The power of water and waste of love
Fire has repeatedly committed strange and epochal damage on film. I am thinking of the various apocalyptic Hollywood films, including the images of superheroes saving distraught women from the tops of towers of corporate domination on the occasion of big fires. The Abhishek Kapoor film Kedarnath (2018) takes the more peaceful element – water – onto the role of make-and-mar. Water emerges, to the best of my knowledge, on film generally as a calming device. An element that establishes flow and connection between entities embedded in land. Titanic is a film of fairly recent times that showed the fearsome and devastating power of water. There is something quite quite frightening about the peaceful element turning violent. It’s like one can risk being on the bad books of the bad cop parent. But one doesn’t want to risk being in the bad books of the good parent – the parent that usually plays the role of the kind and nourishing one.
So, in the recent Bollywood film Kedarnath, based on a Hindu-Muslim love story in the crannies of the Himalayan home for the Hindu god Shiva, we see human conflict dissolve into nothingness as the wrath of water comes forth to engulf a whole landscape. This is a landscape that is quickly commercialising the tourist potential of the Hindu pilgrimage that treks up to the Kedarnath shrine up in the mountains. The ecological pressure and cost of land speculation and commericialization on these mountainous landscapes, is huge. The human players – even the cunning ones looking to make neat cuts while exploiting natural beauty and religion – are unable to calculate the exact price of their quick moves.
Mukku the girl played by Sara Ali Khan, takes for granted her class and caste location (being the rebellious younger daughter of a pundit household) as she romances the mule-handler -pithho – Muslim boy, Mansoor, played by Sushant Singh Rajput, whose job it is to take Hindu pilgrims up the mountainous path to the deity of their devotional choice. In the process, Mansoor is turned into a subject who is abject in love and occupation. He cannot make the first move – or any strong move – in this romance. His shyness and economy are perhaps not a matter of choice – he must be invisible in order to survive. He cannot announce his alternate faith with the confidence with which the entrepreneurial Hindu subjects all around him announce theirs. He is punished for audibly interrogating the tarakki-pragati-vyapar-seva (progress-business-service) complex that is being dramatized on these settlements becoming ecologically fragile in the crevices of the angry mountains. Mukku watches in a show of quiet dissident strength as her lover is beaten mercilessly by the hangers-on of her powerful Hindu fiancé. I am more drawn to her quiet, almost cruel act of witnessing this act of violence, as compared to her loud act of trying to commit suicide when she is forcibly married. In all of this, she has some measurable breathing space of voice and agency. Her rebellion, her anguish, the confidence of her close-set eyes, her tightly stitched shalwar-kurtas – all of it matters, even if they are mercilessly attacked and silenced. She gets to be cute and angry because of the economic and social power that upper-caste Hindu location brings for her! Mansoor, has none of that. His pride trampled upon, his love silent, his anger irrelevant, his signature only upon his beaten, wasted body. Love seems a wasted emotion in a landscape so heavily laden with ethnocentric domination. Any possibility of love here will be crafted in one person’s cry of powerful location, even if rebellious, and the other person’s abject silence. It is a story of the wasted role of love in the landscape of power – not at all of love jihad or variations thereof.
I am unconvinced by the flood-related special effects of the film, but I appreciate the visual ambition. The film takes a dramatic turn in the second half as waters of the river systems of Mandakini rise up to engulf human built environment, dissolve large tracts of land and generate major casualties. This angle depicts the real-life event of floods in the region in 2013. But the depiction of this mammoth act of water-led destruction is drawn out in visual special effects - a canvas of lavish dystopic fantasy wraps the film in its last leg. The film turns petty human conflict and small stories of human attachment as nothing that dissolve into wharves of water in the final apocalyptic event. The film leaves our loves and hates and afternoon pop-corn-quarrels feeling small – really really minute and insignificant. In many ways, this film is about human nothingness. It importantly reminds us that in the final act, we won’t matter.