Love Sublime: How cinema has turned to Kalidasa’s Shakuntala from time to time

She was the love child of a celestial nymph and an ascetic who lost his way during his austerities. A symbol of innocence, unaware of the ways of the world, she is thrown into the fire of life without warning midway through the story. But she rises stronger and sharper, displaying a rare sense of grit. Kalidasa endowed his Shakuntala with a character graph that later became a textbook for screen writers and playwrights.

The earliest pointer to Shakuntala can be seen in the Satapatha Brahmana, where one can know about her son Bharata performing many sacrifices. But a major point of reference of the story is the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata. But Kalidasa lent a great deal of drama to the existing text to make it one of the greatest classics of world literature.

Cinematic and Dramatic

Ever since cinema was born, the story has been brought out in multiple languages through the decades. In fact, the first known version of Abhjnan Shakuntalam on the silver screen is more than 100 years old today, having released in 1920!

“Firstly, it is the love story in the play and people like love stories, even if it may not sound practical. Abhjnan Shakuntalam was translated in the 18th century by William Jones and it led to a sudden interest in Sanskrit literature. The romanticism of Kalidasa was beyond the imagination of the western world,” says Prof Prasad Bhide, Assistant Professor, Department of Sanskrit, K. J. Somaiya College of Arts, who created a one-and-a-half hour adaptation of Shakuntalam for the contemporary audience. “People love the story regardless of their age and background. Today, because of our regular exposure to Bollywood, this theme of lovers uniting, separating and reuniting might seem a regular affair but it was the original theme of Kalidasa and he used it to perfection in Shakuntalam.”

Despite having written many other popular plays like Vikramoorvashiyam and Malavikagnimitram, Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam’s popularity is a cut above the rest. Prasad attributes it to many factors, including the loose ends in the other two works. “There are some loopholes in both Malavika and Urvashi. Agnimitra, the king, is attracted to Malavika’s physical beauty and wants to get her some way or the other. But Dushyanta is different from both Pururavas and Agnimitra. In fact, the way Kalidasa introduces a new twist in the story with Durvasa’s curse and the lost ring is almost impeccable. He takes a diversion from the story in the Mahabharata and presents Dushyanta in a totally different light. There is a great deal of romanticism in this work. Our understanding of romanticism thanks to Bollywood is quite misplaced. Romanticism of Kalidasa is beyond imagination.”

The general trend today has been favouring stories told from an Indian standpoint and movies that have richly referenced Indian works of art and literature have also reaped rich dividends at the box office. Prasad believes that trends keep changing and people’s likes and dislikes also change. “A turning point in this regard was Rajamouli’s Bahubali, which turned people’s attention to our own stories. A lot of interest has been generated by writers like Amish Tripathi in our puranic characters with their books. The right environment for movies on such classical themes require a discerning audience too,. Then good works are possible.”

Shakuntala and Shantaram

A notable adaptation of Kalidasa’s Abhjnan Shakuntalam in Hindi cinema was done by filmmaker V Shantaram. For many years, Shantaram was a part of Prabhat Film Company and later, he decided to start his own production company with Rajkamal Kalamandir. The very first movie he made under the new banner was Shakuntala in 1943. Over 17 years later, he remade the movie as Stree.

V Shantaram's Shakuntala starring Jayashree and Chandramohan. A poster by National Film Archives of India

 Right from his childhood, film historian VAK Ranga Rao has been an avid viewer of Hindi films and V Shantaram has been a favourite. “I met Shantaram twice, once in Madras and for a longer time in his Rajkamal Kalamandir Studios,” recollects Rao, who has watched Shakuntala and Stree several times over. “Shantaram was in love with Kalidasa’s Abhignana Shakutalam. When he made Shakuntala (1943), the leading lady Jayshree was the leading lady in his life too. The way he harnessed, or should I say, manipulated the various kinds of birds and young fawns into the script thrilled the audience. When he made Stree (1961), Sandhya was the heroine of the movie and his wife. He thought the addition of colour, newer techniques and the music score by maestro C Ramchandra would endear it to the classes and masses. There are lots of similarities between the two movies. Unfortunately, the public did not warm up to Stree as he had expected,” says Ranga Rao.

Shantaram for he also sought inspiration from Shakuntalam even while making other films. For instance, he places an elaborate Vishwamitra Menaka dance sequence in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) to not just showcase a visual spectacle of Menaka climbing down the clouds in Technicolor but also bring in a dramatic twist to the story.

Gopi Krishna and Sandhya in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje. The famous Vishwamitra Menaka sequence

“I presume Shantaram enacted the bits and made the ladies follow him. Incidentally Mumtaz is seen as one of the handmaidens of Shakuntala in Stree (years before she made it big as a heroine),” points out Rao. “A canard of those times was that Shantaram surrounded his heroines with rather plain-looking women, to make the leads look more beautiful. Tell me, isn’t Shakuntla the daughter of Menaka, a celestial nymph? How can mere humans be as captivating?”

Shakuntala is purity personified and free of malice, a point brought out time and again in the story. She is pristine nature personified, undisturbed by the exploration of man. Dushyanta’s entry into the wild space in the beginning of the play almost seems like man’s attempt at conquest over nature. Chasing a deer during a hunting game, he lands up at the herholy grove of Rishi Kanva, where his eyes fall on Shakuntala. They fall for each other. These feelings are new to her restless mind. But such is her innocence that she is unable to even put words together when she sits down to write Dushyanta a love letter. This sequence has been a favourite of artistes and filmmakers and some big musical hits have been born out of this situation.

Rao says how differently filmmakers brought out her love and longing in this episode, “In Stree, there was the song O nirdaye preetam, Pranay jagake, hriday churake, Kyun huey gumsum which became quite popular. I remember the producers of Shakuntala (1965) in Malayalam played the Hindi song to lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma in the presence of music-director G Devarajan, and asked him to follow the thought process of that hit. But Vayalar differed. His asked, how can a woman who grew up in an ashram know about the intricacies of love? Devarajan silently supported him. Then this beauty emerged – Priyathama, Premalekhanam engane ezhudanam, munikumarikayalle – how to write a love letter, after all am I not a munikanya? It remains one of the best songs from a mythological in Malayalam.”

This very sense of love and longing has been the single biggest fodder for film music. From Shailendra and Sahir to Kannadasan and Vayalar, haven’t lyricists grappled with this very emotion and explored it in a million ways. Without this premise, there would have been no love song in Indian cinema.

Last year, writer, director and public speaker Dushyanth Sridhar had chosen this very play of Kalidasa for his Sanskrit film Shakuntalam (2022). While GV Iyer had pioneered filmmaking in Sanskrit with Adi Shankaracharya (1983) and Bhagwad Gita (1993), Dushyant Sridhar wanted to choose a different kind of theme for his movie. “GV Iyer is one of the few filmmakers who actually ventured into Sankskrit cinema. On one side, his works were all philosophical. So the general movie going public might get this idea that Sanskrit is only for salvation. But Sanskrit has been employed for all kinds of literary purposes in India and our playwrights have worked wonders with it to evoke Sringara or love also in this language. Shakuntala is a Sringara Natakam and I wanted to break the myth that Sanskrit is just for philosophy. It is said Kavyeshu Natakam Ramyam Tatra Ramya Shakuntala – Amongst all forms of literature drama is the finest and amongst dramas, Shakuntala. It has got that exalted position.”

In the 1960s, cinema did see a renewed interest in the story with adaptations in Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam and Assamese (directed by Bhupen Hazarika) hitting the screens. “As a filmmaker, I knew I was getting into a less trodden territory with a Sanskrit film. But I wanted to take a subject that was tried and tested. Think of it, way back in 1940, Ellis R Dungan made Sakuntalai in Tamil starring GN Balasubramaniam and MS Subbulakshmi,  that too in a state that is politically opposed to Sanskrit. Later we saw two Hindi adaptations by Shantaram. NT Rama Rao and Saroja Devi brought out this story in Telugu in Shankuntala (1966). Prem Nazir and KR Vijaya explored thi in Malayalam in 1965 and Dr Rajkumar brought out the story in  Kaviratna Kalidas (1983). But imagine having Romeo and Juliet in Konkani, Telugu and Tulu but not in English, its original source. Similarly I felt Shakuntalam had to be made in Sanskrit as well,” says Dushyanth, who had to work through challenges of language faced by the cast and the pandemic that delayed the schedules during its making.

A subject like Shakuntala gave ample scope for music and some of the greatest composers from Vasant Desai to Vanraj Bhatia have worked on its film and TV adaptations. Both GNB and MS SUbbulakshmi, who acted in Sakuntalai, went on to become trailblazers in Carnatic music. In fact, the small dance sequence in the darbar of Dushyanta in Sakuntalai (1940) is performed by actress VN Janaki, who later married MGR and even briefly became the CM of Tamil Nadu.

In 1988, Shyam Benegal also added a wonderful adaptation of Kalidasa’s classic to his series Bharat Ek Khoj. The two episodes dedicated to Kalidasa were based on Mohan Rakesh’s Hindi classic Asadh ka ek din and it had Ravi Jhankhal play Kalidasa and Dushyant with Pallavi Joshi playing Shakuntala.

Sometimes, the reference to Kalidasa is not even in the form of a full fledged film but in the idea of romance held by a character. In Dillagi (1978), based on Bimal Kar’s Bengali novel Kalidas O Chemistry, Dharmendra plays a playful Sanskrit professor teaching Kalidasa. He professes his love to his strict colleague and Chemistry professor played by Hema Malini, in the pretext of reading the lines of Kalidasa. The tender joys of small town romance rarely came so alive on the silver screen.

Made for all times

The curse of Durvasa and Dushyanta’s failure to recognise Shakuntala in the sabha is a turning point in the story and its characters. Shakuntala loses her innocence in that moment of rejection and accuses the king of practicing falseness while putting on the mantle of virtue. She leaves and raises her son by herself near the ashram of Sage Maricha (Kashyapa in some accounts).

But Shakuntala is no stranger to abandonment for she herself is the unwanted love child of Menaka and Vishwamitra. “This also makes Shakuntalam a comment on the fate of children abandoned by parents at birth, who cannot be absolved of punishing their daughter for their own mistake,” says Dushyant Sridhar.

Dushyanta is a changed man after getting back his ring and realising his folly. When he gets his ring back, he remembers it all and the king for whom love was a royal sport now pines inconsolably for the woman he has wronged. In the last act of the play where Dushyanta meets Shakuntala, Prasad points out how different the man-woman dynamics are at play here. “Here Dushyanta begs her pardon and even touches her feet. Remember he is a man and a king and yet, he is apologising in a very physical way in public. These acts make the drama timeless. The king keeps his ego aside to gain back the love he lost. Perhaps Kalidasa was making a statement with this small act.”

The recognition of Shakuntala is not just a physical act. He acknowledges her importance with all sincerety in his life and realises how incomplete it can be without her. Dushyanth Sridhar even points out to the marriage of Shakuntala and Dushyanta to draw moden parallels. “Today it is common to see characters in a live-in relationship in movies. But out of the eight forms of marriage we have known in sanatana dharma, one is Gandharva Vivaha, which is done without any rites and rituals, just as Shakuntala and Dushyanta had done. Secondly, the concept of a single mother bringing up valiant sons is something we see in Shakuntala as well. We see that in Ramayana with Sita raising Lava Kusa. Interestingly, a ring plays a crucial role in both their lives.”

In the closing portions of the play, Sage Maricha proclaims the illustrious future of Shakuntala’s son Bharata and says he shall rule unopposed in the seven continents.

“While the play suggests Shakuntala’s son Bharata lends his name to the nation, the association of our country’s name is made with four Bharatas in various texts. One is the brother of Rama in the Ramayana. The second is Jadabharata, whose story is seen in the Srimad Bhagavatham. The the third is the sage Bharata, who wrote the Natya Sastra and the fourth is the son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala,” explains Dushyanth Sridhar, who also highlights another connection the play has with art. “Think of it. Over eight or nine paintings of Raja Ravi Varma were based on just one classic of Kalidasa.”

In April, National Award winning director Gunasekhar’s Shaakuntalam will have worldwide theatrical release. Starring Samantha and Dev Mohan, the film will introduce the great story of Kalidasa yet again to the modern world. The audience has by now warmed up to Indian stories of empires, wars, men and maidens with special effects and sets that only get grander with each film. But at its core will remain one of the greatest plays and love stories known to mankind written many thousand years ago.

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