Writing this series of essays has been a long-term goal of mine. I did not intend to put them up in the form of a blog but since I do have one, I would like to share the deep set meanings and the interpretations of one of my favorite films of all time.
Upendra is a 1999 Kannada surrealist drama film written and directed by Upendra. A closer look at that sentence is enough to pique the interest of most people. A director stars in his own film and names it after himself. To most people, this would seem like an act of megalomania but I can assure you it is not. Over the course of this series, I’m sure any reader can arrive at a deeper understanding as to why the title of the film is as such.
Upendra is in my opinion director Upendra’s magnum opus. His track record included cult classic Kannada films such as Tarle Nan Maga, Operation Antha 2 and Swastik but he is not a cult director. His filmography also includes massive commercial hits such as Om, A and Shhh!! Every single one of the films mentioned above has its own distinct story but all of them come under the umbrella of Upendra’s directing style. They can easily be identified as the work of one man and one man alone. The erratic scene structure, the seemingly incoherent plots, unique marketing strategies, ridiculously lyricised songs are but a few of the hallmarks of films directed by Upendra.
After a creating a sterling track record for himself as a director and proving his mettle as an actor in his debut role, arguably his best work came on screens in 1999. Upendra wrote and starred in the smash hit/heavily despised/extremely loved/polarizing/misogynistic/intelligent/loud/artistic/mind-F film titled Upendra.
I saw this film for the first time as a 10-year-old child. My parents clearly had no idea about the kind of film they were taking their little boys to, back in the day, but who can blame them, the film had a U-rating (that’s G for all you out of towners). I can clearly agree that I was quite young to have an in-depth understanding of what I had watched. I did not know that this film would be the one to begin my eternal love affair with cinema. The exact moment I understood that I had actually watched something special was when I discussed the film with a cousin. He had a theory which he had a heard from a friend that the title of the movie was a play on the names of its lead actors.
U – Upendra Pe – Prema Da – Damini Ra – Raveena Tandon
I did not know how real or how untrue this theory was at the time but I was instantly fascinated. All I wanted to do from that moment on was to go back, re-watch and analyze all the little things the film was trying to say. I spoke to an innumerable number of people throughout my days in high school and college and absorbed all the codes they seemed to have deciphered from repeat viewings. I took those learnings back with me and litmus tested them with every rewatch and I can say most of them did not hold much water.
A few years down the line, I asked myself as to why those theories didn’t hold up. A bit of thought later, I realized no interpretation of the film could be right or wrong. The film had a point to make but it also left itself open ended. The main point of the film had the caveat of being a take it or leave it-Esque deal. That being said, this is my interpretation of the film and I use the aforementioned caveat as well.
The film is an exploration into the subconscious and conscious minds of humans in general. I do realize that the statement made above is extremely broad but again I assure you, in the long run, it makes sense. Making a film like that comes with an inherent problem. When a storyteller begins by saying that he/she will point out the flaws in humanity, he/she can expect a heavy amount of backlash. Most people don’t want to be corrected by another person, Period. Especially not some fat cat sitting in a director’s chair who imposes his world view onto innocent folk.
The first stroke of intelligence in this film comes while tackling this most basic of problems. The film is constantly narrated. It does not have narration per se. But the film is a series of anecdotes narrated from one person to another. The film subverts and dilutes its intentions from frame one by making the audience voyeurs. The film does not make them voyeurs who look at the lives of movie characters but instead makes them voyeurs of their own minds without most folk in the audience realizing it. Making the film a Vikram-Betal story is no accident.
So now that the audience has been brought into this place which assures them they are not heinous, the film gives them a taste of one of its primary themes. Betal gives Vikram a glimpse into the minds of people in a city. Since the audience identifies themselves with Vikram, they are conditioned to assume the commentary being made is not of the society they are a part of. The viewer is led to believe that they are the higher moral authority at this point in time. Everyone watching the film has a good laugh at the supposed sick thoughts that normal people have and they themselves might have had at a few instances. They are sufficiently ready to listen to the story of a man who does not subject himself to conformity.
No one has a higher moral ground in this story. Not the lead character (who is actually a reflection of humanity at large), not the female characters, not the supporting characters, nor the man behind the camera. The story of the man who supposedly has no filter between his mind and his mouth will be presented next and most of the audience has been carefully lulled into thinking the story is about a deranged man rather than it being a story of their own everlasting mental struggles.
You may tell me that can’t possibly be true, but to that, I say the name of the lead character is Naanu (Me). One need only take a step back and one can easily realize that the name is a play on a word. One can think of it as the name of someone else or one can identify the name as the one they subconsciously give themselves.
……………………………………………………………………..TO BE CONTINUED ON PART II
Please LIKE, SHARE, COMMENT and FOLLOW and let me know your interpretations of the film as I go along or tell me if I have piqued your interest with my introductory essay.