This adaptation of Arnold's 1861 Orientalist epic opens with documentary shots of tourists in Bombay watching street performers. Then a white-bearded old man sitting under the bodhi tree ...
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This adaptation of Arnold's 1861 Orientalist epic opens with documentary shots of tourists in Bombay watching street performers. Then a white-bearded old man sitting under the bodhi tree tells the tourists the story of Gautama (Rai), son of King Suddodhana (Ukil) and Queen Maya (Bala), who left his consort Gopa (Seeta) and became a wandering teacher credited with founding Buddhism. The religious epic, with its idealized figures, takes up the narrative in flashback and ends with Gopa kneeling before Gautama asking to become his disciple. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
This is an easily watched and enjoyed film for its portrait of premodern India. This is the film that kicked off Indian cinema! It claims that its actors actually held non-acting careers but took time off for the film, creating an entirely new industry in India. The cinematography is great, and it seems that several of the actors went on to be directors and producers. We also have a cast of thousands, hired hands from the colonial streets, mystics and fruit sellers. The director claims that no sets or mock-ups were made and no make-up was used, a unique sort of claim for the 1920s; was this the first Dogme 95 film?
On the subject of the life of Buddha, which I'm most qualified to comment on, this film is a little weird, so I subtract just a little from its ranking for that. For a story which is meant to teach Buddhist audiences about the twin vices of wealth and asceticism, the film seems to relish its display of royal splendor a little much, and unfamiliar aspects of the Buddha story are emphasized for the Imperial British audience. But this does seem to demonstrate how different aspects of the Buddha's story interest people of different places and times, and how the Orientalist tastes of the 1920s differ wildly from our own. So, I can't be too harsh on what's actually a very interesting part of the film.
Also, occasionally a great image of Buddhism shines through-- for example, Siddartha looking at her wife, only to be shocked by a vision the poverty implied in her wealth, and a vision of the old age that awaits her in the future. The scene that follows this is chilling and worth watching and excerpting.
I was shocked to see the filmmakers unchain and let loose a real cheetah to kill a deer for a hunting scene-- most of the scenes are not so dangerous as that one, but none of them were monitored by the ASPCA, and the differences are apparent. (Sensitive viewers will find that Buddha is just as aggrieved about this as they are.)
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