The Paradox of Progress II: Gaja Gamini (2000)

Like his directorial venture Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities (2004) that followed, the M. F. Hussain-directed Gaja Gamini is everything but ordinary. But that alone is hardly what makes it stand out. It is one of the few films that directly addresses the mistreatment and underutilization of the intellect of women through moments in world history, and argues that the progress paradox we face today might well have been remarkably different had women been more more involved in making decisions that led to what we now confront.

If there ever were an example of a theater play in the guise of a film, this is it. Although one would think that as a model of abstract art, this would go without saying:

Shot entirely on indoor studio sets, its biggest strength lies not in its cast or its music, but in its dialogue and not surprisingly in the integration thereof with metaphors contained within the art direction. There's symmetry to be discovered among them. But as is the case with any piece of abstract art, there's ambiguity involved. For example, this triangle, when drawn at the foot of a doorstep, is outlined counter-clockwise. But the audience sees a redrawing in the opposite direction. The question is: why?

Five women are involved in a song choreographed to symmetric movements. Each carries the same message. Each comes from a different background. Each is wearing black. But each has a differently styled garment. Why?

A painter seeks inspiration from woman to create his best work yet. The woman is unknown to him, but he has a name for her. Why? A florist seeks revenge from an unknown. Why? A photographer-journalist shows up in a village and ridicules a woman for giving birth to several children. Why? (This one's easy -- the photographer is Shah Rukh Khan :P)

Not everything is explained, nor is everything immediately intelligible. It's probably not supposed to be, because it is why the film, which presents more of a thought process than a conclusion (one I'll leave for you to discover), is effective. Central to the essence of the film (or at least to what I think is the essence) is the debate between a scientist (Ashish Vidyarthi) and a poet, Kalidas no less (Mohan Agashe), related to the scientific versus the supernatural, the merits and demerits thereof, and the potential for harmonizing them.

The characters that give rise to this debate all warrant interest, not only because of who they portray, but also because of who they are. The film obviously belongs to Madhuri Dixit, who plays five roles (Gaja Gamini, Sangeeta, Shakuntala, Monica, and Mona Lisa). No surprises here. Madhuri does what only Madhuri can. Her speech is powerful. Her walk graceful. And her thoughts reflective of the women she portrays. And no mention of Madhuri would be complete without specific mention of her performances to music. Here's one to start with (guys, just stop what you're doing and see this), with more on the music to follow:

Then there's Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah (as Leonardo Da Vinci), Shah Rukh Khan, Farida Jalal, Inder Kumar, Tej Sapru, Raisa Hussain, and several others including M. F. Hussain in a special appearance.

In many ways, this tribute to woman is based around how indifferent we the men of the world have been to her existence and her elegance, objectifying her, trading her, waging wars over her, all while not once wondering what she thinks. What's more, men are even accused of being dim witted warmongers!

At least we are given credit for trying to better understand the opposite sex, although even here, it is the 'riddle' which is the primary character.

And at least all of this gets me and Shah Rukh on the same side of the argument, for once! =) He really does play a rather intriguing character here, and his entry is well-timed.

I joke about the issues, but they're serious, as you know. Even in the U.S., women aren't paid as much as their male counterparts, which is ridiculous (and it's not only gender-based -- race is involved as well). Far from issues related to employment are issues of other basic rights, such as the right to fair treatment in schools and -- given my primary volunteering efforts in social service, this is the most difficult for me to discuss -- freedom from the threat of domestic violence.

The issues presented were almost summed up by Madhuri in Saajan (1992) and especially in Lajja (2001). So from the standpoint of the essence of the message, there's not much that's different. What is different in this film, and for the better, is the approach to delivering the message, which is effective, especially toward the end. (Be on the lookout for an interesting integration of the theme with The Last Supper.)

The theme is universal and relevant, but the issues I have with Gaja Gamini have to do with its pace and dialogue delivery. As much fun as it is to consume, it's clearly longer than it needs to be. And while identity crises are often welcome (the ones here were intentional, and we're talking of some great actors here), I just didn't think the layers of theater-influenced dynamic were smoothly transitioned to film.

I also missed the outdoors. There was all sorts of potential to add to the art direction using realistic settings (again, this was corrected in Meenaxi with fantastic results), and it would be interesting to hear Hussain's take on why it wasn't exploited. (This is not addressed in the accompanying 'Making of' segment.)

On the other hand, the sets are a visual treat in their own right, and are more than good enough, as would be expected in a film by a painter first, to convey the sense of space -- the confinement of woman -- which is central to the theme after all. (So that might be why?)

The film does leave the door open on whether it wants us to perceive its message being two-fold, that the paradox of progress might indeed be better understood if women and men were given equal rights (where applicable), as they are by religions (or so the film says, and I agree to significant extent; a discussion on what religions mandate is not one I am willing to moderate). Unlike Meenaxi (a much more empowered woman, and arguably more appealing), this is more a chronicle than a future perspective. Like Meenaxi, which I think is the much better film (and with a better-aligned performance by Tabu; sorry Madhuri fans :P), there's much to ponder. And for that alone, my time with it was extremely well spent.

I'd recommend it if you enjoy abstract art, are open to a new approach to Hindi cinema, and content with undergoing an experience that facilitates thought but doesn't guide it. And if you're a Madhuri Dixit fan, consider it mandatory viewing!

Movie rating: 3.5/5 (Works for me)

Music rating: 3.25/5
I was expecting more in this department. It's quite a mixed bag by Bhupen Hazarika and Anuradha Pal. Meri Payal is beautiful, but the title song leaves some to be desired. Ek Samay (with subtitles) starring Madhuri and Shah Rukh is fun and funny, and although it reminds a lot of Pakistani pop music from the late 1980s, I must admit I find it amusing. The idea of Madhuri formally celebrating the dawn of a new century, and looking so happy while at it, is priceless! :o)

My classification: PG-13 (for theme)

And finally...
If you are a Madhuri Dixit fan, you'll enjoy this lovely tribute by Pitu.


Shellie said...

My head hurts! Can I be extremely shallow and say I'd watch just for SRK? Ah, but then there's no appreciation for your wonderfully indepth post. I've never been one to watch "art" films per say, but how can I pass this one up!

theBollywoodFan said...

Shell! You can absolutely watch it for SRK, but I hate to break to you that his total screen time is around 30 minutes at most, so do keep that in mind :)

I've always enjoyed all films, really, but know that the ones that do a good job of combining the elements of art and commercial cinema (and ones that don't restrict themselves to one genre even) are those I like best.

SRK's presence notwithstanding, if you choose to see one M. F. Hussain film, make it Meenaxi. And as always, thank you for your visit and comment! Cheers.

Anonymous said...

TheBollywoodFan, amazing article! I really enjoyed reading it, infact I enjoyed reading it so much that I ended up posting a review of this article in my blog ( I am a Madhuri Dixit fan as well and have a small blog on her as well. I really enjoy reading good stuff on her. Also, would love it if you can come over to my blog and let me know how you feel abou it, thanks. Madhuri Dixit Photos Cheers!

Pitu said...

Awesome article, TBF! :-) I will most def watch it. This reminds me of a convo I had had with my friend Shuma, who is a very talented artist and she said she felt every frame in the film was a painting. I thought that sounded really cool hehe. For me of course it's a dbl bonanza, given Mads and SRK in it :-D Oh, and Shukriya for linking to my humble tribute :-)

theBollywoodFan said...

Anonymous: Thank you for your visit, comment, and link back to this post! Madhuri Dixit is to me, quite obviously, the most consistently outstanding actress of her time. As a big fan of classical music and dance, I've always appreciated the precision in her movement. That video in the post, for example, illustrates that well. She's certainly left behind a void in Hindi film, and I hope she decides to come back some day. Until then, we'll have to make do with what we have (which is quite a bit, so it's not all bad). I'll definitely stop by your blog soon.

Pitu: Shuma is absolutely correct about the frames as paintings! I don't think there's any way you in particular won't enjoy it, you big Madhuri fan! :) What you might want to consider is to see this and Meenaxi back to back, and tell me if I'm the only one who thinks Meenaxi might well be a sequel to this. That possibility certainly exists.

I hope M. F. Hussain some day decides to make a film starring Kajol. And then another with Tabu. His films have failed miserably at the box office (Mads has a great question for the critics among the audience in that first interview in your post -- to those who don't show up to see something like this), but God only knows some of us appreciate them as much as anything :)

Joss said...

Well, this is an absolute must. I shall put it on my list straight away. And while I'm at it I shall actually get round to watching Meenaxi, which you enthused me about a few months ago. I'll get back to you.

lapetitediva said...

I would love to see this just for Madhuri, but the DVD appears to be out-of-print. I guess I could try to track down a VCD.

Bhargav Saikia said...

The tunes used in this film are mostly from Assamese originals composed by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. All of them are very popular but somehow they didn't fit into the Hindi adaption in Gajagamini. You must listen to Dr. Hazarika's Assamese songs..they have very powerful lyrics. I can email you some of them if you are interested. Do let me know.

As for the film, I found it dragging and too abstract. Not my cup of tea. Meenaxi was a tad better, atleast one could follow what's happening on the screen. In my opinion, MF Hussain and films don't go hand in hand.

theBollywoodFan said...

Joss: I'd love to know what you think. If you already have Meenaxi, it might be a good idea to see that first to get a much better idea of what you're getting into :)

lapetitediva: Thank you for your visit and comment! It seems to be available online (at, for example); I was fortunate to have found it at a store here in Los Angeles. Good luck with your quest. If you see it just for Madhuri, I'm confident you'll enjoy it.

Bhargav: That's very interesting. I could definitely use some pointers on Hazarika's music (maybe some YouTube links of his best works, assuming they're out there?). The music in Gaja Gamini was a inconsistent, but I kept asking myself if I thought that way because Meenaxi had some fantastic music by A. R. Rahman. As black and white as they are, they're difficult to treat independently.

The abstract nature of M. F. Hussain's films is exactly why I enjoyed them (and all that fantastic artwork! And Madhuri and Tabu!!! :), but it does compromise on the entertainment quotient of the film, overall -- no denying that.

ajnabi said...

Utterly fascinating; not least because Hindi films often appear surreal to Western viewers even when they're not meant to be! LOL Thank you so much for posting about it, I'll look it up for my next Induna spree. Oh, and have you posted about Meenaxi in the past?

Anonymous said...

Nawab theBollywoodFan-ji,
Since I have seen Sajaan and just saw Lajja the other day, I paid special attention when you wrote, "The issues presented were almost summed up by Madhuri in Saajan (1992) and especially in Lajja (2001). So from the standpoint of the essence of the message, there's not much that's different. What is different in this film, and for the better, is the approach to delivering the message, which is effective, especially toward the end." I look forward to seeing this movie now too, and since I am a Madhuri fan, I realize it's mandatory!
Thanks for Pitu's link too.

All the best!

Unknown said...

Isn't it interesting how various themes tend to crop up in one's film watching at certain times? I have a weird addiction to that now apparently extinct species, the filmi qawwali, and on the strength of that alone I bought Nikaah (1982). The movie left me very impressed by its addressing the treatment of women in Indian society, especially given the year it was made. Then just a fornight later, filmigeek returned with a review of Lajja, and now this fascinating review of Gaja Gamini. It seems that this month is Women's Cinema month for me, if I can find Lajja up here in Aotearoa. I think Gaja Gamini sounds just a little too trippy for me, and I will atone for not watching it by finally watching Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa to maintain the feminist theme.

dunkdaft said...

So many questions you have with this. Yes it is. It is not as simple as Meenaxi. And as I told u earlier, not 'that' engaging as Meenaxi. Still, its the abstract art that holds me up. I can see the wonders on screen and forget abt storyline. But indeed, I would prefer Tabu over Mads here. And Rahman, also did wonders in later one. [sorry for being late but] a great writeup as always. Looks like I need this DVD.

theBollywoodFan said...

Ajnabi: You're welcome! That's a valid comment about the perceptions of Hindi films. This one in particular requires some knowledge of the subject matter, but I don't think it's something most wouldn't appreciate. I'd be curious to know what you think.

Here is my post on Meenaxi -- the film is just marvellous. And so is Tabu! ;)

Sita-ji: I hope you have fun with it. It's wacky in some ways, unlike anything I've seen before, although Meenaxi served as decent prep material. Definitely a must-see for Madhuri fans -- no question about it! (I should have clarified that the scene in Saajan I was referring to involved each of the members of the love triangle there, although you probably deduced that from the context of the sentence.)

theBollywoodFan said...

maxqnz: I love filmi qawwalis! It's interesting how a lot of the memorable ones (and this is not my area of expertise, so please bear with me if the upcoming comment will sound naive) seem to tie in love of God to love of a person, whereas the roots of the qawwali type of song lie in the religious sphere.

I first heard of Nikaah from Sita-ji of the Bollywood Food Club. I know I must see it. Each of the films you've mentioned goes above and beyond in the category, it seems.

Every month should be 'Womens Cinema month'! Hindi cinema gets too much criticism for catering primarily to male characters. Here's one that's exactly the opposite, but gone mostly unnoticed.

Darshit: You were absolutely correct, my friend! Nothing will ever be as engaging as a film that let's Tabu play the glamor girl as Meenaxi so justifiably did. :) Jokes aside, I agree with you on this v. Meenaxi for other reasons as well, A. R. Rahman definitely being one of them. As always, thank you for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

@ maxqnz

You could try watching Lajja here:

Though Lajja's not free, that site does have a lot of other free films too that are worth a watch.

Here's a link to that Nikaah post:

Thanks theBollywoodFan!

Unknown said...

It's interesting how a lot of the memorable ones (and this is not my area of expertise, so please bear with me if the upcoming comment will sound naive) seem to tie in love of God to love of a person, whereas the roots of the qawwali type of song lie in the religious sphere.

That sounds right on the money to me. I have listened to a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan compilation CD, but was largely unmoved. It's the spiritual as an allegory for the carnal that makes the filmi qawwalis fun, and it is the sheer fun of them that makes them the nearest thing Hindi film music has to bhangra for toe-tapping feel good vibes.