Sunday, July 02, 2006


What is more important: satisfying one thousand desires or conquering just one...

I swear I would have loved to love this movie. It had all the ingredients - the majestic landscape of Ladakh (a primary reason why I identified with Dil Se so much), great cinematography to capture the landscape, international production-values ensuring the right usage of languages (Tibetan/Ladakhi/Hindi as applicable), good performances from the crew, and a host of awards across Art Movie festivals. Yet, I give it only two stars, and the main reason was the sheer lack of pace in the movie, especially the first half which moves at a diseased snail's pace.

The film had been released in 2001, so I wonder what made the distributors in India release it now. Possibly they thought it will get spillover benefit when the audience fails to get tickets for Krisshh. Anyways, I wanted to catch the flick because apart from Ladakh, the movie was based on the concept of Buddhism. In fact, in the reviews, it was mentioned that it was very similar to Siddhartha's quest for enlightenment. Now Buddha according to me (and Amartya Sen too) was the greatest Indian ever. It is a matter of debate whether he was actually a Nepali or an Indian, but Buddha, and a couple of centuries later, Emperor Ashok did the maximum to put India on the global map. The only reason Buddhism did not catch up in the place of its discovery, unlike say a Sri Lanka or a South-East Asia where it spread very fast, was because of the lack of codification of the dominant religion, Hinduism, which in turn allowed it to quickly counter the Buddhisht preachings. In fact, the coup was declaring Buddha as the incarnation of God Vishnu, the preserver who keeps incarnating on Earth. I will give my right arm if I can meet the last promised avatara, Lord Kalki, in my stay out here.

In a single line, Samsara deals with an issue which is possibly the single biggest flaw in Buddha's repertoire - his treatment of his wife, and subsequently his son? Did his family deserve his detachment, especially when his preachings are the most moderate and real-life you will find in any codified religion. I personally find the Buddhist philosophy of the middle path, and the existence of the universal truths (life being a pain, slighlty pessimistic but very true and apt), a much more simpler form of the complex treatise that is Bhagwad Gita. Both Buddha and Bhagavad Gita talk about the freedom of choice, and the ability to achieve nirvana/moksha by following a more conventional mainstream life too. I know Gita talks about birth into a profession, but if you take it realistically, the implication is more about natural gifts and inclinations, and the ability to use it to one's advantage. I would have struggled to become a cricketer in spite of my passion for the game, mainly because nature did not endow me any talents there. In fact, even in Hindu mythology, in one of Lord Vishnu's avatara as Parasurama, there is a precedent of a Brahmin taking up arms to fulfil his inherent Kshatriya dharma.

Samsara is a simple story. A monk Tashi (Shawn Ku) has been fasting and meditating very hard for three years, and is now ready to take his final steps towards renunciation. (This is a great example of how today Buddhism has gone away from its original moorings, as Buddha had made it quite clear that he did not believe that physical suffering like fasting will give mental and spiritual enlightenment to the seeker). However, on a trip to a neighbouring village, Tashi falls in love-cum-lust with a pretty girl called Pema (Christy Chung, a Chinese version of Angelina Jolie if I may say so). She is one bold girl, and even comes and sleeps next to him, just holding him tight (I think it stopped there only). This arouses his pent-up feelings, he has night-droppings, and he finally decides to experience the householder's life. As his parting statement, he tells his mentor that even Buddha experienced the world for 29 years, before denouncing it.

Pema, highlighting her boldness and possible real-worldness even more, goes and makes out with Tashi in a gorgeous love-making scene. This is in spite of the fact that she is already engaged to some other guy, but like in Yash Chopra movies, her finace sacrifices his love for her real love, and the couple overcome family obstacles to marry.

The second half begins and moves at a relatively faster pace - Tashi's rocking the existing arrangement of livelihood in the village by going and selling his grains in the city, earning more money, burning of his fields by other envious folks, Tashi suspecting the grain-merchant and getting thrashed by his goons, his having a son and the son seeing his parents make love next to him, finally Tashi making out with a migrant worker in his wife's absence. The entire thing is to denote wordly attachments, and how Tashi keeps getting entangled into it.

The most under-stated moment of the movie comes when Tashi's family is having momos on a cold night. Tashi's son asks him what is inside the momos, and he answers meat. In all innocence, his son then asks why are they eating meat, when it involves killing of animals. To my mind, this is the single biggest contradiction of the main Buddhist credo of 'non-violence', especially when Buddha himself died by consuming spoilt pork.

The weakest moment of the movie comes when Tashi's mentor is dying, and he sends him the message which is the tagline of the movie: satisfying one thousand desires or conquering one. Tashi's guilt at the message comes across as extremely superfluous, especially when his lust was denoted so much more convincingly.

Tashi again puts on the monk's robes, only to be confronted by Pema, who reminds him of Yashodhara (Buddha's wife). The message at the climax is simple: one can achieve nirvana by directing one's energies to the daily duties and passions too, and Tashi understands and follows that.

The underlying theme of the movie, of what Buddha chose to do and what a layman can choose to do, is extremely fascinating for me. In fact, on the main Yashodhara theme of the movie, if one considers another popular avatara of Lord Vishnu, Rama, he at times revealed a fatal flaw in his character vis-a-vis his treatment of women. In the times of polygamous marriages, he was a devoted single-woman ruler. However, he made his wife go through agni-pareeksha and subsequently banished her to the forests only to silence rumour-mongers. While these are well-known, his treatment of Shoorpanakha (which led to the main war in the story) was even more deplorable. In fact, in the Tamil poet Kamban's version of Ramayana, the story has been modified slightly to hide the ugliness of the rebuffing of Shoorpanakha.

The God who treated women most commendably was Krishna, and possibly that might be the reason he is a personal spiritual favourite (vis-a-vis Buddha, who was a real-world leader). Anyways, mythology says Lord Krishna is an avatari, not a avatara, the basic difference being the consciousness of Godliness in the two. Krishna cohorted with a married woman elder to him, and thanks to the Bhakti movement, he is still worshipped along with Radha (for a great example of the potential of that love story, watch Raj Kapoor's Prem Rog). Lord Krishna did not leave only Radha, but his entire adopted family with whom he had grown up, not for any personal spiritual reason, but for professional reasons (possibly the same thing if suppose I have to migrate to the US tomorrow to pursue a career).

Krishna's relationship with Draupudi is brilliant, the first and possibly the only instance of opposite-gender platonic relationship in Indian popular literature. In fact, the absence of such relationships is possibly the reason why our films have only heroines, jilted lovers, vamps, or sisters, no girl-friends. As Pratibha Raya's 'Yajnaseni' (which Rituparna Ghosh is planning to convert into a movie) says, Draupudi was initially in love with Krishna, but Krishna wanted her to marry Arjun. The closest essence of their relationship can be seen in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's brilliant movie, Bemisaal, one of Amitabh's best.

I never saw "Gandhi virudh Gandhi", the famous play on Mahatma Gandhi's strained relationship with his eldest son. But it possibly captured the same thing as Samsara - the trouble which the second-greatest Indian after Buddha had in leading and inspiring his family, by 'imposing' his principles on them. Samsara would have easily got one more star from me, if only the damn thing was half-an-hour shorter to become a better cinematic experience.


satya said...

Nice review, loads of gyan.

The points about renunciation and how Buddhism has moved away from what Buddha envisaged in his time.

The second issue is the meat eating bit.

First, my history tells me that Buddha went along two paths..the Hinayana and the Mahayana.....while I dont know what their modern equivalents are, I know for sure that Mahayana was even more ritualistic than the Hindusim which Buddha was trying to reform.

Also it is important to remember that the essence of Buddhism may have been carried to the world but they all interpreted it within their own contexts.

Third, the Buddhism we are wrestling with here is the Tibetan variant which was influenced by developments in Hinduism for a long time after Buddha. The Tibetan word for India means 'abode of the gods' and the fact that it had to adjust and fight for hegemony with the Bon religion that existed.

I think food habits are more determined by weather and living conditions rather than religion. So it would be grossly unfair to except the populace to live in that climate without meat.

The movie was released cause Pan Nalin's other movie Valley of Flowers was ready, so there was probably some market buzz about it due to the presence of stars like Naseer I suppose!

Abhigyan said...

Well as usual I beg to differ. The biggest thing of Buddhism and why it caught on so fast was because of its sheer simplicity. If you observe Buddha's teachings, they are so brief and concise, it is mind-boggling, after so many years of philosophical pursuit, he came up with such simple rational thoughts.
The only reason the dominant religion - Hinduism - managed to counter Buddhism is by showing its adaptability. Buddhism also consequently got caught on in rituals, and as far as I know, split into sects much after Buddha. In fact, it happened during Ashoka (the chief spreader of the religion), who came at least two centuries after Buddha.
As for meat-eating, I totally agree that is a cultural phenomena. In fact, India is possibly the only country in the world where vegetarianism is so rampant. I just commeneted on the sheer irony of it, a religion whose singlemost dominant theme is 'Ahimsa' should definitely avoid if not prohibit meat-eating. And the question is raised through the voice of the kid.
By the way, I don't the wife was Buddha, it was just a man's conscience, the fatal flaw in the great characters as I call them. That's why Mahabharat is so good, each and every protagonist falls victim to some idiosyncrancy, making it briliiantly grey and murky.