The land has been in the grip of a ravaging drought for 10 years. In order to appease the Lord of Gods Indra (Amitabh Bachchan), custodian of rain, a grand fire sacrifice is being conducted at the palace under the guidance of the Chief Priest, Paravasu (Jackie Shroff). As this sacrifice draws to its close, our story begins. Paravasu is the elder son of the great sage Raibhya (Mohan Agashe). For 7 years he has watched over the holy fire, forsaking his wife, family and every earthly pleasure. Paravasu's young brother Arvasu (Milind Soman) is in love with a tribal girl, Nittilai (Sonali Kulkarni). Arvasu prepares to marry outside his Brahmin caste - but for this, according to the tribal custom, he has to present himself before Nittilai's village elders. Paravasu's cousin and bitter rival Yavakri (Nagarjuna) has just returned triumphant after 10 years of practicing austerities in the jungle, with the gift of universal knowledge from the gods. To seek revenge, Yavakri seduces Paravasu's lonely wife Vishakha (Raveena Tandon). This sets off an irrevocable chain of events that lead to Aravasu losing his love, Paravasu desecrating the great sacrifice, the creation of a demon and the deaths of Yavakri and Raibhya. Finally, the purity of Arvasu and Nittilai's love brings salvation to the land. This film is adapted from the play The Fire and the Rain by one of India's foremost playwrights, Girish Karnad. The story is derived from the myth of Yavakri, which is a part of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata.
Great basic material - unfortunately not so good final outcome is what one feels like after watching Agni Varsha. Yes the effort, earnestness is all there in the endeavours of the team involved but finally in spite of the fine cinematography, marvelous use of locations, a rousing background score you have a film that quite does not succeed. Some could argue that maybe the play on which it was based (Girish Karnad's The Fire and the Rain)works as an intimate theatre piece but not so much in the medium of film. With Agni Varsha, however, what one feels is had the makers stuck to the basic plot of the play, it could have been a far superior 90-minute film, which could easily have held its own. In fact what Agni Varsha has not lent itself to is being adapted as a mainstream Hindi Film. The so-called commercial elements like the songs and dance just don't work and in fact take away a good deal from the film.
Director Sajnani admits to opening up the play wherever necessary in order to adapt it for the big screen and while there is nothing wrong with interpreting something the way one sees it, one cannot help but feel Agni Varsha still works better when keeping it in mind as the theatre piece it was designed as. In fact, the film works best in the scenes where the makers have remained faithful to the play with scenes played out with just 2 or 3 actors rather then the other so-called 'cinematic' scenes (The less said about the Deepti Bhatnagar song the better). In fact, it was the script of The Fire and the Rain, which inspired Sajnani to make the film and a more faithful adaptation of that very script rather then bending to commercial compromises would have left Sajnani with a much better film. Incidentally, Sajnani did approach Girish Karnad to write the script for the film but Karnad refused. It would be interesting to see what his views are on the film now.
Coming to the actors, the big let down in the film are the central performances of Milind Soman and Sonali Kulkarni as Aravasu and Nitilai. Soman is no actor and finds the role way beyond him while Sonali Kulkarni as the low caste tribal girl in love with him has always been a much-overrated actress and why our filmmakers continue to think of her in roles she cannot do justice to is a mystery. The other performers - Jackie Shroff as Paravasu, Nagarjuna as the wily Yavakri, Raghuvir Yadav as the theatre manager are competent and efficient without being great but a special mention must be made of Raveena Tandon who impresses one with both looks and acting as Vishaka, the woman who is taken for granted by both the men in her life, Paravasu and Yavakri. As Lord Indra, Amitabh Bachchan depends on his charisma to carry his all too brief cameo through.
As mentioned before the songs are a no-no as are the visual effects by and large (perhaps the only exception being the sequence where Jackie walks into the burning mandap). Dialogue too is inconsistent and yes, often trite with no consistent language.
The redeeming factors? Precisely just the elements mentioned earlier. Anil Mehta's cinematography - vibrant with stunning use of the locales of Hampi and yet not standing out by itself but going along with the story flow, lifting the film several notches. And Taufiq Qureshi's evocative background score.
Otherwise sadly, Agni Varsha joins that long, long list of films that fit into the 'good effort but if only...' category.
"Film has always been part of my life right from my college days in the United States even though I ventured into theatre which I thought was a easier medium to handle especially since producing plays didn't cost as much as movies did." says Arjun Sajnani director of Agni Varsha. Sajnani graduated from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, USA with honours in English Literature and drama in 1967 before returning to India in the 1970s and becoming Founder-Director of Theatre Arts, one of India's best-known English theatre companies. His productions for Theatre Arts include Giraudoux's La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (Christopher Fry translation), Sheridan's The Rivals, Brecht's The Good Woman of Schezuan, Shaffer's Amadeus, David Hwang's M Butterfly and the musicals A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, She Loves Me and Kiss of the Spider Woman besides of course Girish Karnad's The Fire and the Rain. However film has never been alien to me as I have always been an avid film buff and have even done a one year course in Film production at New York University, he reiterates.
It was the script of The Fire and the Rain that was most inspiring says Sajnani. It is something I found extremely powerful, contemporary in approach yet set in the Vedic times and is a prime example of Indian thinking and Indian cultural ethics. Having staged the play successfully, I thought it deserved to seen on a much wider scale and by more and more people. Hence the decision to make it into a film. Girish Karnad was approached to do the screenplay but he refused and so I decided to take the risk and develop it myself with great help from T. Jayshree and my cinematographer Anil Mehta, says Sajnani. While the medium of cinema lent itself to opening up the play, we have done so but only where absolutely necessary says Sajnani so as not to take away from the original spirit of Karnad's play which is a very intimate theatre piece. While we have played with the structure a bit, the main events occur in the same chronological events in the film as they do in the play. But this does not mean that we placed visual or so called cinematic restrictions on ourselves. The film retains the intimacy of the play, in the sense that many scenes are played out between two or three people, just like it was in the play. However when the script permits, there are scenes with hundreds of extras as well making prime use of the locales of Hampi in Karnataka!
Initially when I wanted to make the film, I was planning to raise the money about 2 1/2 crore rupees, from a bunch of people - friends and acquaintances in Bangalore says Sajnani. And I didn't really take the financiers in Mumbai seriously. But then Ravina Raj Kohli of Channel 9 showed interest in the project and even though on September 16, 2000 I got an initial affirmation from her, thinks came to a halt when Channel 9 shut down. That's where iDream Prodcutions (the distributors of Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding) came into the picture.
The script lent itself to a star cast and fortunately for me, the actors were most accessible to meet. I did have to brush up on my narration skills as right from Channel 9 to each actor that I approached had to be narrated the script rather than reading the script themselves, recalls Sajnani. Only Sonali Kulkarni did not require a narration as she had already seen the play and knew what it was all about. I gave Jackie Shroff a narration at 3 am in the morning and he said yes immediately on hearing the story out! And I used my personal contact with Mr. Bachchan, goes on Sajnani. I have known him since college days where we did theatre together and admittedly I did cash in on that. But then I could think of no one else for the role of Lord Indra - it had to be someone who is tall with a striking personality and a booming voice and who else better than him! Incidentally I played the same role as he did on the stage, mentions Sajnani... By now of course with the huge star cast the film boasted of, the budget of the film had inflated but it is still extremely modest by Bollywood standards, maintains Arjun.
Agni Varsha was shot in a 62 day by and large start to finish schedule in Hampi, Karnataka. We made use of both existing locales and erected sets like the elaborate Yagna Mandap wherever necessary says Sajnani. Fortunately shooting went on extremely smoothly with the actors most cooperative. As regards the technical inputs of the film regarding shot breakdowns, selection of camera angles and deciding on cutting points, Anil Mehta my cinematographer was a great, great help. We would do the shot breakdown together the night before shooting, says Sajnani. The film has the elements of popular mainstream Indian cinema as we too have made use of songs and dances so essential to Indian cinema. Films have to be seen by people but surely they can be offered sensible entertainment within the same commercial format and that is what we have tried to do with Agni Varsha, says Sajnani.
At present Arjun is busy with the final mixing of Agni Varsha. The film would be finally completed by the end of December. The aim is thereafter to expose the film on the international festival circuit as well a full fledged theatrical release internationally as well as all over India.