Gaja Gamini, M.F. Husain's first excursion into filmmaking, is absurd in almost every aspect, and not in the cool intellectual sense. It is just ridiculous. It's a series of laughably poor attempts at profundity, which are often embarrassing to watch. It is safe to say that were it not for the reverence attached to Husain himself, the project would never have attracted either financial backing or the high-profile stars who dupe innocents like me into enduring it. It is, as a Twitter acquaintance so concisely summarized it, senseless.
Gaja Gamini is widely described as Husain's tribute to his "muse," Madhuri Dixit. If this description gives you pause - as it does me - it's with good reason. Gaja Gamini is every bit as objectifying and regressive as it sounds when it comes to paying tribute to a woman, or to women, or to Women. It is brimming over with revoltingly pompous references to the Ageless Mystery That Is Woman and Woman's Mystical Power and other such claptrap that one associates with the sort of self-congratulatory man who says things like "I'm not a misogynist; I love women."
The titular Gaja Gamini (Madhuri Dixit), is a mysterious, flitting creature whom all men are in thrall of though none fully glimpses. She incarnates through several ages as a series of women, most of whom have this in common: Each waits alone on her conceptual pedestal for an arrant man to come to her and be inspired by her beauty to create their own masterworks. One incarnation, Shakuntala, is the muse of the epic poet Kalidas (Mohan Agashe, a co-producer of the film credited here as Dr Mohan Agashe as if his academic credentials bolster the thin tissue of Husain's wanky fantasy). Shakuntala's decidedly unworthy mate is a doltish, Jodhpur-wearing, banduk-toting rajkumar. In another incarnation, Gaja Gamini is Mona Lisa, who is, of course, the inspiration of Leonardo Da Vinci, embodied here by Naseeruddin Shah - you read that right - in a stupid costume coughing up even stupider lines while waving his compensatory paintbrush in the air.
The supposedly modern incarnation of Gaja Gamini, Monica (note the western name), enjoys a light romantic dance with Shah Rukh Khan before the important manly work of covering a war (he is a photojournalist) wrenches him from her arms, leaving her teary and anxious. This is M.F. Husain's great vision of the timeless power of woman - the endless ability to sit around on our asses crying while our men create art, science, culture, and shape the world.
In some kind of token nod to feminist themes, one incarnation of Gaja Gamini, Sangeeta, inspires a group of village women including Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, and Shilpa Shirodkar, to take up their lanterns and march against - well, against what it is not clear, but their march is stern and angry and they wield their lanterns fiercely. But even this powerful Sangeeta is debilitated; she is sometimes blind, sometimes mute, and each of the other women transforms into her, ensuring that none of them is whole either. And even Sangeeta waits for the rescuing hand of her ageless lover Jayant. Feh.
There is plenty more; the vapidity of Husain's vision is nearly boundless, and Gaja Gamini indulges it to the fullest in over two hours of excruciatingly scripted, stiffly acted nonsense. You might think that a movie conceived and executed by an artist of Husain's stature would at least have visual appeal, but not so Gaja Gamini. The sets are, I suppose, meant to be theatrical, minimalist, and evocative, but for the most part they come across as amateurish and low budget. The film's early sequences take place on an abstracted, primary yellow Banaras ghat that looks more like the hastily hammered and painted set of a high school play than that of a high-concept art film. The Monica and Shah Rukh sequence occurs on a set bisected by a large brick wall (one side represents the past and tradition, the other the present and modernity, get it?) - and when Shah Rukh Khan's choregraphy requires him to lean against it, it shudders and sways, belying the papier-mâché beneath its brick facade. Only the blue-and-white Dal Mandi set on which the women's march occurs is anything close to evocative. One just expects more from such a revered visual artist as Husain.
I have been to Banaras, and you, sir, are no Banaras.
Prancing about on these poor, pliant theatrical sets, the array of actors comport themselves woodenly and self-consciously; the experienced stars gracing this cast are as forced and ridiculous as Husain's unknowns. There is nothing wrong with highly stylized direction when the style serves a purpose, but here it only lends pomposity, a sense that someone (well, Husain) believes these characters have such profound philosophical insights to deliver that they must speak them in the patronizing tones of a small child's religious teacher. It compounds embarrassment upon painful embarrassment, in an utter disaster of a movie that is more pointless than profound.
If Gaja Gamini has a redeeming feature, it is Madhuri herself. How many movies can one say this of? If there is any actor who can make the unwatchable bearable for a moment with a dazzling smile or a crisply executed mudra, it is Madhuri Dixit. Thankfully, here she is as radiant as ever. M.F. Husain's tribute to her may be objectifying bakhwas with a camera that dwells embarrassingly languidly on the exaggerated sway of Gaja Gamini's ass, but you can't say Madhuri is not a worthy choice of muse. She is at her best, of course, in the movie's songs, which are by far its highlights. Bhupen Hazarika's music is quite lovely throughout, and the songs are smartly (if weirdly) choreographed. Indeed, I had seen two of the songs years ago, "Meri payal bole" and "Do sadiyan ke sangam," and rather wish I had left it at that.