And yet Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) is brilliant, in its own unique way. It is the essence of RK Cinema - a rich, layered saga with mythological, political and social commentary elements all blended together to create a true epic. Yes, I can overlook the gratuitous skin show that earned Raj Kapoor the sarcastic re-imagining of his title as the greatest 'SHOW' man of Indian cinema. Because Ram Teri Ganga Maili is a film that tries its darndest to remind us all to be better human beings.
The story opens with a political rally to promote environmental efforts to cleanse the holy river Ganges. Calcutta-based party leader Chaudhary (Raza Murad) urges the crowd to honor the Ganges and fight against pollution -- perfectly in line with the real-life initiative by Rajiv Gandhi, the notorious 'Ganga Action Plan' that began in 1985. However it is revealed that Chaudhary is simply using the hot issue to gain power, and he's really in cahoots with shameless polluter and business tycoon Sahai (Kulbhushan Karbandha).
Sahai's son Naren (Rajeev 'Chimpoo' Kapoor) is an idealistic young admirer of Vivekananda. He resists his father's "screw the little people" ways and longs for a more righteous and fulfilling life. His family, including his RIDICULOUSLY BEAUTIFUL AND YOUNG LOOKING grandmother (Sushma Seth), want him to marry Chaudhary's daughter Radha (Divya Rana). Though Naren has a comfortable, albeit slightly imbalanced friendship with Radha, his heart isn't in the union. And when he finds out how corrupt his father and Chaudhary are (by eavesdropping, naughty naughty!), he feels a need to cleanse himself of his father's sins.
He asks to go on a school trip to Gangotri to visit the source of the Ganges, and though his father refuses, eventually his grandmother and off-beat, notorious and slightly shady uncle (Saeed Jaffrey) help him convince his parents to let him go. Before he leaves, the grandmother requests that he bring back the sacred water in a small silver jug for her so that she can purify herself. The uncle also gives him some parting gifts ... a Raj Kapoor costume!
In Gangotri, he encounters an innocent, beautiful maiden named (da da daaaaa!) Ganga (Mandakini) who immediately captures his heart with her giggles, wit and strange habit of cupping her cheek with her hand. I mean really, who does that? Ganga too is smitten by this young, handsome and equally innocent youth. It is a simple formula for them to fall in love ... guy saves girl from bad guy + girl sings a siren song while INFAMOUSLY bathing in a waterfall wearing
Lucky for them that local customs dictate during the convenient full moon festival the girls can choose their husbands. Ganga publicly chooses Naren in my absolute favorite song from this film, Sun Saiba Sun. The local loser she rejected is furious and tries to demand that she is rightfully his, but Ganga's brother Karan Singh immediately defends his sister's choice and fights off local loser and his band of goons. As Naren and Ganga consumate their 'union' (Another shocker! Love scene! And I got a bit squirmy watching it even now ... can't imagine how I reacted at age 8), Karan Singh gets to dishoom-dishoom with the goons, and loses his life in the scuffle.
Now of course this was still 1985 and so obviously that one steamy 'union' will result in a child, but first, Naren must head back to Calcutta. He promises to get his grandmother's blessings and return to Gangotri to bring Ganga back to his home as his bride. Both are unaware that Ganga is now completely alone, as her brother died defending her and Naren's pow-chick-pow-pow time.
When Naren arrives back in Calcutta, the preparations are all underway for his engagement to Radha. Stricken, Naren takes his grandmother aside to tell her that he's already in love with Ganga and has married her. Of course, in classic overdramatic Maa style, the grandmother immediately collapses with a heart attack. Naren is besides himself with guilt, grief and fear. She wakes up briefly to tell him to bring her 'bahu' Ganga to her, and then expires. Papa Sahai totally freaks out, and beats the crap out of Naren saying that he did something to kill her. Heartbroken but determined to fulfill his grandmother's wishes and his promise to Ganga, Naren tries to run away to Gangotri. Papa Sahai employs his industrialist power and Chaudhary give his political power to have the police apprehend Naren and lock him up until his marriage to Radha.
Time passes swiftly as Naren is kept a prisoner (you'd think they'd rush the wedding, but they decide to wait a convenient nine months or so), and Ganga gives birth to a baby boy (because we HAVE to justify their 'union' with both consequences and redemption - a boy child! An heir!). Ganga's only support system is a mountain neighbor woman and the sweet old postman. The postman had brought her an old letter addressed to Naren many months earlier. The letter was written by Radha and details their engagement plans. When he fails to return after the birth of her child, Ganga reads the letter and assumes that Naren has abandoned her for Radha. Despite her heartbreak, she decides that she must go to him in Calcutta to deliver "his" son to him (the film continually refers to the child as "his" child, which is annoying). And go Ganga embarks on a perilous journey, from the pure source in Gangotri, and follows the path of the Ganges River all the way to the polluted banks of Calcutta.
Ganga's journey, like that of the actual Ganges River, is filled with the pollution of society - corrupt people that prey on the innocent and selfish people that turn their backs on those in need. A poor woman holding a baby tries to trap Ganga into a life of prostitution, a sleazy priest tries to attack her, and a man pretending to be blind tries to trick her into life as a courtesan. Everywhere she goes, her pleas for help are futile. Like the River Ganges, the sweet, pure Ganga is tainted more and more by the selfishness and greed of her fellow man.
Naren also sends his uncle to search for Ganga, and he unfortunately is unable to locate her. Naren's mother pleads with the uncle to convince Naren to marry Radha, and he finally tells Naren that she perished and he must move on. Meanwhile Ganga is trapped at a high-end home for courtesans and forced to sing and dance for wealthy men. Ganga fights back the best way she can, with an acid tongue, sarcasm, wit and fiery glares. She captures the notice of none other than Choudhary, who immediately purchases her with plans to "share" her with Papa Sahai as soon as his daughter Radha is married off.
Naren's uncle happens to be a regular customer of courtesans (this is the source of his notoriety), and comes across Ganga at the Calcutta home Choudhary has installed her in. When he realizes that she is the very same Ganga Naren continues to pine for, and that she has "his" child with her, he sets off to fix everything. Ganga is brought to perform at Naren and Radha's wedding, where the truth is revealed and Ganga attempts to leave her child in Naren and Radha's hands and escape. Ultimately Naren must step forward, throw off his weak, ineffectual tendencies and stand up for the woman he loves and against the corruption of his family.
This film is terribly complicated and tragic. The story itself is laden with mythological references and themes. This beautifully written analysis of the film by Professor Philip Lutendorf of the University of Iowa film department suggested that the story is inspired by the ancient tale of Shakuntala -- the story of the daughter of the Apsara Menaka, raised in a hermitage by the Sage Kanwa. Shakuntala falls deeply in love with the brave King Dushyanta and marries him in the moonlight according to ancient customs, only to have him completely forget her existence because of a curse. Eventually they are reunited and their child, the Prince Bharata, is named heir to the throne.
Though I'm extremely familiar with the story of Shakuntala (having played the role of a forest animal in a Bharatanatyam dance drama created for Canadian Television back in 1986, and then doing the title role of 'Shakuntala' as part of a Srimad Bhagvatam dance drama in 1992 ... not to mention obsessively reading the Amar Chitra Katha version over and over), I would have never connected it to Ram Teri Ganga Maili. But strangely, it DOES make sense. Even the imagery of the beautiful young maiden dressed simply in white garments seems to fit with both stories!
That particular image - the maiden dressed in sheer white garments -- has become an iconic image that represents RK Films from Satyam Shivam Sundaram onwards. The innocent, white-clad female, pure and vulnerable and yet completely free and bold. Yes it disturbs me and I do feel that it was exploitative and overly graphic, but also beautiful and artistic in a way. The controversy surrounding Mandakini's famous waterfall scene surrounded Raj Kapoor's ability to get away with things that should clearly have been censored. When it comes to this scene, I always think in my head that it was blown out of proportion and perhaps people just sensationalized it. But then I watched the movie again and was truly flabbergasted. I mean, really. There wasn't a need to push the envelope THAT far ... it is disturbing to see THAT much. No matter how "artistically" it was done, there's no need to showcase nipples so blatantly in a Hindi movie. But does it ruin the movie? No. Boobs definitely seem to be the obsession with this movie though - there are a number of notorious breastfeeding scenes as well. Those don't bother me as much because it's just such a normal part of life with a baby. I suppose what's disturbing is that people have the capacity to be titillated by it.
But to focus on those things is to miss the socio-political messages and elements of fantasy/mythology. Here we have the physical journey of a young woman and the corruption and abuse she faces mirroring the actual descent of the Ganges River from its pure and pristine source in the mountains down to it's most polluted locations in Varanasi and Calcutta.
There's also a wonderfully complicated cast of characters. Again we see a set of wealthy, selfish parents ... seems to be a theme with Raj Kapoor. Daddy issues? Here the father is corrupt and vicious, but he also seems to have some Mommy issues himself. He clearly resents his son's close relationship with the grandmother, and goes beserk on him when she passes away. The mother is mostly ineffectual, though she does emotionally blackmail her brother (Naren's Uncle) into convincing Naren to marry Radha.
Saeed Jaffrey's character of the uncle is an interesting one ... he's not quite a typical 'good guy' - he's prone to spending time in the company of courtesans, or tawaifs. He has a notorious reputation and is quite cavalier about it. He makes no claims to be a good guy, and almost seems to enjoy his rebellious status, but also has a stronger moral compass than Papa Sahai. And ultimately he is the one that champions Ganga's cause and urges Naren to stand up for her and do what is right.
Divya Rana is effective enough as Radha - her face certainly has a vulnerability to it and she has that girl-next-door quality. Sushma Seth plays the grand matriarch perfectly, and it was fun to see Tom Alter in a role that actually has some motivations. Raza Murad is great as the lecherous baddie.
Mandakini is considered the real 'hero' of this movie. Personally, I wasn't all that charmed by her performance. She is very, very raw and her early scenes are actually quite irritating (with the cheesy laying the hand on the cheek and all). I will give her that as the movie continues she does seem to improve a bit, and her later scenes - particularly when she bitterly challenges Chaudhary - do have a little bit of fire to them.
And as for Rajeev 'Chimpoo' Kapoor - I couldn't help but feel as I watched the movie this time around that he had been written off a bit unfairly. Sure, he's not the most handsome of the Kapoors, and he is definitely not effortless in his acting. But his portrayal of Naren does come off as sweet and earnest. Naren is a weak character, and Chimpoo makes him a bit more sympathetic. There are moments - flashes or glimpses, really - where he slightly resembles Shammi Kapoor. I think he did have some potential, but perhaps never really got the chance to work and improve. He's not brilliant, mind you. But he's not as awful as I remember everyone said he was.
There's tons more to say here but I have to cut this short as I'm flying to London tomorrow early morning, it's almost midnight here in Boston and I still haven't packed! But I hope that others will also check out this film and share their thoughts. There's a lot of political messaging going on here that I probably barely scratched the surface of, knowing very little of Indian politics myself. But there's also environmental sentiment, social commentary and a bit of a finger wag at the irony of a people who worship Goddesses as the Mother of the Universe, and then try to bespoil innocent women.
I'm sad to be heading out during Kapoor Khazana because I have SO VERY MANY ideas for posts that I want to do. I hope that when I get back at the end of June I will be able to churn some of these out, because still in the works are my Dance like a Kapoor series for Rishi, Karishma, Kareena and Ranbir Kapoor, and much more! And definitely check out the links list for Kapoor Khazana - there's lots of fabulous posts to enjoy!