Ghai finally gets his dues. Bringing together an impressive international cast, Kisna transforms a mere rescue mission into a mythical odyssey. After the swordplay and romance are sorted out, Ghai’s British-Indian story delivers a rousing adventure that cuts across Empire, tradition, and romance.
Set in the picturesque Himalayan foothills just before Indian independence in 1947, the titular Kisna (Oberoi) grows up as a stable boy for a Britisher whose India-born daughter Katherine (Bernath) takes an early shine to Kisna. When rioting causes Katherine to become separated from her kin, Kisna reluctantly agrees to accompany her to Delhi. Pursued by sectarian mobs, a lecherous princeling, and dacoits led by a one-eyed gargoyle (Amrish Puri), Kisna blazes a trail marked by sacrifice and bravery.
The Indian-British casting is first-rate. Newcomer Bernath, a London film student who won this plum role from amongst 190 faces Ghai screen-tested, gives a noteworthy performance. Bernath is challenged by having to emote while stumbling along with heavily accented Hindi. Om Puri, as a gay court singer, adds a few well-timed laughs.
Oberoi’s excellent noble savage Kisna, meanwhile, is moulded from common Hindu lore. Paralleling Vishnu’s famed avatar, Kisna as a child loves animals and as a youth emerges as the most sought-after lover who must confront an evil uncle (Puri). In his prime he is forced to become the bridge that gaps two agitated worlds, symbolically completing his odyssey to become the sole cosmic powerbroker.
The convergence of Rahman and Darbar on the same soundtrack results in a brilliant score that combines northern Indian mountain ragas (Darbar) with all-around sparkle (Rahman). The result is a double-CD soundtrack that explodes with tablas and hidden choruses. Darbar’s neo-qawwali “chilman uthengi nahin” is a showstopper picturized with Sushmita Sen in a cameo.
At a shallow level, the well-written script thrashes about lesser vices like greed, corruption, and revenge. Beneath the surface, the script tracks the dual realities of war waged to preserve dignity and the redemptive powers of physical austerities. Ghai successfully translates this metaphysical soup into a discrete celluloid language. On a canvas reminiscent of both Japanese master Kurosawa (swordfights in heavy downpour) and publicity poster art reminiscent of Hong Kong cinema, especially Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kisna scores big.
Of the afore-mentioned physical austerities, consider this. When Sharvani’s Lakshmi, the village belle obsessed with jealousy, puts on some gravity-defying mock-erotic acrobatic moves, she borrows from ithyphallic Shiva-worship postures usually performed by male sadhus. This exercise in sensual and sexual self-denial—a rarely used cinematic device in Hindi films—silently conveys Lakshmi’s inner conflict and is executed with great finesse. Ghai the Entertainer may henceforth be rightly called Ghai the Visionary.