Arjun Sajnani's "The Fire and the Rain" ("Agnivarsha") is an epic of power, love, lust and sacrifice adapted from a play by Girish Karnad and derived from "The Myth of Yavakri," which is part of the ancient "Mahabharata" cycle. Like the recent "Lagaan," this is a splendid example of contemporary Bollywood in which a director's sophisticated style and vision have been brought to bear on the beloved conventions of popular Hindi cinema. It's as if a DeMille spectacle has been staged from a present-day perspective.
Rich in elements universal in their associations and implications, the film's star-crossed family evokes the House of Atreus. As in "Hamlet," its climactic sequence involves a troupe of traveling players staging a play that confronts the villain with his perfidy. It has intricate plotting and the overheated emotions of silent movies, with literate English subtitles that read like silents' intertitles--e.g., "The sight of my luscious daughter-in-law is enough to keep me in good shape!"
"The Fire and the Rain" may be lurid and campy at times (part of the fun) but also manages to be powerfully moving, exploring such timeless themes as the conflict between love and duty, the subordination of women, the evils of superstition, the folly of revenge and the curse of India's caste system.
In an ambitious, triumphant directorial debut, Sajnani proves to be a born screen storyteller. He makes dramatic use of the majestic ruins of Hampi, the capital city of the 13th century Vijaynagar Empire, and deftly but sparingly integrates music and dance sequences into the plot.
With elegant production design and costumes, stunning cinematography and a stirring score, the film has much excitement and visual splendor--it was shot by Anil Mehta, Oscar-nominated for "Lagaan"--and, best of all, proceeds at a rapid pace. "The Fire and the Rain's" strong cinematic quality stands in sharp contrast to the old-style, technically crude Bollywood blockbuster, which ran on interminably and continually came to a grinding halt for those obligatory production numbers.
When the story opens, somewhere in India, sometime in the distant past, the land is in its 10th year of drought. Its ruler has apparently passed over great sage Raibhya (Mohan Agashe) to appoint his son Paravasu (Jackie Shroff) chief priest, citing the father's age, for the priest must forsake his family and all worldly pursuits to conduct periodic ritual human sacrifices by fire to appease the gods and thereby bring rain. The appointment dovetails with the overweening ambitiousness of Paravasu, who has now left his beautiful wife Vishakha (Raveena Tandon) abandoned for seven years with no rainfall in sight.
Meanwhile, Paravasu's naive younger brother Aravasu (Milind Soman) is about to defy his Brahmin caste and marry a tribal beauty named Nittilai (Sonali Kulkarni).
At just this moment, Paravasu's first cousin and archrival, Yavakri (Nagarjuna Prabhudeva), has returned from a 10-year meditation, which has brought him eternal knowledge, bestowed upon him by Lord Indra (Amitabh Bachchan, the revered veteran star). But the spiritual sojourn hasn't calmed Yavakri one bit, and he's out to topple Paravasu from his seat of power.
The sweet and innocent young lovers Aravasu and Nittilai get caught in the middle of the escalating conflict and emerge as the saga's central characters. Tremendous demands are placed on all the principal actors in that they must play at a sustained fever pitch; Soman and Kulkarni in particular must show Aravasu and Nittilai moving from innocence to embracing the highest demands of love and sacrifice.
"The Fire and the Rain" is the first in a series of films to be released in the U.S. under the umbrella title of "Beyond Bollywood" by Cinebella Entertainment, recently formed to distribute quality Indian and South Asian cinema. "The Fire and the Rain" is ripe for a crossover from ethnic neighborhood theaters to art cinemas.
Unrated: Times guidelines: some moderate traditional spectacle violence.
'The Fire and the Rain'
Jackie Shroff ... Paravasu
Raveena Tandon ... Vishakha
Milind Soman ... Aravasu
Sonali Kulkarni ... Nittilai
Nagarjuna Prabhudeva ... Yavakri
A Cinebella Entertainment "Beyond Bollywood" release of an iDream production in co-production with Seng Films. Director Arjun Sajnani. Screenplay Sajnani, T. Jayshree & Anil Mehta from Girish Karnad's play based upon "The Myth of Yavakri" from the "Mahabharata." Cinematographer Anil Mehta. Editor Jabeen Merchant. Music Sandesh Shandilya. Lyrics Javed Akhtar. Score Taufiq Qureshi. Choreographers Bhushan Lakhandri, Prabhudeva & Daksha Sheth. Costumes Leena Singh & Rukmini Krishnan. Art director Shash Adappa. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes. In Hindi, with English subtitles.
Exclusively at the NAZ8 Cinemas, Naz Plaza, 6440 E. South St., Lakewood, (562) 866-2444.