It’s no news that Indian filmmakers love to set their stories in Kashi or Varanasi (also known as Banaras), one of the oldest living cities in the world that is known for its spiritual legacy. The city epitomises both ends of the Hindu spectrum: life and death. In recent years, over 10 films have been made with Banaras as the backdrop, including Banaras by Punkaj Parashar, Kashi by Sanjay Surana, and National award-winning filmmaker P. Sheshadri’s Vidaaya.
In Jayathirtha’s Banaras, the city becomes a character and evolves over its course. The filmmaker, who is known for making content-driven subjects with social messaging, has chosen to do a time-travel movie that is also a poignant love story.
The film opens with the flamboyant and fun-loving Siddarth (Zaid Khan), the son of a wealthy businessman (Devaraj), who poses himself as a time traveller and an astronaut to steal the heart of Dhani (Sonal Mantero), who is a career-oriented student and a budding singer nurturing an ambition to become a reality show star. In reality, Siddarth befriends her to win a bet with his friends. His misadventure, however, causes much pain to Dhani and troubles her career and ambition. She gets maligned by society after Siddarth’s picture in her bedroom goes viral on social media. Hurt by this, Dhani leaves Bengaluru and joins her uncle in Banaras.
On his father’s (Devaraj) advice, Siddarth reaches Banaras to find Dhani. After a long search with the help of Shambu (Sanjay Shastry), a photographer who takes pictures of dead bodies, Siddarth finds Dhani and pleads with her to forgive him. Though forgiving something like this requires more than just a dip in Ganga, things take a turn as Dhani forgives Siddharth and confesses her love for him.
However, all this happens as the story travels back and forth in time, and in the melee, Siddarth learns the lesson of his life.
With Banaras, Jayathirtha has once again proved his mettle as a sensitive filmmaker. Bringing this holy city and the concept of time travel together, he has knitted a poetic love story. In the first half, the director builds up the character of guilt-plagued Siddarth, and Dhani, who feels cheated. Jayathirtha uses the ghats of Ganga, temples, burning mortal remains, sadhus, aghoris, and other spiritual locales of Banaras to enhance the picture.
As the love story between these two characters progresses, Banaras becomes more than a template romance film. In the second half, the director counters the time-travel technique employed by Siddarth with the new narco-analysis formula found by chemistry professor (Achyut Kumar), and this leads to lots of twists and turns.
It’s beautiful how Banaras becomes a character by itself and grows beyond the love story that is being narrated. The divinity of the city slowly seeps into the hearts of viewers, and the filmmaker offers an unseen picture of old Banaras (not the present, developed Kashi) by introducing the audience to interesting locations such as Bharat Mata Mandir, which in turn offers a panoramic understanding of “Akhanda Bharat” and aids in storytelling. Similarly, there is the Kalabhairava temple which represents the past, present, and future. The lanes of Kashi, which are known to bring travellers back to the same point, also become a metaphor.
Jayathirtha’s knack for spotting new talents has worked here as well. Newcomer Zaid Khan excels in acting, dancing and in stunt sequences. Despite the director staying away from regular hero-glorification tropes, Zaid manages to emerge as a new actor to watch out for. It’s also praiseworthy that while many new actors opt for a commercial potboiler to kickstart their careers, Zaid not only took the risk of opting for an experimental one, but also manages to pull it off successfully. Sonal Mantero is also great as Dhani, but the character that is initially written as intelligent and sensitive gets reduced to that of a puppet controlled by Siddharth and her uncle.
Achyut Kumar and Devaraj, as usual, garnish the film with their professional and mature performances. Advaith Gurumurthy has turned this love story into visual poetry through his startling visuals; instead of standing apart as its own, the cinematography supplements the director’s effort to narrate a different love story. Anjeesh Lokanath’s background score, especially songs like Maya Gange and Belakina Kavithe, have a lasting impact too.
On the whole, Banaras is an aesthetically-made commercial film that will cater to audiences of all age groups.
Banaras is currently running in theatres