Saraswathi Sabatham (1966)

When I started watching films which dealt with the classical stories involving Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I noticed a number of parallels with the legends I heard as a child growing up in Ireland. There are many books and articles which deal with the similarity between the two cultures, but every time I watch one of these films it strikes me all over again and is probably one of the reasons why I love these mythological films. The lavishness of the sets and the stunning costumes are other reasons to watch and enjoy but I really do appreciate the stories and the opportunity to learn more about the Hindu pantheon of Gods. A. P. Nagarajan made many successful mythological films in the sixties, and I’m hopeful that after the recent success of the restored classic Karnan some of Nagarajan’s films will get the same treatment and become more readily available with subtitles.

Saraswathi Sabatham is a little different from the other Tamil mythological films I’ve seen, as it uses a fictitious plot rather than stories from the Sanskrit epics. It still draws on the personalities and traits of the various Gods and there is a strong message behind the narrative but it’s a simple story which is charmingly told. The film opens with a lovely song featuring the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswathi (Savitri) and her attendants.

Trouble enters into this beautiful and peaceful scene in the form of the sage Naradha (Sivaji Ganesan) who goads Saraswathi by claiming that wealth is more important than knowledge. After successfully riling Saraswathi, Naradha heads off to confront the Goddess Lakshmi (Devika) and again causes trouble by telling her that knowledge is more important than wealth. After successfully starting a rivalry between the two Goddesses, Naradha then adds the Goddess Parvati (Padmini) into the mix by claiming that wealth and knowledge are both more important than bravery. Despite some rather lacklustre protests from their husbands, Brahma, Shiva (Harnath) and Vishnu (Sivakumar), and even though they know that Naradha is a renowned trouble-maker, all three rise to the bait. Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Parvati each vow to make a champion for their cause on Earth and prove that their attribute is the most important while making the other two champions bow down before the winner.

Generally the different aspects of the three Goddesses are well depicted with Savitri appearing regal and dignified as Saraswathi. She conveys a sense of timeless wisdom in her manner, although still storms off in a huff when she gets annoyed with Naradha. Devika’s Lakshmi is playful and charming while Padmini is motherly to her children but feisty enough to challenge Shiva before Naradha intervenes with his teasing. The three Goddesses are also incredibly sparkly and although Lakshmi manages to out-glitter the other two it’s a close run contest.

Saraswathi chooses the mute son of a temple singer to be her champion. She gives Vidyapathi the power of speech and the knowledge to make him an accomplished poet who can sing her praises throughout the kingdom.

Coincidently choosing the same kingdom, Lakshmi uses her power to make a poor beggar girl queen. The ailing king, who has no heir, decides on a method of selecting his successor which will not open him to claims of favouritism. Acting on advice from his chief minister he gives an elephant a garland and decrees that the person garlanded by the elephant will be the next ruler. As he says, this is the perfect plan that no-one can object to – except perhaps the elephant who has to chase around after Selvambikar and then throw the flowers over her head.

Finally Parvati takes a total coward, Veeramallar (Gemini Ganesan) and turns him into a brave and fearless warrior, who quickly rises to be the new army chief as a result of his prowess in saving the queen when her horse bolts.

Vidyapathi, Selvambikai and Veeramallar all squabble amongst themselves as the three Goddesses jostle for power. Each character is full of their own importance and their arrogance is well portrayed by the three actors. Sivaji Ganesan is excellent as Vidyapathi. His transformation completely changes his personality and he is wonderfully condescending and self-righteous as Saraswathi’s champion.

K. R. Vijaya is beautiful, and her change from the poverty stricken beggar girl to haughty queen is just as convincing. Her Selvambikai still has an air of vulnerability despite her arrogance and pride which makes her the most sympathetic of the three and she does also get to wear some lovely sparkly costumes. I almost didn’t recognise Gemini Ganesan here compared to the young romantic in Kalyana Parisu but he has plenty of screen presence as the blustering warrior, although his character doesn’t have quite as much background as the other two.

There are clashes between Vidyapathi and Selvambikai as the poet refuses to sing in praise of the queen. More clashes occur between Veeramallar and Selvambikai as the warrior oversteps his authority, while Vidyapathi and Veeramallar are at odds from the moment they meet. Each embodies the attribute of their patron Goddess and none of them are prepared to back down. Of course it all gets resolved with a suitably moral ending, but it’s the conflicts between the various characters that make the film so entertaining. Plus the chance to see Sivaji Ganesan in a pink outfit with matching pink outfits for his guards.

The sets are fantastic and Lakshmi’s heavenly abode is incredibly golden and extravagant. Naradha walks through the clouds (although the rainbow he stands on isn’t one found in nature), and while there aren’t very many other special effects, they tend to be well used – such as when letters appear as Vidyapathi sings about his new ability to speak.

There is a comedy track featuring Nagesh and Manorama which fits into the story although Nagesh’s character is more successful. Unfortunately subtitles don’t really convey Manorama’s speech patterns which are the basis for the humour in her character.  All the lead actors are excellent but Sivaji Ganesan really stands out as both Naradha and Vidyapathi. He has some wonderful expressions and a real twinkle in his eye while he teases everyone as Naradha, and he keeps the character light and mischievous. He has the same liveliness as Vidyapathi but gives a sense of smugness and conceit rather than the teasing nature of Naradha and his anguish and despair as the mute temple worker praying to Saraswathi is very moving.

The music by K. V. Mahadevan is beautiful and the lyrics by Kannadasan work well even in their English translation. As always I would have liked a little more dancing, although there is a short piece of Bharatanatyam by Padmini to enjoy. It’s probably not a film for everyone’s tastes as the story develops slowly and there is a lot of wordy interplay between the characters to establish the conflict. However for fans of Tamil mythological films, A. P. Nagarajan takes a simple story and aided by excellent performances from his all-star cast makes Saraswathi Sabatham an entertaining and appealing watch.  3 ½ stars.

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15 thoughts on “Saraswathi Sabatham (1966)

  1. Hi Heather, This was a nice watch, wasn’t it? I had seen this film as a six or seven year old. One would think that people don’t absorb much at that age – but not so. When I rewatched it online 6 months ago, I was surprised to see how much I remembered!! All that glitter!! And so many stars from those times! I could even hum along with some of the songs! This is not one of my fav mythologicals – I enjoyed it well enough but I think a lot of enjoyement came from the remembering as well, and thinking of childhood excursions to the theatre with my mum and dad and sis :) These visits were such highlights! We would be dressed in our finest clothes – my mom even donning one of her silks. After the film, we would go to a nice restaurant, vegetarian of course, and have a thali or a masala dosa. The film would be discussed, questions answered, songs hummed, plans made to go to the tailor and copy outfits if possible….oh, it was all so much fun!! The video/dvd/internet world is a poor poor second to the fun I had seeing movies as a kid..

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    • Hi Suja,

      I agree that it’s probably not the best film that A.P. Nagarajan made, but it’s probably one of the most sparkly! I’m not surprised you remembered that :)
      I think the main reason for my enjoyment of this film lies in the excellent performance from the cast, in particular Sivaji Ganesan although I did enjoy the way the 3 champions took on the traits of their patron Goddesses.
      It’s also one of the few that is available on DVD in reasonable quality with subtitles, which does make a difference! I am slowly tracking them down, but I do wish they would release more of these with subs :)

      Your outings sound fantastic! I never went to the cinema as a child as the only theatres were in Belfast, and my parents didn’t feel that it was safe. They weren’t terribly interested in the movies either, so it wasn’t until I moved to England that I actually got to see films on the big screen. As good a reason as any to make up for lost time now! :D
      Perhaps we should have a re-enactment when you are next back in Melbourne – dressing up and eating out sounds like a great idea :)
      Cheers
      Heather

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      • Thats a date :) I’ll take out one of my Kancheepurams and bling to match and we’ll go find a nice restaurant to analyse the film after the show :) It would be so much fun if we could see one of these mythologicals on the big screen..

        That reminds me of another style of movie experience – I saw Maya Bazaar in a small village-style theatre. It was a big clay-floored hall under a thatched roof with open sides so films ran only at night on the days that the man with the projector turned up, once or twice a week. There were two levels of seating, on the floor on mats or on long benches. The seating was split into the women’s side and the men’s side. The man with the projector stood at the centre. Popular songs were sung by the whole crowd – I remember going Haha-haha-haha with ‘kalyaana samayal saadam’ (in the Tamil version) along with the whole audience – who were basically neighbours and friends from the village :) If there was heavy rain, water would come in from the sides and the show would be abandoned!! I’ve seen many a film like that, often curling up and sleeping on my grandma’s lap after a little while..

        Your childhood seems to have been very different indeed! No films at all!! My dear Heather, you have much to make up for :)
        Cheers. Suja

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      • Hi Suja,

        I’m trying :)
        Thanks for sharing such a lovely story :) Maya Bazaar is a wonderful film and I would love to see it in a theatre, but to see it in such a setting would be amazing! When in India I’m afraid my only cinematic experience has been in multiplexes which, while fun and often very loud, don’t compare in any way with your description!

        We will definitely organise something when you are back in Australia :)
        Cheers
        Heather

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      • I share a similar experience as Suja. As a child (may be 6 or 7 yrs old), I remember going to my native place down South during summer holidays and watching a movie in the local village cinema sitting on the floor (smeared clean with cow dung) with thatched roof made of plam tree branches . Men sat on one side and women on the other. The projector used to be placed on a tool in between. I recollect falling asleep on the floor (audience was allowed to take pillows and bedsheets esp when u had kids along!).

        Later when i was in middle school, there used to be a big industrial colony near by (big wig industries had their own township for employees and their families) where the residents formed a local film society, hired a 16 mm projector and screened old movies outdoor esp during summer holidays. We kids got to see movies free sitting on small benches in the front. I recollect seeing old movies like madhumati, sujatha, anari etc – for me the best part was playing with the kids before the movie and then walking home with my older siblings!

        A SS outing sounds interesting Suja. Can i join too in my best kanchivaram saree? Just kidding – considering the diff places we live in

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      • Thanks Filmbuff
        Another great story :)
        My childhood was more about going to gatherings where we all sang and played Irish music together but being Ireland that was usually indoors in a pub to escape the rain! and yes – back then kids were allowed in and as long as we were contributing no-one payed us any heed :)
        I have tested eyes in very similar settings in India though, so I can picture this really well from your description :)

        Any time you’re in Australia we can all head out together!

        Cheers
        Heather

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  2. I feel like watching this movie after seeing your screen caps! Where did you find a DVD copy? or did u see it online like Suja?

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    • Hi Filmbuff,
      It’s a very pretty film :) I had to restrain myself as there were so many more screencaps (and songs!) I could have added!
      I watched this on a DVD from Ayngaran. I can’t remember if I bought it online or locally here, but it’s certainly available from them.
      I’m not sure if all of the film is up on Youtube, but a number of the scenes seem to be – although no subtitles unfortunately :(
      Let me know what you think if you do get to watch :)
      Cheers
      Heather

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    • Hi M, you must visit Melbourne when I am around and we can jointly plan a Movie-in-a-kancheepuram-sari-with-jimikkis-and-addigais (Heather: hanging-earrings and necklace) :) Heather and Temple can wear evening gowns if they don’t have saris, but it would have to be over the top, in gold lamé perhaps :)

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  3. Pingback: సరస్వతి శపథం – సినిమా « sowmyawrites ….

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