Sunday, July 13, 2008
Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and is twice as wise as all of them put together.
The city of Banaras (or Varanasi) is an ancient city located on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Religiously important to Hindus, Jains & Buddhists it is also revered culturally by classical musicians as Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia & Bismillah Khan all call it home. Indeed, none other than the Buddha himself gave his first sermon in a forest at Sarnath (located about 5 miles from Banaras). Varanasi has been called "the city of temples", "the city of lights", "the city of learning" and last but not least it is thought to be the birthplace of Ayurveda. A city this rich culturally would be reason enough to film a movie there but add in the fact that it is stunningly picturesque and there you have it - a perfect backdrop to a movie about, well, itself.
Banaras tells the tale of Shwetambari (Urmila Matondkar), the sole daughter of wealthy Brahmin parents (Raj Babbar & Dimple Kapadia) who falls in love with Soham (Ashmit Patel), a music teacher from a lower caste family. The story is a very different one than your standard Bollywood fare and makes frequent references to Eastern philosophies in the context of a hypocritical society that cannot look past the exterior of a person. The performances are all strong with Urmila giving a rich portrayal of a woman with all the luxuries of modern life but craving that inner peace that we all find so elusive. Why she does not work more in Indian cinema is a mystery to me as she looks just as stunning as she did in her breakout 'Rangeela' plus her acting has just gotten better over time. Raj Babbar & Dimple Kapadia also provide old school Bollywood star power as Urmila's (over) protective parents. I haven't seen Ashmit Patel (Soham) in a movie before or since but he handles his role with the maturity of an accomplished actor. Nasureedin Shah makes a guest appearance as well and his presence in ANY movie just makes it that much better. But my favorite thing about this movie?
More than anything else, the cinematography was simply a labor of love to the city of Banaras and in the first few minutes I was spellbound by what I was seeing. My wife often says that it's impossible to take a bad photograph in India because everything there is such a visual treat - this movie takes that idea to another level. The colors throughout the movie, from the sumptuous outfits to the buildings & temples lining the Ganges were so deep and rich that all I kept thinking while I was watching was - I couldn't wait to go there on my next trip. Of course that happens whenever I watch an Indian movie but such is life. I would go as far to say that you could watch this movie without subtitles and still enjoy it, the visual mural of it all mixed in with the musical score and Bhojpuri (dialect of Hindi) dialogue all work that well together.
The song for today is Purab Se, a rare bhajan (Hindu devotional hymn) in recent Bollywood movies sung by Shreya Goshel. I fell in love with the song when I first heard it and that was before I saw it picturised in the movie. The video is below and I encourage everyone to take a moment out of their hectic day, find a quiet place and be transported to a faraway place - the mystical city of Banaras.