Grade: CSiddhartha (1972)

Director: Conrad Rooks

Stars: Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal

Release Company: Milestone Films

MPAA Rating: R

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Conrad Rooks: Siddhartha


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According to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, life is suffering, so perhaps that is what director Conrad Rooks had in mind with his 1972 rendition of Siddhartha. One of many early 1970's cinematic projects attempting to take advantage of hippie culture, the film is Based on Nobel Prize winning author Herman Hesse's classic 1921 novel. It contains impressive credentials—India's matinee idol Balbirraj "Shash" Kapoor in the title role, one of the world's finest cinematographers in Sven Nykvist, a director well connected with India, and incredible location shooting in Northern India (including the holy city of Rishikesh and private access to the palaces of the Maharajah of Bharatpur. Rooks also would appear to have the proper life experiences to present Siddhartha's spiritual quest—associations with Beats and intelligentsia from Greenwich Village, early LSD sojourns with Timothy Leary, drug and alcohol addiction and rehabilitation, and two busted marriages.

A director that once got drunk with Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and William Burroughs certainly seems like the proper filmmaker to translate Hesse's popular novel into celluloid, but while the film scored well with Indian audiences who felt it portrayed their country in a positive light, it flopped commercially with its intended American audience. In one sense this is ironic because the novel was a popular hit with American beats and hippies and became essential reading for many young people during the sixties. Remaining faithful to Hesse's text renders a nearly unwatchable film despite its beautiful photography. Siddhartha is as unfilmable as Thoreau's Walden. What deeply moves people on the printed page only becomes pretentiously pedantic on the screen.

In case you're not familiar with the story, it traces the life of young Brahmin Siddhartha, who leaves his comfortable life to search for meaningful existence. Beginning with asceticism, he eventually rejects its routine and fails to follow the Buddha despite realizing that he is on the right path, feeling that he must experience life his own way instead of accepting the Truth from a single teacher. That leads him to a life of material wealth and sensual pleasures, which inevitably lead to another dead end. Eventually he returns to a kindly boatman, who serves as a gentle mentor by referring him always to learn from the river.

Just how can you make the central metaphor of the river into a dramatic situation? Translating an internal spiritual quest into film just doesn't work—unless you've taken enough drugs to create your own action or you're completely mesmerized by the scenery. There are some special moments like the wonderful montage of the nine holy Sadhus of Rishikesh, blind ascetics that form a human chain while chanting, and the scenes with the Tibetan Buddhist monks and Llama Libsang, but these would work better if incorporated into a travelogue.

Thinking the film would present India in a positive light, Indian audiences took well to the film, but its stars certainly elevated the box office receipts over there. Beautiful Simi Garawal (Kamala) was already well known to Indian audiences, and certainly attracted their attention with a modest nude scene since India had steadfastly banned even kissing from their cinema. American audiences would be more likely to laugh at the awkwardness—Garawal's first lovemaking scene with Kapoor closes in on their faces and makes them look like they are doing calisthenics at the gym. A trimmed down Kama Sutra sequence is photographed as black silhouettes like a pair of models posing for a Shiva statuette.

To incorporate another Noble Truth—the Buddhist idea of cessation of desire to stop suffering�you must watch the film without expectations. That way Siddhartha remains bearable due to the strength of Nykvist's cinematography and the wonderful location shoots.

Long unavailable in the U.S. (for understandable commercial reasons), Milestone Films has brought Rooks' second (and last) film out of mothballs to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Hesse's birth though it's difficult to fathom why a resurrection is warranted. It may only be 94 minutes long, but the film's vapid emptiness and Rooks' slavish insistence on remaining true to the text only prevent viewers from experiencing the book for themselves. If you truly honor Herman Hesse, read the novel before polluting your impressions with this ill-advised film project. This is a case where the true seeker must journey to the original source!

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