This expansive, ambitious film by Shyam Benegal maps ancient parables of the Mahabharat onto a modern story of corporate and familial warfare. With an enormous, gifted cast and Benegal's gift for storytelling, Kalyug is a compelling movie indeed.
The scions of a great family are at war. The two branches of the family, Puranchand and Khubchand, celebrate life cycle events together - but the engineering firms run by each are bitter rivals in the marketplace. The Puranchand company is led by Dharamraj (Raj Babbar), with the help of his younger brothers Balraj (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Bharatraj (Anant Nag). At the helm of the Khubchand company is their cousin Dhanraj (Victor Banerjee) and a close associate of the family, Karan Singh (Shashi Kapoor). The two companies compete fiercely for lucrative government contracts. The Khubchand company wins a tender due to high-tech machinery that Karan Singh procured. The Puranchand company appeals the grant and succeeds in wresting back the contract. The dispute escalates, driven by Bharatraj and Dhanraj, who take the rivalry most seriously - and most personally. Karan Singh's manipulations on behalf of the Khubchand company incite labor infighting in the Puranchand shop, through the volatile labor leader Pandey (Om Puri). Karan and Dhanraj even scheme to frame the Puranchand company on charges of insurance fraud. Soon the rivalry turns violent, and both sides of the family are caught in a terrible storm of bitterness and grieving.
What makes Kalyug a wonderful film is Shyam Benegal's gift for telling intense stories that are very intimate, even while being totally allegorical. The dramatis personae of Kalyug is packed with many players, most of whom do not get more than a few minutes screentime. But each is so delicately characterized, and the movie conveys enough of their lives and personalities, that they remain distinct, and the anger and anguish of each is keenly felt as the internecine conflict grows. The older generation grieves to see their children warring with each other; the Puranchand matriarch Savitri (Sushma Seth) is especially troubled, and the pain is written on her face and in her futile pleas to her sons and nephews to reconcile. Bheeshanchand (A.K. Hangal), uncle to both sides of the family, is perplexed by the battle; though he works for the Khubchand company, he carelessly reveals confidential information to the Puranchand side, throwing gasoline on the flames. Khubchand himself (Vinod Doshi), wheelchair-bound and ailing, can do little more than watch, tragically helpless as his family disintegrates around him.
The tensions take their toll on the younger generations as well. The older Puranchand brothers do not share Bharat's intense focus on the business. Dharamraj only wants to watch his race horses train, and takes a "jo bhi ho so ho" attitude toward losing the contract to Khubchand company, to Bharat's great frustration. Balraj is a cheerful fellow, more interested in his still-steamy relationship with his wife Kiran (Reema Lagoo) than in anything to do with tenders and profits. The tenderness with which their relationship is portrayed early in the film makes it that much more heartrending when the escalating rivalry hits them personally. And perhaps most compelling of all is the stark contrast between Dhanraj's response to the escalation, and Karan Singh's. Dhanraj begins the film an intense personality, and he only becomes darker, more brooding, and more raging as the battles wear on. Karan Singh enters as a cool manipulator, driven only by profits - but comes to find himself seeking redemption, and holding a more personal stake than he ever imagined.
Kalyug's atmosphere and visuals, too, are remarkably rich and interesting. Providing a constant backdrop are the quotidian pleasures of wealthy life; horse racing, badminton games, golf. Karan Singh returns to his richly appointed bachelor pad after a long day's work to pour himself a glass of scotch from a crystal decanter and listen to Bach. Scenes of family meals and gatherings add texture, conveying both the tendernesses and the tensions among the many members of the extended families. Juxtaposed with these are engaging shots of the working factory; heavy machinery manipulating flaming iron pigs and clanging out the companies' unspecified, weighty products.
Despite all this delicate storytelling, though, I can't help feeling that there is still a great deal of shorthand built into the film, on the assumption that its viewers are intimately familiar with the Mahabharat. The movie opens with a family tree that neatly sets forth the relationships among characters. My guess is that viewers are meant to map the Puranchand and Khubchand relationships directly onto the Pandavas and Kauravas of that epic - and that without that knowledge, I am missing even more depth and richness in the film. To highlight just one example, Dharamraj's wife Supriya (Rekha) says little but hovers dark and glaring through many scenes, and I feel I would understand her better if I knew where her character fits into the mythological structure. Some day I would like to return to Kalyug with the Mahabharat under my belt. The movie's complexity rewards repeat viewing, and I imagine I would get even more out of it with a better understanding of its antecedents.
I don't often provide lots of screen captures in my reviews, but Kalyug's cast is so large and magnificent that I don't want to give them all short shrift, so here is an additional selection - click the thumbnails for a larger view.
Another cousin, Kishanchand (Amrish Puri), and Bharatraj
Most of the greater family - Karan Singh, Kishanchand, Balraj, Kiran, Dhanraj's wife Vibha (Rajshri Sarabhai), Dharamraj, his son Parikshit (Urmila Matondkar plays the little boy), Supriya, Balraj's son Sunil (Sunil Shanbag), Subhadra, the youngest Khubchand brother Sandeep, Bharatraj, and Dhanraj