This classic film can be briefly described as bi-lingual Romeo and Juliet set on the beaches of Vizag. From the engaging lead pair of Kamal Haasan and Saritha, the strong supporting actors, to the bold black and white cinematography, catchy soundtrack and fab 70s fashions, this K Balachander film is stunning. But be warned – Romeo and Juliet never lived happily ever after and this film stays true to its inspiration.
I haven’t identified all the actors in the cast as the information isn’t on my DVD and online sources don’t seem to match actor with character so please let me know who I’ve missed out.
Kamal Haasan is Balu, a Tamil Brahmin lad who moves in next door to Telugu speaking Swapna played by the lovely Saritha.
They feel an instant attraction, but cannot communicate easily through speech so improvise a language of percussion, mime, light switch flicking and of course dance! I don’t know whether I was happy or disheartened to see the one and only Learn Telugu in 30 Days text book. Surely things have changed since 1977? If not in romance, then at least in school books?
Saritha is beautiful, headstrong and a minx. I’m glad this was filmed in B&W as I suspect what looks striking in monochrome might have been horrifying in colour! Swapna is a modern girl, quick to deal with unwanted attention from the creep in the bookshop and proud of her academic achievements. She and her father read (badly subtitled) Shakespeare to each other; indeed, Romeo and Juliet are mentioned. Saritha has an earthy physicality and she lights up when Swapna is happily in love. Her character keeps unfolding which is impressive in a fairly simple story.
Kamal Haasan is his usual cocky self and at times bears a distracting resemblance to Siddharth. Balu is a self centred layabout, happily sponging off his family and using his charm to keep his mother on his side. His high waisted flares are enough of a disincentive for me, not to mention the shorts, but Swapna is made of sterner stuff. Balu’s reactions are always hasty, and usually about him and what he wants.
Once his temper cools he is quite rational, but he never seems to learn this about himself and so his character development is not particularly strong. He totally loses himself in the classical dance sequences which reflect the inner turmoil of his character, and they are beautiful to watch as well as adding some emotional depth to Balu.
Nothing can remain secret for long, and Balu and Swapna don’t try very hard to be discreet, as the rocks and trees covered in their graffiti shows. She is pursued by the sleazy bookshop guy who happens to have a penchant for secret photography. He shows some very candid photos to Swapna’s parents with predictable results. As befits Romeo and Juliet, their families disapprove and seek to pressure the youngsters into marrying within their caste. The young lovers undertake to separate for a year to prove that they aren’t just infatuated. Once they are forced apart, the film becomes a lot more interesting as the story expands beyond the fresh faced puppy love and the supporting characters show some surprising qualities.
Swapna alternates between plaintive and defiant but never loses her resolve. Her behaviour at times frightens her parents who can’t understand her obsession let alone her bizarre actions. She drinks the ashes of a photo of Balu mixed in her coffee, she scrawls his name thousands of times on the walls. Her parents try to entice her away from Balu by dragging rich cousin Pattabhi into the household, but she plays him for a sucker and never wavers.
Balu is sent to Hyderabad to work for Hari Babu. Hari Babu takes Balu to a party at Reddy’s, a dissolute character with a band of freeloading friends which includes Balu’s neighbour in the lodging house, Papa. Her first scene includes a fairly detailed conversation about the effects of caffeine on the digestive tract and a flash of belly so it’s obvious from the get go she isn’t a shy girl. She wears trousers, goes to Reddy’s boozy parties and smokes. Papa pursues Balu and falls in love with him. When she realises that he is lost to her, she initially begs for him to sleep with her just once and after being rejected again, schemes for revenge. Considering all this, her character is surprisingly sympathetic and is even admired (with reservations) by her drinking buddies.
Also in the background of Reddy’s set is his sister Sandhya (Madhavi). A widow and an accomplished dancer, not quite a Mrs Robinson figure, she is a sympathetic presence for Balu. She helps him learn proper Telugu and to channel his energy, hormones and emotions into some beautiful dance sequences. She is drawn to his sadness and passion, and their common interests make a closer relationship seem inevitable.
After a misunderstanding over Swapna’s relationship with Pattabhi, Balu turns to Sandhya. Their affair is shown as a very matter of fact thing – they weren’t a couple and now they are, and a wedding is on the cards. No one seems terribly shocked by this relationship, except Papa who wants Balu for herself. Sandhya is shown as a resourceful woman who got on with life after her husband died, and isn’t needy or pathetic.
Sandhya discovers Balu’s unsent letters to Swapna, and takes herself to Vizag. She sees immediately that Swapna had never betrayed Balu and was waiting for him to return. Instead of just going home and getting on with her own wedding, she reassures Swapna that Balu has been faithful and will come back to her. Sandhya’s anger in the scene where she sends Balu away with a flea in his ear and a ticket for the train is so moving. I felt that she identified with the girl who was going to lose her love, and partly hated Balu for cheating her on an emotional level. Contrast that with Balu’s immediate descent into self pity and woe, and I really had to cheer for the strong female characters that dominate the action.
Papa, Sandhya and Pattabhi are all swept aside by Balu and Swapna’s True Love. It’s a raw deal for Sandhya who seems a decent person, and sure to make her life that bit more difficult in the aftermath. There is a level of arrogance to the argument that love means never having to deal with the consequences for anyone other than your soulmate.
After giving signs of a happy future finally, the universe then aligns every possible obstacle and circumstance to prevent the marriage. As expected in a Romeo and Juliet inspired tale, the lovers come to a brutal, senseless, tragic end. The sleazy bookshop guy seizes his chance, and Swapna is brutalised in a sickening yet brilliantly edited sequence at the same time that Balu is attacked by paid rowdies. I really was on the edge of my seat through the final twenty minutes or so, hoping that the youngsters might make it even while knowing that a happy ending was never on the cards.
The film opens with disembodied voices talking over scenes of the places Balu and Swapna spent time together, almost like ghosts who couldn’t let go of their lives. It’s a scene that haunted me after the end titles had run. I have to give this 4 and 1/2 stars – for the stunning visuals, the charismatic lovers and the sheer skill of a film maker who could keep me watching even when I knew I didn’t want to.
Here’s a bonus clip for you – The dancing starts about 1 minute in: