Shaakuntalam Movie Review (2023)


Gunasekhar's underwhelming 'Shaakuntalam' needed more cinematic vision to be the epic it wants to be

Shaakuntalam Movie Review

Shaakuntalam Movie Cast & Crew

Production : Gunaa Teamworks,Sri Venkateswara Creations
Director : Gunasekhar
Music Director : Mani Sharma

Gunasekhar's Shaakuntalam, based on the Kalidasa play, has been marketed as #MythologyFor Millennials. So as a thought experiment, let's drag this classic to the modern day. A beautiful woman falls for a handsome dude. He makes vows of marriage, they have sex, and he says he'll be back for her. She pines for him, but he has a bout of amnesia and forgets her - until he remembers her again. They live happily ever after. On the surface, this is a story you are going to laugh off, but what made it work was the literary form, the poetic richness in Kalidasa's writing. So to crack this on screen, you need a cinematic vision, something like what V Shantaram had when he made this story into Stree, in the 1960s. (He made an earlier version, too, but I have not seen it.) You need to expand a thin, borderline-ridiculous tale into a spectacle that fills the eyes and also the heart and mind.

Gunasekhar's film – in 3D, shot by Sekhar V Joseph – is content to aim for visual grandeur. The first time we see Shakuntala (Samantha Ruth Prabhu), she's shrouded by a cloud of butterflies. Later, there's a huge war scene with Dushyanta (Dev Mohan). Meanwhile, there's an elephant-taming moment – and so on, so forth. But there's no emotional grandeur. About this director's last film, Rudhramadevi, I said, "[The heroine] is imposing, regal. But she has nothing to play. The character is all externalities. There’s no inner life to portray. Everything is conveyed through dialogue, and it’s purely functional – there’s no music in the words." Ditto, here. Samantha has a lovely,fragile screen presence, but oddly, Shakuntala seems to register the least in her own story. All the big moments go to the others. I don't know what millennials are going to make of such a meek protagonist, who has zero agency.

Yes, "agency" is a word of this millennium, and it was not in vogue when these works were written. But that's why you need to reinterpret at least some of the text. I am not asking for Shakuntala to be a feminist. Just give her something to do that's her own, something that defines her – even if it is something as simple like pouring her thoughts out to a deer or peacock or some such thing. Otherwise, she is just the acted-upon – a passive creature whose every move is decided by the men around her, from kings to sages. You may argue that women were passive those days: look at poor Draupadi, who agreed (or had to agree) to be the wife of five brothers. But then, passivity in a protagonist is a drag on screen. The film does just that. It drags.

The screenplay is content to plod along from one plot point to the next – and it's wobbly. A bunch of asura-s come and go as they please instead of being woven into the story as a constant threat. Mani Sharma's songs are quite good, but the song sequences are picturised without any imagination and you keep reaching for an imaginary fast-forward button. But what hurts Shaakuntalam the most is the fact that the central love story does not make you feel anything – so everything that arises from it passes by without much impact. Those looking for an easy-watch spectacle may not mind. The creature effects are not bad, and there is a sense of bigness. But those looking for an emotionally affecting tale of a woman who suffers for no fault of hers may end up wishing for a Bhansali version of Kalidasa's epic.

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Baradwaj Rangan

National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, former deputy editor of The Hindu and senior editor of Film Companion, has carved a niche for himself over the years as a powerful voice in cinema, especially the Tamil film industry, with his reviews of films. While he was pursuing his chemical engineering degree, he was fascinated with the writing and analysis of world cinema by American critics. Baradwaj completed his Master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relations through scholarship. His first review was for the Hindi film Dum, published on January 30, 2003, in the Madras Plus supplement of The Economic Times. He then started critiquing Tamil films in 2014 and did a review on the film Subramaniapuram, while also debuting as a writer in the unreleased rom-com Kadhal 2 Kalyanam. Furthermore, Baradwaj has authored two books - Conversations with Mani Ratnam, 2012, and A Journey Through Indian Cinema, 2014. In 2017, he joined Film Companion South and continued to show his prowess in critiquing for the next five years garnering a wide viewership and a fan following of his own before announcing to be a part of Galatta Media in March 2022.