She learns that his wife has gone to visit her parents with his child. That night, Vasantsena falls for him. They make love and she leaves for her brothel, not before leaving her jewellery under his care.
Enamoured by the presence of Vasantsena
But the jewellery gets stolen by Sajjal (Shankar Nag), a thief, who wants to marry Vasantsena’s maid Madanika (Neena Gupta) by paying a price. The city, sinking to anarchy due to the waywardness of the nobility, is at the brink of a revolution being plotted by Aryak (Kunal Kapoor) and his aide (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). Vasantsena sees her jewellery brought by Sajjal, gifts him Madanika and sets her free. At the brothel, Vasantsena and the other prostitutes are impressed by the knowledge and detachment of the sage Vatsayan, who visits them to document the art of love making, without actually getting involved in it himself.
Vasantsena cannot get over her tryst with Charudutt and longs for his company. Meanwhile, Charudutt’s wife Aditi (Anuradha Patel) returns and finds out that her husband has slept with a courtesan in her absence. She leaves the house in a huff and hands over the last piece of jewellery left with her to Charudutt’s friend Maitreya (Harish Patel), asking him to give it to Vasantsena in place of her stolen jewellery. When Maitreya conveys to Vasantsena that Aditi has left the house, she leaves for Charudutt’s place to make love to him that night.
The next day is Vasantotsav, the spring festival of youth and love. Charudutt leaves for a lonely spot near the woods and promises to send a carriage for Vasantasena soon. But as she waits, Aditi comes home and to Vasantsena’s embarrassment and surprise, does not seem repulsed by her presence. After all, it is only a man of high social standing who can have a courtesan like Vasantasena and besides, after spending one night with Vasantsena, her husband was able to revive their mundane sex life! The ladies bond over a song and Vasantsena even gives away all her gold to Aditi to convert her son’s toy clay cart into that of gold.
Mrichchakatika – the cart of gold
Meanwhile, the carriage sent by Samasthanak arrives to pick Vasantsena and she leaves in it, mistaking it for the one sent by Charudutt. On reaching the spot, Vasantsena tries to flee again from the clutches of Samasthanak but gets strangulated by him (though she survives the attempt on her life). Samasthanak puts the blame on Charudutt and orders to execute him. As Charudutt is about to get beheaded, Aryak and his men declare a revolution, dethrone the king and begin a new state, even as the city is steeped in revelry. Seeing her husband return home, Aditi jumps with joy and both of them resume their lives, forgetting Vasantasena altogether. Vasatasena, realising the ephemeral nature of love in her life, returns to her brothel and sees Samasthanak falling at her doorstop, now a civilian, sans his arrogance and power. She welcomes him inside, resuming the life of a courtesan.
Utsav was based on Bhasa’s incomplete play Charudutta and Sudraka’s Mrichchakatikam, written around the 400 AD. With strong socialistic undertones, the movie celebrates the society in ancient India, when liberal thoughts prevailed and when every act was seen as a work of art. The narrator tells us at the very beginning that this was an India, when even gambling, stealing and love-making were done with artistic perfection. Though it is not specified, the movie is perhaps set in the Gupta period, the golden age of India’s history. The film makers liberally added the character of Vatsayan, who is not seen in the work Mrichchakatikam, to introduce an element of eroticism in the movie.
Female bonding in the song Man kyun behka
Produced by Shashi Kapoor and directed by Girish Karnad, Utsav had Shekhar Suman in one of his early ventures. He puts on a good show but does seem to look dwarfed before the screen presence of Rekha. He is unable to rise to the ethereality of Charudutt, who is capable of making the most beautiful courtesan go crazy about him and turn a gambler into a saint. Amjad Khan, as Vatsayan, brings in a strong sense of humour and finesse. Other actors like Annu Kapoor (as the gambling masseur), Neena Gupta (as Rekha’s maid Madanika), Shankar Nag and Anupam Kher lap up their small but significant roles. As a surprise, you get to see Master Manjunath as Charudutt’s son. A few years later, we got to see him as Swami in Shankar Nag’s Malgudi Days.
Utsav saw Rekha in her full glory after Umrao Jaan. Perhaps there was something about this actress, which made her perfect the role of a courtesan. She struck a pose of seduction in every scene and came out with one of the greatest performances of her career. Ashok Mehta’s camera caught her in all her resplendent beauty. Art directors Nachiket Patwardhan and Jayoo Patwardhan showed an amazing sense of history and quite successfully recreated the streets, brothels and townships of the period and won a well-deserved Filmfare Award for the same.
Laxmikant Pyarelal spinned umpteen tunes for the commercial films of that time and showed here that they could deliver good music for an off-beat period film as well. Who doesn’t love the Lata-Asha duet man kyun behka ri behka aadhi raat ko, which saw some of the finest images of female bonding between Rekha and Anuradha Patel. The two came together vying for the same man three years later in Gulzar’s Ijazat. But this time, it was Anuradha who was cast as the other woman.
Not many know that Utsav was a bi-lingual production, made in Hindi and English, with an eye on the international market. For all its merits, Utsav was a box office disaster, causing Shashi Kapoor a loss of 1.5 crores. He went completely commercial with his next venture in the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Ajooba. By then, the superstar was past his prime and the film tanked completely. But nevertheless, Utsav still remains a wonderful celebration of art, beauty and sensuality.