A BOLLYWOOD FABLE OF LOVE, LUST AND OBSESSION
There is nothing quite like Raj Kapoor’s Love Sublime – a meditation on love and beauty that lavishly mixes fantasy, psychedelia, and voluptuous sexuality against the background of 1970s India’s rural electrification program. A playboy engineer from the city (Shashi Kapoor) is sent to a small village to oversee a new hydroelectric dam, and falls in love with a nubile temple girl (Zeenat Aman) who hides her severely scarred face from him. He discovers her disfigurement on their wedding night and goes mad, insisting that she is an impostor and bringing her to a strange masquerade designed to restore his love. Raj Kapoor presents a fairy tale vision that mixes the hardscrabble realism of rural life with baroque dream sequences and a scandalous degree of sexuality by his female star’s barely there wardrobe. While representing a stunning accomplishment in visual style by cinematographer Radhu Karmakar and boasting an accomplished soundtrack by composers by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Love Sublime‘s unusual story and rampant eroticism has nevertheless defined it as the most controversial movie of Bollywood’s greatest filmmaker.
Love Sublime resembles the Hindi lovechild of Samuel Fuller and Russ Meyer, merging daring pulp perversity with a rural, Gothic, T&A melodrama and creating an irresistible social drama that may or may not teach that beauty is more than skin deep. As Elliott Stein observes, “Although it was made for Indian audiences, I have never met an Indian who will admit to liking it and I have never met anyone from the West who didn’t like it.”
- New High Definition Digital Transfer
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
- Newly translated English subtitles
- Raj Kapoor in the ’70s – Rachel Dwyer on Raj Kapoor and his late career interest in female protagonists
- New interviews with stars Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman
- Sex, Saris, and Censorship – a visual essay by Monika Mehta exploring the reception and controversy of Love Sublime
- Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork
- Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Wendy Doniger, a review by Elliott Stein, and illustrated with original stills and posters
We’ve always meant to address the work of Raj Kapoor in the context of potential Criterion titles (and we still plan too), but the recent expansion of Arrow Video to North America and our decision to start posting on retro-cult titles for the label’s consideration provided an opportunity to discuss Love Sublime (1978). More to the point, we simply couldn’t resist introducing Kapoor to MMC! by way of this sumptuously preposterous slice of Bollywood cheesecake. Kapoor, also known as “The Showman” in his homeland, is an icon of the Indian film industry, being a multi-talented artist who made his name acting, directing, and producing a series of massively successful films through the 1950s that cultivated an onscreen persona based on Chaplin’s Tramp character. By the ’70s, Kapoor, with his filmic prominence waning and having an established admiration for attractive women, moved on to fashioning films featuring beautiful actresses serving as their principal protagonists. Love Sublime (also known as Satyam Shivam Sundaram and sometimes translated as Love, Truth, Beauty; Truth, God, Beauty; or The True, The Good, and The Beautiful) proved to be a commercial failure for Kapoor, its class A certificate limiting it to 18+ audiences and its salacious content alienating critics and audiences alike. But while the film remains in its domestic market something of an unappreciated work lost in the celebrated filmography of an iconic director, its unusual content and resplendent look makes Love Sublime a seemingly ripe candidate for discovery in the West.
Rupa (Zeenat Aman) is the daughter of a village priest who is considered by him and the others in her community as an ill omen due to the death of her mother during childbirth and a disfiguring burn on her face and neck acquired during childhood that mars her otherwise beautiful appearance. Her father laments his inability to marry her off and scorns her as something of a burden, yet Rupa remains a devout and religious young woman, visiting the temple daily and singing songs of faith and devotion. When a debonair engineer, Ranjeev (Shashi Kapoor), arrives in the village to oversee the operation of nearby hydroelectric dam, he overhears Rupa’s beautiful voice and immediately falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Ranjeev abhors all things ugly, something discovered when he sees himself in a funhouse mirror at local carnival and nearly suffers a full-scale mental breakdown. Through Rupa’s modesty and a series of contrivances, Ranjeev’s meets Rupa and devotes himself to her without ever noticing her scarring, leaving Rupa uncomfortable with revealing her disfigurement until their wedding night. Ranjeev, quite naturally, goes mad at the sight of Rupa’s burns and, entirely understandably, accuses his new wife of being another woman who has replaced his beloved Rupa. In an equally relatable move, Rupa commits herself to assuming the role of two women – Ranjeev’s wife, who is abused and rejected daily, and Rupa, Ranjeev’s returned love and nightly mistress – all in hopes of eventually merging the two figures in Ranjeev’s mind and receiving his full love. The charade lasts until Rupa is impregnated by Ranjeev and his brutal rejection of her kills Rupa’s father and causes her to finally reject him. Love Sublime concludes with Rupa’s grudge stirring a rainstorm that threatens both Ranjeev’s dam and Rupa’s village, Rupa’s song finally inspiring Ranjeev’s recognition of her, and Ranjeev’s love overwhelming him like the storm waters that destroy the dam and leaves the pair washed out and clinging to each other at Rupa’s temple.
Kapoor’s concept of “an ugly girl with a beautiful voice” who reveals that love is more than skin deep is complicated by the casting of the ample Zeenat Aman as his lead. Kapoor counted on Rupa’s burn scar to interrupt the spell of her beauty and the singing voice of the virginal Lata Mangeshkar to ameliorate her sexuality. But for Indian audiences accustomed to easily identifiable villains, fight scenes, subplots, and parallel storylines, the directness and explicitness of Love Sublime made it pure sexploitation. Aman’s ample curves and her clinging, translucent saris easily overcame her scar’s supposed impact, and Mangeshkar’s beloved voice appearing from Aman’s full lips only drew the ire of film fans. Kapoor seemed to consider Aman’s sexuality as something of an insurance policy. After the failure of Mera Naam Joker (1970), Kapoor remarked that “subtlety is a big gamble” in Indian cinema and so, “for those who miss the soul [of Love Sublime], there’s something else worth seeing.” Stated even more bluntly, Kapoor asserted, “Let people come to see Zeenat Aman’s tits, they’ll come out remembering the film.” Remembering Love Sublime and liking it are very different things, and Kapoor roundly rejected audiences unable to forget their objections to Aman’s comeliness – “That a country which produces 700 million kids should object to a piece of beauty! As if children were born on trees. They are made in beds!” As Monika Mehta observes, Kapoor and the casting of Aman, a Westernized woman, collapsed Bollywood binaries of body and soul, heroine and vamp, tradition and modernity, image and voice, with results quite uncomfortable for Indian moviegoers.
Still, as Elliott Stein notes, Love Sublime does seem tailor-made for Western audiences. The special alchemy of Kapoor’s film seems to derive from the unusual blending of body genres (melodrama, pornography, horror) in a single, uncharacteristic context. Love Sublime is heavy on melodrama, and plenty of tears are shed by Rupa and expected of audience members. Going farther, Ranjeev’s ugliness phobia recalls the unusual complexes and obsessions that motivate various romantic complications and expressions of devotion in Hollywood’s Sirkian melodramas of the ’40s and ’50s. While falling well short of pornography by body genre standards, Indian audiences found Love Sublime exploitive in its use of Aman’s physical form, and even Western audiences would need to acknowledge the heavy sexualized content in Love Sublime‘s excessive skin, revealing clothing, phallic symbols, provocative dancing, and sexual propositions. Rupa is best remembered beneath her waterfall, wearing sheer garments and literally dripping for our gaze, but it’s curious how the other village girls also conform to the same curvaceous proportions, as if Love Sublime was populated by Russ Meyer’s Central Casting. The germ of horror rests in Rupa’s disfigurement, and is made briefly obvious when we shockingly see her as Ranjeev does, with the scar torn away to reveal the bright pink fascia that bares her teeth in a rictus snarl. This moment is unseemingly pulpish and garishly colourful, connecting to the film’s many other luridly presented moments that include a candy-coloured dream sequence and unnaturally tinted pastoral scenes. While body genres may not resonate with Indian audiences as they do with Western spectators, Love Sublime‘s blending of melodramatic, pornographic, and horrific film tropes into the exotic context of the Bollywood musical makes Kapoor’s film special viewing for Western viewers. Its surprising transgressiveness situates Love Sublime as an enthusiastic candidate for an Arrow release, one that is additionally appealing given that it represents a genre unlikely to otherwise find representation in the retro-cult label’s catalogue.
Original poster art for Love Sublime presents the film as a typical Bollywood romance, with no forecasting of its strange story or its copious flesh. We’re most fond of the poster shown above, but we have a clear image of an Arrow cover commission that represents Rupa at her most monstrous, as seen by Ranjeev, and also depicts at her most iconic, sensuously laid beneath the waterfall with her white sari clinging to her body. Pulpy and provocative, such a cover image would cast the film in the suitable realm of Sam Fuller-esque perversity and Arrow Video cult film notoriety.
Credits: We have included interviews with Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman, as both continue to act in India and as their insight into this controversial movie would be invaluable. Indian film scholar Rachel Dwyer was selected to speak on Raj Kapoor’s late career given her proximity to Arrow (she’s based at the University of London) and for her book Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, which specifically discusses Love Sublime. Indian media scholar Monika Mehta was selected to speak on Love Sublime‘s controversy given her extensive discussion of the film in her book Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema. American Indologist Wendy Doniger was selected as an essay contributor for her work on the film in her book The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation. The cover copy is adapted from similar summaries of Love Sublime used by the Pacific Cinematheque and the Harvard Film Archive.