I purchased Kannada film H20 a while back, sight unseen, because it is a Superstar Upendra film. Upendra is one of those rare actors who also doubles as a force of nature - every film he touches generates a huge swirl of interest. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to H20 other than perhaps I needed some time (like a year) to put the pieces of my brain back together after having my mind blown by Uppi with A. And I needed all my mind fully assembled to begin this because H20 is not just a regular film, it’s a filmi allegory for the Kaveri River water dispute that has raged between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for over 100 years. Though I don’t think one has to be aware of the specifics to be moved by the film, it certainly does help to provide context for why the film was so controversial when it was released and why any DVD of the dual-language film will either have the dialogues dubbed into Tamil or Kannada, depending upon which side of the Kaveri River you purchase it on.
H20 begins in peace - two villages, one on each side of the river, and a couple in love, one from each side of the river. Naturally, for the film to have any forward momentum, this delicate state of affairs must come unbalanced. Enter evil, personified in the form of a dark-skinned hunchback with an evil eye named (I think) Krataka. His every footstep leaves scorched earth and the soundtrack that follows him chants his wickedness.* Krataka spies a flower and crushes it, turning beauty into garbage. Krataka spies the couple in love canoodling on the beach and turns their romance into vicious arrows of nasty gossip that shoot out and hit people from both villages. The fragile peace is shattered and the couple in love is threatened by a mob of angry people. The man is torn to pieces on the shore while the woman escapes on a boat, only to give birth and then promptly die. The baby is taken to a monastery where she is raised.
And that baby grows up to become the lovely Kaveri (Priyanka), who is a beloved healer to the villages on both sides of the river.
Now the fun begins.
[And keep in mind that I don’t know anything about the fight over the Kaveri River to draw any parallels between that situation and the film so please don’t construe any of this as political in any way. - FG]
The crux of the drama of H20 is a love triangle of sorts with Kaveri in the middle. Batting for the village in Karnataka is Uday Shankar (Upendra), a killjoy prick who insists on giving Kaveri lessons every day in how to love him, despite her lack of interest anything of the sort. Batting for the village in Tamil Nadu is Vair Muttu (Prabhudva), a flashy returnee from America who has given everybody in his village a baseball cap and doesn’t have any particular interest in Kaveri... at least at first. Some of the love triangle drama is fairly standard and filmi - Muttu’s mother pleading with her son not to trifle with Kaveri’s feelings - while some was a lot more twisted and creepy - like Uday’s “love lessons”.
Kaveri is given all the choice in the matter and yet no choice in the matter.
Uday uses every trick in the book in order to get her to chose him. He attempts to manipulate her feelings with “love lessons” and scolds her for not properly gazing into his eyes. He attempts to just forcefully marry her. And when those don’t work he uses emotional blackmail and does things like have his own goons beat him up in order to get her to feel pity.
Meanwhile, Muttu is all but ignoring Kaveri. Even though she saved his life a few years ago, he is too interested in his shiny new car and his political aspirations to have time for the girl from the village. Yet, a series of incidents lead him to desire her - first to spite Uday and then for her own sake. Muttu doesn’t go for the forced marriage route, when Kaveri suddenly stops pursuing him and he realizes what he’s losing, Muttu pulls the old “I’ll kill myself if I’ve done something to offend you” route.
The most clever trick in the script, however, is the use of the past life flashback. The past-lovers reunited in a new birth plot device has been used in films since there were films and it’s still used today (Magadheera, anyone?) so this wasn’t totally unexpected but the way that Upendra uses the narrative device is extremely clever and very thought-provoking. [Minor spoiler alert!] What happens is that Kaveri, on the run from Uday, whom she emphatically does not want to marry, stumbles across a hermit in the forest. He spins her a yarn about her past life as a princess who loved the past version of Uday and whose entire family was murdered by the past version of Muttu. Like the devout girl that she is, Kaveri takes this to heart and begins to see Uday and Muttu in a new light but what Kaveri doesn’t see is Krataka lurking around and cackling while all this goes down.
Is this yarn spun by the hermit true or false? And how much should it affect Kaveri’s feelings? The answers we’re left with are ambiguous.
H20 is an Upendra film through and through. Of the many fascinating things he decided to do with it, one of the most fascinating was his decision to make Uday so unbearably awful. Uday sits as judge, jury, and executioner of his own village - casting judgement on everybody and everything around him. He hates wealth and yet his power seems to derive, in part, from the fact that his father used to the be the wealthy landlord of the village. He struts around like he owns the place and yet seems to do little to no real work of his own. His “love lessons” with Kaveri are beyond creepy and it’s no wonder she runs away from him at every opportunity. Upendra seems to be having a ball doing all of this, which makes even his creepiest of moments really fun to watch.
Prabhudeva is perfectly cast as Upendra’s flashy love-rival because if there is one person who can pull a party directly from the screen into your living room, it’s Prabhudeva. His entrance scene, in which he emerges one shiny-trousered leg at a time from the window of a flash red sports car, is a sight to behold. Of course Kaveri is in love with him. Who wouldn’t be? And he’s not just Uday’s love-rival but also the capitalist foil to Uday’s no-fun socialist. While Uday’s village has to give all their money to Uday, who will decide how it gets used, Muttu goes around giving everybody cool clothes and baseball caps. Of course everybody loves him. But Muttu has also lost touch with his village roots - he doesn’t even recognize Kaveri’s worth at first - and can you really have true wealth when you’re so disconnected? Isn’t it all just imported gloss?
Kaveri is an interesting character. She’s little more than an object to be battered about between these two men but she knows it. I really liked Priyanka in the role, she is quite the charmer.
All in all, H20 is quite a trip. Though a lot more commercial than A, it’s still an oddball film, which I approve of. One of the topics that pops up from time to time on the blog is the corporatization of Bollywood and how there no longer seem to be any auteurs with wild visions left making films. I don’t think a film like H20 could get made in Bollywood these days - forget the politics of it, a character like Uday wouldn’t even get past the first round of audience testing and all that ambiguity would be hammered into something more palatable for the casual viewers flipping past films on cable. Why do people make films? Why do people watch them? Films like H20 are one of the many reasons my attention has drifted from the by-the-numbers vapid thrillers and even more vapid rom-coms that Bombay has been churning out and towards the Southern industries where auteurs are still out there hard-selling their singular visions.
* Help me out here Kannada speakers - is it saying paapa? The subtitles translate it as “sin” or “sinner” but I’m curious if that’s really the best translation. And is his name Krataka? Wikipedia says it’s Kireek but I swear that is not what people were saying. Let me know if I’m wrong, and I’ll change it. Actually, tell me if I get any of the spellings of the names wrong and I will change them. The subtitles were next to no help on this.