Starring: Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna, Shammi Kapoor
Music by Vani Jairam
Directed by Gulzar
Before I launch into a vitriolic and heart-felt tirade about "saint movies," let me take a minute to tell you about my upbringing.
Although we were a selfish family of atheists, the name of God was invoked frequently in our household. Sometimes he was mentioned by my grandfather just before dinner in a sort of ritualistic, mercifully short speech whose only purpose was to shut everybody up so we could start eating. At other times, God's name came up while my father was fixing the toaster and getting very, very angry. I myself called on him a few times in moments of duress...when realizing that I'd accidentally driven my parent's car into a telephone pole, for instance. "Oh my God, I'm in trouble," I'd think, and then hastily concoct a story that would make it seem like it was somebody else's fault.
So we weren't a religious family per se. We gave lip service to God but we were more concerned with the immediate problems facing us: making our lives better and hopefully getting along with the people around us. Why worry about the afterlife? We had enough trouble agreeing on what sort of ice cream to buy or who would bring my father the newspaper on Sunday morning...figuring out which God we liked best was not only pointless and impossible, but a distraction from our more immediate problems: getting along together without murdering anybody.
My belief that "life" is more important than the "afterlife" is one reason why I have trouble appreciating movies like "Meera." But beyond my inability to consider God as a serious personal concern, it's also my opinion that movies about saints are ALWAYS boring because they break some of the cardinal rules of storytelling. If you believe Krishna could beat Kali in an arm-wrestling contest -- and you feel that your opinion of the outcome should overshadow everything else in your life -- I suppose you'll think I'm a blasphemous reactionary with no taste in films. "Meera" might in fact be the most gripping and inspiring picture every made...for those who wish they had the fortitude to destroy the lives of everyone around them due to their unrequited love for an invisible superhero! In which case...hey, don't let me stop you from seeing it. I doubt I could.
The problems with "Saint" movies are twofold: first, they are made by people with a very specific set of beliefs, for people who share those beliefs. In some ways, they're like any genre film or any narrow form of entertainment. To start a long string of metaphors that will permanently disfigure this review: if you have no interest in hockey you probably won't enjoy hockey games, of course. But in sporting events there is at least some question about the outcome: who will win? Will your favourite player do something fabulous or leave in disgrace? Who threw that squid? When's the next fight?
In "Saint" movies, though, the only question about the outcome is "how many family members will suffer for the actions of the saint?" You and I know that the saint isn't going to change her mind or suffer any doubt about her future...because if she DID have any doubts she wouldn't be a saint! She's like an express train, rushing straight into the arms of her God. And if a human being is on the tracks in front of her? Smush. Saints have bloody wheels. They'll crash into stalled busses full of crying schoolchildren if it seems like the pious thing to do. Something about this strikes me as extremely selfish, but that's another rant entirely.
To further mix metaphors, you might consider saints to be the world's worst poker players: they sit stoically as their opponents raise the stakes ("We'll insult you! We'll BANISH you! We'll KILL YOU!"). The saints match the rising stakes as though they held the best hand in the game, betting everything they own. When, at the end, they proudly show that they not only had the worst hand possible but that they weren't even holding the requisite number of cards...well, who wants to play poker with a person like that? Who wants to explain to their kids that mommy lost everything in a poker game -- including the car, the house and the family pets -- and that she's actually PROUD of her actions? And who wants to watch a film starring such a hero? A masochist who sucks at gambling?
"Meera" doesn't have any crying children in it but it does combine this lack of tension with a lot of dry exposition about Indian history, usually explained by people riding horses through the forest. It also has a bland film transfer and a scale of emotion which rarely rises above "frustrated annoyance" or "general dissatisfaction." The songs are plaintive and quiet, the plot is bogged down with minutiae, and the costumes are generic, ill-fitting period pieces (especially the wigs). In short, it's a drag. It's the most tasteless meal you'll ever eat, which might be an oblique moral lesson to the viewer: if saints choose not to enjoy themselves, why should we?
"Meera" takes place during a period of history that is never given an exact date. The film was obviously made for people who already know about all the historical details...which doesn't include me, unfortunately. I could cheat and do some research before writing this review, but I like the "I don't know what the heck was going on in this movie" feeling and the lingering confusion about when it was supposed to have happened...it reminds me of Mard. Was it 800 AD? 1865? All I know is that it was before disco (or even go-go!) were invented, before kung-fu, before thermoses or Melton or gunpowder (unless those Rajputs loved their swords so much they just couldn't fight without them).
As near as I can understand you've got Akbar, the king of the Mughals, who is always feeling sorry for himself. "Why do the Indians make fun of me?" is the conqueror's endless refrain...the fact that he looks like a bloated, over-the-hill actor in a silly helmet doesn't occur to him. During Akbar's first scene we learn an important lesson in historical etiquette: there are some things you should not buy a Mughal king for his birthday! A snake charmer's Been is a bad choice, as is sandalwood apparently. I think he likes a substance called "asafoetida" but I'm unsure about that, as the subtitles were especially vague during his birthday celebration. It's best to avoid this gift unless the Mughal king in question specifically asks for it.
Annoyed by his gifts, Akbar decides he's going to act more like a Moslem and stop fitting in with his Hindu subjects. Part of his plan is to renew his fight with the rajputs. These rajputs are divided into two sword-slinging, puffy-hat-wearing groups. One group is the Sisodiya, featuring King Vikram and his wimpy brother Bhojraj. They're a little heavy-handed about law and religion in their kingdom, but they seem to be the only hope of repelling Akbar (through a balance of warfare and sending him insulting birthday presents).
But their forces are weakened because they're always fighting another group of rajputs, the "Rathods".
The king of the Rathods has at least three offspring: a hotheaded son named Jaymal, an equally fiery daughter named Krashna, and the very pensive Meera (Hema Malini), who spends her days singing songs, writing in her journal, and throwing flowers at Krisna's head. During the world's most lacklustre Holi celebration, the king of the Rathods decides to stop the petty rajput squabbles and join forces with King Vikram. Obviously just declaring a truce and trading some elephants would be far too difficult...the only way to solidify their partnership is through marriage! So who's the lucky daughter going to be?
It's Krashna of course, a spunky and somewhat bitchy girl who finds herself betrothed to King Vikram's son Bhojraj. Krashna HATES Bhojraj -- he'd threatened to kill her once for visiting his territory, after all, but you know how silly kids can be. Krashna agrees to the marriage (since her father has explained to everybody that this cool plan will really work) and she awaits her upcoming wedding with a degree of joy typical of a woman facing a forced marriage to a man she loathes.
But things don't work out for some reason. The marriage is impossible. Always thinking, Krashna's father comes up with an even better plan to rescue the faltering truce: Krashna must kill herself, and then MEERA will marry Bhojraj instead. Krashna isn't happy about this, and neither is her dad. In one of the few genuinely heart-wrenching moments in the movie Krashna accepts her weeping father's demand that she "live as Sati" and takes a poisoned ring from him. This moment is somewhat ruined when her father goes crunching away down the hallway on sandals that sound like they're filled with papadum.
As an aside, all the men in the movie have really crunchy-sounding sandals. The women, however, jingle incessantly while they walk, presumably because of their gungaroos. But this is nothing compared to the mood-shattering effect of a bunch of priests who sound like they're wearing tap shoes...the perfect way to turn a somber scene into something funny and surreal.
But in a movie like "Meera" you need all the life-affirming joy you can get. It's easy to focus on the foley-work when you don't understand what the hell is going on. This movie was subtitled in Montreal, probably by a person for whom English is a third language. I would go further and say that this person learned English by reading the labels of cans in the grocery store, which explains incomprehensible subtitle gems like "What would your condition if my dead body?" What's more, the subtitles are conveniently spaced out for extremely slow readers, a random arrangement where you see only one subtitle for every ten lines spoken.
So please excuse my ignorance regarding Krashna's need to kill herself. Frankly I'm amazed I understood as much about the movie as I did.
Being dead, Krashna steps aside and Meera dutifully becomes bride number two. If you thought the Holi celebration was a downer, wait 'til you see the wedding of a weeping bride who faints from grief and accidentally sets herself on fire.
After drying off his perpetually sweaty back, Bhojraj begins to really like Meera...though she is curiously aloof. Why isn't she excited about her marriage? Why does she spend so much time in the temple? Eventually we find out what's troubling her: she's already married! As if that weren't bad enough, her first husband is actually a motionless, three-foot-tall Gopal Krishna statue!
This could have been developed into a sort of gender-reversed "Gharwali Baharwali," wherein the Krishna statue keeps appearing whenever Bhojraj is around and Meera is always staging elaborate screwball scenes to keep her husbands in the dark, but the filmmakers decided to play it straight. Our loss! A great potentially great film was neglected, but if there's ever a sequel...
Despite height and cellular activity, how can Bhojraj possibly compare to his wife's other husband? Meera would rather go polish Krishna's flute than spend much time with anybody who actually lives and breathes. Things are further complicated by the fact that the household worships Kali and that the local priest -- a man with most impressive facial hair, followed around by a man with an equally impressive belly -- is almost as stubborn and dogmatic as Meera is.
Life quickly settles into a routine. Meera's day-planner would look something like this:
1) Smugly defy the social and religious rules of the household.
2) Wait until my husband forgives me.
3) When anybody tries to understand me and compromise with me, look wistful and say nothing.
4) Repeat steps 1-3 until nobody can stand me anymore.
Through it all, Meera's only friends are her devoted servants (Kakutam and Lalita) and a cobbler who gives her an Indian banjo. She also sings plaintive songs at the dilapidated Krishna temple, accompanied by a wild-eyed drummer who doesn't get nearly enough screen time. As the war with Akbar heats up -- killing her brother and wounding her husband -- Meera does her part for the war effort by leaving home and going on a province-wide concert tour. When she sings for King Akbar himself, though, her family decides they've had enough of her...time for step 5: the "religious court."
This "religious court" is the only real spectacle of the movie, a combination amphitheatre/dungeon where Meera is questioned by the increasingly red-faced Kali priest. She is charged with not accepting her husband's religion, taking banjos from low-caste cobblers, burning down the Krishna temple's door (the only time God seems to even acknowledge her presence), going on tour without her husband's permission, and being nice to King Akbar. As the charges are laid and the tension heats up, the court spectators look back and forth en masse as though they were at a tennis game. Silly spectators...don't they know there's only one possible ending?
Still, everybody -- once again -- is willing to forgive Meera if she'd just tone down the "I don't care about anybody but me and Krishna" stuff, but she's unwilling. "My true religion is one this world ocean" she says cryptically.
Poetry, saintly wisdom, or the last gasp of a weeping subtitler? It's the only mystery in the movie (other than the nature of Bhojraj's wound, which appears to leak pus instead of blood). A saint until the end, Meera drinks poison, radiates light on people, and disappears...leaving only her banjo behind.
Well, that's not entirely true. She also left behind a dying husband and two shattered families. You might argue that she did it all for the love of Krishna, but how can I take that into consideration? I don't believe in the guy and, judging by his lack of screen time in "Meera," he refused to show up for the filming. I'm sure the movie is meant to inspire people to strive for greater devotion to this one particular God, but...at what cost? When does faith become a liability to the human race? Why is Bhojraj's surprisingly lenient and forgiving love of his wife eclipsed by the piousness of a woman who didn't seem to care much for a single human being? If we wanted to inspire people to greater things, shouldn't we name this film "Everybody BUT Meera?"
Since I wasn't the audience that this movie was made for -- quite the opposite, actually -- I suppose I can't make a good judgement about it. Still, Meera isn't a LIKEABLE character...and she's actually less likeable than the villains! If she were doing deeds because they had some sort of observable goodness to them I would certainly find myself respecting her, but she doesn't; all her quibbling dogma is based around scripture and it has no beneficial effect on the here and now. Whether or not soldiers should be fed a vegetarian dish is not something to break up a home about...especially not when your stubborn position is based on what happened at Kurukshetra.
So at the end, when Meera drinks her poison and goes stumbling off to the Krishna temple to die, all I could think of was "good riddance." The fact that she disappears completely might be the only nice thing she ever did for anybody.