Shaakuntalam Movie Review: Oh deer, this myth-drama fails on all fronts

Following the beats of this story at a surface level, director Gunasekhar squanders opportunities to sink into the potential joys within the source material
Shaakuntalam Movie Review: Oh deer, this myth-drama fails on all fronts

In adapting a mythological tale for cinema, you are forced to pick one of two paths. You can be faithful to the original story and look to replicate any inherent charms within… or you can recontextualise it for today by taking creative liberties, which hopefully results in a story that espouses better politics. Director Gunasekhar takes the former route, but in following the beats of this story at a surface level, he squanders opportunities to sink into the potential joys within the source material. For instance, take a moment and picture this character of Shakuntala. What do you see? I see a woman completely at peace with herself and with the natural environment she is in—somewhat like the poster of the film, I suppose. However, this film, which constantly shows what seem like CG creatures, including deers, peacocks, and even tigers, treats them as props in each shot—which seems to go against the very fabric of Shakuntala’s thinking. There isn’t one real moment of affection in which you understand what this harmonious cohabitation with the flora and the fauna truly means to Shakuntala. Juxtapose this with her lover, Dushyantha, storming in and killing off wild animals in her vicinity. Sure, you could argue that he is bound to protect the subjects of his kingdom, but what about when later on, in another scene, a tiger is about to hunt a deer and he feels compelled to draw his arrow again? What might Shakuntala think of that?

Director: Gunasekhar

Cast: Samantha, Dev Mohan, Mohan Babu, Aditi Balan, Gautami

I suppose a better question is, what does Shakuntala think of anything? There’s so little we understand of her. She falls in love at first sight and makes love-eyes, and later, when she’s feeling rejected, she’s all glum and making sulky-eyes. Briefly, you see some anger, but there isn’t a whole lot of that despite all the provocation. This film, titled after its protagonist, Shakuntala, seems hardly interested in her identity and personality. She’s an orphan adopted by Kanva Maharishi, and towards the end, she makes a reference to being forsaken by her biological parents. But what does she feel about being abandoned? What does she feel when her husband too rejects her? Shakuntala is too docile, too frustratingly meek, and it's not like we learn a lot of her inner strength either. Contrast this with how dialogue-heavy this film is otherwise. When Dushyantha is smitten at first sight, the film takes us through his every thought. “The moonlight feels hot in her absence,” he sighs. As expressions of his love, he waxes about how he would like to be born out of her womb—which I thought was a strange thing to be telling his prospective wife. He goes one step further and talks about birthing a whole new country through her. Relax, man, take it one step at a time, will you?

Shakuntala doesn’t seem to have much say in anything really. When she’s feeling guilty about ‘sinning’ with him, Dushyantha quickly talks her into a wedding, only so they can get together right away, it seems. When she travels outside for the first time—with those who are supposed to stand by her (including her foster mother, Gauthami)—she gets abandoned by them at the moment of her greatest need. Before she walks away, her mother tries to be sweet: “Your purity will save you.” All of this is a few minutes after her father has advised her that following Dushyantha, who’s absconding for all practical purposes, is her “wifely duty”. What’s really the point of bringing such a story to cinema if you won’t dig into the psychology of characters or care about the gender politics espoused in it? Moments later, there’s a disturbing scene that captures civilians trying to stone this pregnant woman as she’s running away. I’d have loved for a few elephants to trample these men sometime, but there’s none of that cathartic justice in this film. It’s all rather deterministic, and the constant suggestion is that it’s all part of a big, mega plan that no one can truly understand or comprehend. Well, that’s one way of absolving everyone from any real responsibility. I guess I know what I’ll be saying when I miss a deadline next. It’s all part of a big plan that mortals like you and I can barely fathom.

But make no mistake, the story of Shakuntala has promise and potential, but it needed minds that were willing to occupy it, dig in, and explore. For instance, as she’s leaving the hermitage where she’s lived in such joy till adulthood, it’s supposed to be an incredibly emotional moment of separation as she walks away from all the animals that so dearly love her. But this moment is shockingly emotionally vacant—yes, despite the CG deer-prop hanging about as always.

As for the action, how shall I put it… You know those African men who would use household props to recreate Hollywood trailers? The film’s action sequences evoke a somewhat similar feeling—despite, no doubt, the CG work that has gone into them. Some ideas, like a warrior smashing the head of a rogue elephant or throwing off a bunch of enemies who are on him, feel like pale imitations of what we have seen in films like Baahubali. And don’t even get me started on how these war portions aren’t even essential to this film.

In fact, when Dushyantha and enemies swing weapons at each other, they feel like weightless toys being used in a cosplay contest. All the while, Mani Sharma’s music tries way too hard. For the feeblest emotional moment, the solo veena comes in with melo-music desperate to get you feeling something, let alone shed a tear. The strongest I felt during this film was some animosity for sage Durvasa, who randomly waltzes in, delivers a curse, changes a woman’s life for the worse for no real fault of her own, and casually walks away. His justification? That she was distracted and not paying attention to him. If Durvasa had directed this film, I imagine he would have flung a thousand curses my way for constantly signing out. 

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