Retrograde. Bamboozlement! More Bamboozlement!

Nagamandala,1996






The Wife (Vijayalakshmi)
A wife tries to win the love of her husband back from the 'other' woman using a magic potion but unknowingly ends up seducing a Cobra who fathers her child.

The original story comes from Kannada folk tale. The story was recounted by A. K. Ramanujan to
Girish Karnad who went on to write a play based on the tale (in 1988). Less than a decade later a film was made on the story.
There are many points of divergence between the play and the film. Karnad's Nagamandala starts with another Kannada folktale, a playwright cursed with death for making people fall asleep with his productions. To escape death he has to stay awake all-night on a particular day of the month and to help him stay awake 'story' comes. This is the story of a Cobra who falls in love with a woman.




The blind old woman (B. Jayashree in a wonderful performance)
Appanna marries Rani but actually loves his mistress. When he goes out to meet with his mistress, Appanna keeps Rani locked inside the house. Initially Rani doesn't know anything about his affair. When Rani questions him, he offers no answers but just a set of rules - do not talk to other people and such. Rani gets to know about the affair from an old-blind village women who befriends her. Dejected, Rani pines for the love of her husband. This old woman offers Rani a love potion to to help her entice Appanna. When Rani adds a little too much of this magical potion, love-herbs, to curry that she planned to feed Appanna, its color changes to red, afraid that she might poison her husband she throws away the curry in a nearby anthill. This anthill happens to be home of a Cobra who consumes this potion-cured curry and smitten by Rani, follows her to her house and to her bed. On seeing a snake on her bed Rani screams and runs around with fear. Cobra goes out and changes form to Appanna and knocks on Rani's door. Rani opens the door and is delighted to see husband. A very changed husband. A loving husband. They spend the night together. In the morning, she is surprised to find the same old uncaring husband. Next night the Cobra,who is completely possessed by Rani, again arrives in the form of Appanna. Although he loves Rani, he too enforces few rules of his own upon Rani - she is not to follow him out of the house after he leaves and such. Rani complies, Rani has now found happiness even if the days with husband are still the same, she awaits the nights, she suspects nothing.

Soon enough she finds herself pregnant. Appanna gets violently furious at her when she happily breaks the news to her. He claims he never touched her so how could he be the father. Rani is surprised and shocked at her husbands behavior. She swears he is the father. To settle the matter a session of village council is orders. At night Cobra in the form of Appanna visits Rani who is still in a state of bewilderment and finally a bit of anger. But the night ends with Rani's situation hitting a new strange note: At night her husband now offers a solutions, he advises her to go for the "hand-in-the-anthill" test to prove her innocence.

The Cobra test of a Pativrata
Next day the village council asks her to prove her chastity and 'husband-love' by touching a pair of hot iron bars. The village crowd that has ascended to watch the proceeding isn't very pleased with the suggestion of this test, they demand something better. There is uproar. Rani looks at her husband for support. The husband has come to the meet only yo watch her suffer. Rani offers to undergo the "hand-in-the-anthill" test. That pleases the crowd. This is sure death. Anthill is the abode of snake lord, the divine judge in such cases. Only an innocent can survive this test. Rani puts her hand in the anthill and brings out the Cobra in her hand. The is shocked and goes down on his knees. Rani proclaims she never touched any 'other' person expect her husband and this snakes. The snakes couldn't agree more. If it was a snake's god given duty to bite and kill a lier who takes a 'hand-in-the-anthill' test, in this particular scenario even snake's Dharam was saved.



The Snake and The Husband (Prakash Rai)
After that divine approval, villages proclaim Rani to be a great woman of honor and celebrate her feat by carrying her around on their shoulders. Appanna is still not convinced. How could he be? He knows what he has done and what he has not done. And he knows he is not the father of the child growing inside Rani. But now, after Rani's miraculous feat, even Appanna's mistress doesn't believe him. Her sympathies now lie with Rani. Appanna heads for his home, he has lost his mistress. That night Rani again asks her good husband why is he playing these games with her. Cobra offers her no convincing answers, but he has a lot to tell. Appanna enters the house, and realizes his wife is talking to someone. Hoping to finally catch the man, he tries to sneak upto them. Sensing Appanna's presence, making an excuse to Rani, Cobra flees the house. Appanna notices the snake leaving the house and finally pieces together the puzzle. Didn't she claim she never touch any 'other' except her husband and the snake. Appanna follows the Cobra to the anthill and watches it transform into him. He questions this being. The Cobra explains the scenario to him and tells him how much he loves Rani. This stirs the nascent husbandly love and maybe some simple notes of jealously inside Appanna. He challenges the Cobra for a fight. Cobra overpowers Appanna but on trying to bite him realizes all his poison is gone, he tells Appanna that all of his poison was destroyed by Rani's love. Saying this Cobra walks away, only to be waylaid by Appanna who is still burning in angry and wants revenge to salvage his honor.

The Mistress (Vanita Vasu)
That play by Karnad ends with the Cobra getting to live in the long dark tresses of the wife, protected by her as she now knows the true story, but the film ends with the husband burning the Cobra alive, him somehow in himself discovering the love for his wife and love for child of a snake, and the wife never knowing the truth. In the play the husband learns the truth and then learns to live with it. The play presents some thought provoking ideas, is the story of a woman who loves back  a Cobra, it about a husband who finds a way to live with it believing a story, but director T. S. Nagabharana's film, in its desire for simple, offered only some good performances and some nice music and a big masala ending that turns the contextual meaning of the story of its head. Still the film does have its interesting moments. In a early scene, villages notice a Cobra leaving Appanna's house and chase it to the anthill and try to kill it with bamboo sticks (one wonders if it was okay for a farm based society to kill one of its chief deity). It somehow escapes and reaches Rani's place in Appanna's form all bruised and battered. Meanwhile, at his mistress's place, Appanna is tormented by the thoughts that something has changed about his wife. We watch the a nursing the wounds of an injured Cobra and we watch a mistress comforting her sad lover.

4 comments:

  1. In this film too snake's presence is announced with the sound of been.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Vinayak.. this story is very much similar to Preity Zinta starrer Heaven on Earth.
    Looks like the film makers were inspired by this actual folk lore.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven_on_Earth_%28film%29

    ReplyDelete
  3. You are right about that. The theme is in fact even a bit similar to the folktale from Rajasthan on which Mani Kaul's Duvidha and Amol Palekar's Paheli were based.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yeah you're right.

    ReplyDelete

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