My Year of Prakash Raj

Some people spend a year
cooking Julia Child's recipes, or following all of the rules in the Bible, or reading books by people who spent a year doing something. My quest is to watch the 200-some films of South Indian character-actor-extraordinaire, Prakash Raj. (It'll probably take more than a year... and I'll post about some Prakash-less films here as well.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Nagamandala (Nag Panchami Film Fessssstival)

The Kannada film entry for the film fessstival is Nagamandala, 1997, which is an adaptation of the play by Girish Karnad.
This is the film that inspired the Nag Panchami Film Festival, since it combines two the things that I've been obsessed with: Prakash Raj and snakes! I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and it ended up leading me down some fairly intellectual paths. (Which I plan to make up for with some write-ups of a few more cheese-tastic snake films.)

The Story:
The film begins with a scene of magical lamps floating around, lighting one another, and presumably singing the song. It did a nice job of setting a magical tone, and is an interesting, visual adaptation of the framing devices of the play (see more notes about this later.)
We then meet Rani, a young village girl played by Vijayalakshmi, preparing for her wedding and interacting with her family and friends. Next we meet her groom, Appanna (played by Prakash Raj) as he works out at the local wrestling gym, and walks through his cobwebby home. We also meet the an old blind woman and her son who will prove important in the story.
Rani and Appanna get married,

but their first night does not go well, when Rani is frightened by Appanna's advances, and when they return to his village, he goes back to his mistress.

(For a long time, this video, titled "Sexiest scene ever-prakashraj enjoying vanitu vasu to the core" was the only evidence of the film I could find on youtube. It is fairly sexy, but did not feature any snakes.)

Appanna locks Rani in the house, but she is still able to talk to the blind woman through the window, who offers her a love potion. Rani cooks the potion in her husband's milk, but burns it/chickens out at the last minute and pours it out on the anthill near the house. Living in the anthill is the Naga, snake king, who drinks the milk and becomes infatuated with Rani. I thought it was interesting that the Naga was motivated by love, rather than revenge, and was essentially "tricked" by human action. At night he slithers in through the window and onto Rani's bed

Rani locks herself in another room, and the snake changes into the human form of Rani's husband, and remembers at the last minute to change his light-colored snakey eyes to dark-colored human ones.
He knocks on the door, Rani opens it, and he reassures her about her scary encounter with the snake, and proceeds to woo her:
The next night, when the husband leaves, the Naga returns for more sexy times:
I like how "slithery" Prakash Raj's body language is in this scene.

When Appanna comes home the next morning, he realizes that Rani has been sleeping with someone, yet seems really happy too see him. Appanna has a watchman guard the entrance to the house, but when the watchman tries to break in on the lovers, the Naga goes out, turns into a snake and kills him. The next night Appanna and his friends try to flush out the snake, who slithers back into the house, where Rani nurses his injuries. Appanna hasn't figured out that the snake that killed the watchman and the guy with his wife are the same. Rani still doesn't know that he's a snake, but she does know that she's pregnant and tells the Naga. Word gets back to Appanna that his wife is pregnant, and he drags her out in front of the village council to accuse her of adultery. She sticks her hand in the snake burrow, holds up the Naga, and swears that she has never touched any male other than her husband and the snake in the burrow.
 (The snake is moving in this scene, so it's clear she's holding a live snake.)  

The villagers hail Rani as a Devi, and the mistress kicks Appanna out and he finally returns home for a night. He sees Rani arguing. He doesn't see who she's arguing with, but he does see the snake slithering out.
He follows the snake to the anthill, and the Naga changes into it's human form. They argue and have an epic fight:
The Naga (loose-haired Prakash) defeats Appanna (ponytail Prakash) but decides to let him go, at which point Appanna kills him. I suspect that the dialogue here is important to the story--I've actually ordered the play, and I'm looking forward to finding out what is said.

Appanna returns to Rani, changed into a loving husband, and the scene closes with the floating lamps putting themselves out.

More thoughts:
My main takeaway from the film is that now I really want to read (and see) the play, especially since so few Indian films are adapted from books or plays.

-according to this article ("Mythical Structures in Girish Karnad's Naga-Mandala") the lamps are actually just one of four layers of narrative structure, and the play includes some ongoing dialogue between the "playwright", the lamps, and a female storyteller.

-another article that I read, "Feminism in Girish Karnads Nagamandala" talks about female agency in the play. I'm intrigued about whether Rani really has agency, since she seems to think that she's with her husband the whole time. In other takes on a similar theme (Paheli, Le Retour de Martin Guerre), if I recall correctly, there was at least one scene where it was implied that the wife knew about, and was choosing the imposter husband.

-A search for Nagamandala turns up several hits for recent productions in the US (Shunya Theater, Houston and Rogue Theatre in Tuscon.) The most recent was the University of Southern California Theater School, which may have been in conjunction with Girish Karnad receiving an honorary doctorate.
More pictures here.
-I'd love to see how they stage the love scenes in the play. In the film, they were pretty sensual and explicit (This month I've seen at least three films with Prakash Raj in a lover role, and this one is by far his sexiest role, what with romancing two women.)

-I'd also love to see how they do the snake in the play. The film had some top notch snake wrangling, and the snakes looked good, were pretty active and were used in a lot of different settings as the Naga changed forms.

Here are some photos from the USC production and a production in Tuscon:

-Girish Karnad is a pretty interesting person. He writes plays. He directed Utsav. He was recently in Life Goes On, opposite Sharmila Tagore. He gives very thoughtful interviews and advice for engineering students.


  1. Interesting review Liz! Indian rural areas are rife with superstitions and this forms a base for many many movies in Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam movies, and it still runs. My mother's extended family still has snake grove where they conduct yearly 7-day festival and it is a very interesting function with a lot of rangoli (colourful drawings) and rituals. But my rational mind never allows me to go into the depths of its symbolism. :(

  2. This sounds like an interesting film Liz. But I have an important question.

    Is there a snake dance?

  3. @Sastha Prakash That's so interesting about the snake grove. I'm fascinated by the ways that Indian cobras seem to be semi-domesticated. Would love to see the festivals first-hand someday.

    @Anonymous- alas, there were no snake dances in this film. Most of the dances are Vijayalakshmi dancing in the house, forest, etc or there are songs which are the background for the love scenes. It's sort of a shame that there isn't a snake dance, because Prakash Raj can dance.

  4. Outside of being totally intrigued by the idea of Prakash Sexy in a movie, I am amazed at how identical the second part of this film is with Deepa Mehta's Videsh (or Heaven on Earth), down to the smallest details. I thoroughly dislike Deepa Mehta's films, and hated many things about that particular movie but I did really enjoy the mythical side (basically the whole snake story part of it). Thank you for showing me it wasn't actually her that came up with it, that way I can continue to appreciate that side of the story without being unfaithful to my hate for DM :P

    This sounds like a good one to watch. Unlike my Punnami Nagu (with Mumaith Khan) which I was going to review for Nag Panchami FF but deemed it so bad that I cannot inflict it upon others. :(

  5. I have nothing constructive to offer except OMG I WANT TO SEE THIS and Prakash Sexy is now my favourite Prakash. If that's wrong, I don't want to be right.

  6. Oh man, a Paheli-y snake movie by the guy with writing credits for Bhumika, Utsav, and KALYUG?!?!? SIGN ME UP!!!!

    I'm so excited for you that you found a snake film that also stars your favorite! If I could find a Shashi Kapoor or Vinod Khanna snake film.... Fortunately Rekha has provided at least two, so I shouldn't get greedy.

  7. @Dolce and Namak: I didn't realize that there was another film adaptation of this story, now I'll definitely check out Videsh. It's so interesting to me how different authors/directors frame the traditional tale. It's true that Punnami Naagu w/Mumaith probably doesn't merit a full post, but perhaps a few pictures of your favorite Mumaith moments?

    @Ness:I know, Prakash Sexy is quite impressive, especially when you consider how rare love scenes were/are.

    @Beth- for all of the great films of the 1970's, it does seem to be a dry period for masala snake films. (Also, do watch the Girish Karnad interview, he's pretty awesome.)

  8. Hm... I may take you up on that one Liz. There can never be too many screencaps of the supersexy Mumaith Khan, so I might do a quick one with plenty of warnings for people to NOT watch the movie :)


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