I went into Kannada director-star (titled "Real Star" in the Kannada film industry) Upendra's self-titled film (now there's a turn of phrase one rarely sees in cinema!) very cautiously. My relationship with the film maker has been one part awe, one part admiration or appreciation but also one part condemnation for the, shall we say, problematic elements in his films.
In Super (symbol), I appreciated the wild imagination that brought the film its energy, but loathed the way that women were used rather predictably as nothing but mere symbols of the bigger picture. I also had a more minor problem with the message presented. In A, the "women problem" was even more prominent, though once again the film had enough interesting ideas that I didn't hate it - in fact, I'll probably end up rewatching it at some point.
There is so much thought behind these films, I would never want to dismiss them despite the fact that I am deeply disturbed by the way Upendra treats his heroines. Like I said in my review of Super, it annoys me because I would hope that somebody who puts so much thought into crafting his stories would really think through his choices when it comes to portrayal of women. Upendra is not the only brilliant man who hasn't considered the opposite gender much at all, and he won't be the last, but I maintain my wish that it wasn't so. I wouldn't be so hesitant in recommending his films if women weren't thrown around indiscriminately to deliver ..no point whatsoever, really. To be fair, Upendra's heroes rough-house men as well, but it doesn't make it any more palatable. These are loud, eccentric films - but there's a way to do it without so much casual, pointless violence, and I think Upendra could consider that option.
However, and this is a fairly major 'however', I feel as if with Upendra (the film), I have reconciled my relationship with Upendra (the film maker). I feel like three films in, I finally understand him a bit more, and while those problems I have remain, I can look past them and appreciate his films on the level he intended. It was as if Upendra (the film) was a journey into the mind of Upendra (the film maker) and while I think out of his films, in terms of the story, I appreciate A the most, in terms of the message, I really came out liking Upendra (the film ..yes, I am aware of how confusing this continues to be!).
Upendra is a tale of Naanu (Upendra), an absolutely wretched, selfish human being. He doesn't believe in lying, so he exposes other people's hypocritical lives while breaking every rule society has given him to break. Despite this, a young woman named Rathi (Damini) falls in love with him. However, she soon finds out Naanu has two other women in his life - he is pursuing the rich heiress Keerthi (Raveena Tandon) and has a wife (Prema) as well. Who will be choose to be with, and will any of the women have him?
The eccentric loudness makes the film actually quite difficult to watch, and the real experience actually only begins on the second watch. The first time, you feel as if you don't know where anything is headed - Naanu is your typical loud, violent, punch-dialogue-delivering Upendra hero, but the way he points out hypocrisies in society just isn't really all that logical. It's also really not that interesting. The juggling he does between the women in his life also starts to feel a bit dull after a while - he loves Rathi but wants Keerthi, but has obligations to his wife.
Damini is possibly the weakest link in the cast - Prema and Raveena do well with their exaggerated characters, and Upendra of course doesn't need to do much to do what he knows to do in his films. It's a drag on the first watch, when one is still under the illusion that all these threads of story are actually headed somewhere fairly typical. Even once you find out the real purpose of the film, there is just so much slack.
I read somewhere that some press in India were upset over the vulgar portions of the film - there is pretty frank discussion of the hero spending time with prostitutes and other sexual topics. I didn't mind these parts because they were there, but even in retrospect it is difficult to see their purpose.
And that's the real downfall of this movie - the purpose is so evident on the second time you watch it when it comes to some things, but not when it comes to others. I get the sense that Upendra (the film maker) often doesn't care what the audience that doesn't already love him, thinks of him, but there is much to be said for a slight toning down of the loudness to perhaps allow all of those who haven't previously enjoyed his films another look in.
I think sometimes it's fine for a movie to be so much in your face with its everything - from the songs (lyrics penned by Upendra, unsurprisingly perhaps) to the acting, to the dialogue and even to the initial shreds of social message you may read into the film, and I wouldn't ask Upendra to completely abandon his style. Still, I think there's something to be said for taking it down a notch - less is more, that kind of thing.
However, with all these criticisms, I really appreciated the final message of the film. I wish you could somehow remove the frillings and just focus on the point of the film. As it concerns the very end of the film, I'll have to slap a big SPOILER warning here right now. If you haven't seen the film, by all means, check it out if you think you'd like it. If you have seen the film, continue reading!
When the film finally ends, we're treated to this screen:
My initial viewing experience was so unenthusiastic I almost wasn't going to do as the film specifically asked - watch it again, now understanding the significance of the main character being the symbol for "ego" and the three heroines the different aspects that battle for the attention of the ego. However, I decided that since I was going to screencap the film, I might as well give it a second viewing.
I'm very glad I did so.
If you consider how horrible a person Naanu is, you begin to understand how the film is a story of the destructiveness of ego. He is, essentially, a person driven by ego - he's self-righteous, he's selfish, he only cares for people in the way that they can serve him. I'm not sure if Upendra really meant for me to loathe Naanu throughout the film, however - if he did, he certainly did it right. There's a strange disconnect between having a hero who gets a lot of "hero" moments of success, but who at the same time is not a good person, even with his glimpses of good behaviour.
The initial meeting with Prema was really interesting to me, and in many ways their relationship turned out to be the highlight of the film. It seems as if responsibilities really ground the ego - and in a way this is the only thing that redeems the character of Naanu if you put aside the symbolism in the film for a couple of moments. He seems to do right by his wife, for the most part.
However, if you place the symbolism into full focus, as one is supposed to, it becomes clear that Naanu's pre-occupation with his needs, his desires, is eventually what drive these different portions of his life to ultimately try to kill him. Just like the women in his life, he cannot have them all while maintaining his ego as strongly as he has throughout the movie.
Hence, we get the message of the film - let go of your ego for even just a little, and you'll be happier for it.
This is where perhaps once again the consideration of women could've come in handy for Upendra, because to me the film ends on a somewhat flat note. He tears his self-fashioned shirt as a symbol of letting go that 10-20% of his "self" (ie the ego) but at the end, he is left wandering around a vista on the screen, and the women have disappeared.
But what is life, if you're no longer so obsessed with yourself? Life is striving for success, life is enjoying oneself, life is fulfilling duties. Rather than just releasing that egotism that to a certain extent plagues us all, isn't the purpose of life to serve these three aspects in a balanced manner? You should work hard, you should enjoy yourself, while fulfilling your duties to your family or society.
It seems almost as if Upendra didn't think to go that extra step - by the end, Naanu the self should be serving the three women who represent these three aspects. By letting go of his ego, and focusing on them instead, he can fulfill a purpose for himself.
Of course, there can be many interpretations to these things, and perhaps that's why I remain of two minds about Upendra the film maker, as well as Upendra the film. I don't feel as if these films escape my understanding in any way - I understand his point, his reasoning and his explanations. But I can almost never fully agree with it, and so the film experience is always thought-provoking, yet somehow hollow because as much as I appreciate everything, I don't quite agree with it.
I've still got two films of Upendra's acting oeuvre to look forward to, and I will definitely keep an eye out for any English-subtitled DVD releases of his directorial films. However, as a rule, I think I might prefer Upendra the actor - he can be quite effective as an actor, when he chooses to do so, and while I don't think my Indian film knowledge would be the same without knowing his vision and his film, I have to be honest - I'm not sure I can call myself a fan.