Abha Varma 
October 2000

Utaran and Kamasutra - A Review 

    I finally saw Mira Nair's Kamasutra last week. The closing credits say, "Inspired by Wajeda Tabassum's short story, Hand-Me-Downs". The parallels between the two stories are too strong for the book version to be considered a mere inspiration. More disappointingly, the story loses its subtle nuances in its movie avatar.

    Wajeda Tabassum wrote from a leftist perspective and this particular story, Utaran, unfolds within the context of class struggle. A poor girl has no reason to feel bitter resentment towards her benefactress, her rich playmate. That is, no reason other than the inherent unfairness of some having too much and others so little as to depend on the largesse of their masters for basics such as food and clothing. The protagonist in the story echoes the tension between having to depend on another's generosity and her own incapacity to refuse that bounty. She mirrors the tension between rage, which builds up on its own, and gratitude, which is expected of her. And what of friendships borne of such unequal circumstances? Are they truly friendships or are they favors bestowed by the rich upon the “deserving” poor? 

    Wajeda Tabassum’s Utaran is a tale of ambivalent emotions, complex motivations culminating in the final act of revenge that the protagonist takes against her benefactress. She seduces the nawabzadi's inexperienced and slightly lost groom on the night before wedding and derives a grim satisfaction at finally being in a position to give her "cast off" to her mistress, a mistress who has treated her with kind, if at times indifferent, affection all her life. Finally she holds the coveted power, one that comes of being in control over another’s life experiences. That is her secret to keep. That is where Wajeda Tabassum leaves her protagonist.

    The movie on the other hand is something else. There is much too much melodrama, with clearly good and bad, flat two-dimensional characters --- an arrogant snob of a princess who is abusive towards the heroine on many occasions (and thus deserves her hatred), her equally snobbish and rank-conscious mother and a debauched, young, king with an overactive libido whose contemptuous disregard for women is matched only by his horny lust for their flesh. The costumes are beautiful and so is the setting, sitar by Ustad Vilayat Khan is out of this world but none of these provide much compensation overall.

    My greatest regret is that I will never be able to re-read the story without images from the movie intruding upon my enjoyment. It is for this reason that I wish I hadn't seen the movie.

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