Sagara Sangamam

I had no luck finding a subtitled version of this film (legal or otherwise), which is a shame as I think that difficulty will stop a lot of people from watching. I’m not sure where Heather got her subtitled copy from. However this is the story of a dancer, often expressed in action rather than speech and many scenes required no further explanation.

The film uses a flashback structure so we actually meet the older Balu (Kamal Haasan) first. He is a disgruntled drunk and newspaper critic who, despite all his issues, demands a high standard for dance. He writes a scathing review of the latest dance sensation Sailaja (SP Sailaja), and rather than apologise when she confronts him, belittles her by showing her how it should be done.

Young Balu is a poor boy, dedicated to dance in many forms – and a purist. He wants to be successful but is held back by his dislike of the shallow sexified version of dance that is in demand (and is perhaps dismayed by the outfits).

Balu’s world is small. He has his mother, dance, and his friend Ragu (Sarath Babu). He also meets Madhavi (Jayaprada) who is wealthy and happy to be his patron. She gives him many opportunities, and becomes more than a sponsor in his eyes.

Each episode reveals something more of Balu’s character and how he came to be in his current situation. It’s a big challenge for a film maker, and in this instance it is handled beautifully by K. Vishwanath. The fragments fall together to make a cohesive story, and it is easy to follow the narrative.

Kamal Haasan is fantastic. Since we more or less know how the story ends before it begins, it really does require a great performance to keep a viewer engaged on the way to the foregone conclusion, and he delivers. Yes, there are some dubious wardrobe moments and bizarre posturing, but they were intentionally ridiculous, being Balu’s commentary on the commercialisation of dance. Balu dances his joy, pain and despair – he dances his heart out and it is hard to look away.

This is one of my all time favourite film dance sequences and I love it for its joyous emotion, simplicity and the brilliant editing. Despite his dedication to dance as a pure art form, Balu isn’t a total stick-in-the-mud. He adds some sweet comedic flourishes dancing with kitchen utensils, and plays up to his mother who dreams of seeing Balu on stage. Madhavi is impressed too!

Life seems set and success is just around the corner so naturally, I expected a tragedy. Because he is such a perfectionist and intolerant of things that don’t fit his vision, Balu is ill equipped to deal with setbacks. He falls into a bottle after losing his mother, missing his big dance debut and then learning that Madhavi is not free to return his love (she is married to a man who looked absolutely miserable in their wedding photos). His character frustrated me greatly. I could empathise with Balu, but I really wanted him to see sense and find a way to bend before he broke.

Sarath Babu’s role was small but he is a constant and reassuring presence and instilled Ragu with an air of integrity and generosity.  I’m not entirely sure why Ragu stuck by his friend as he seemed to give endlessly to an often ungrateful sod. There were lively glimpses of Balu’s character in a couple of scenes that made me believe in the friendship, and perhaps I missed a lot in the dialogues.

Madhavi tracks down her old friend and would be lover through the newspaper and Ragu. Her side of the story is also revealed through flashbacks. This episodic style seems apt as her love for Balu is revealed through her candid and perceptive snapshots of him long before either of them acknowledges any feelings. Jayaprada is lovely and manages to be light and funny as young Madhavi without being shrill or giggly, ably matching Kamal Haasan in the physical comedy.

She gives a sensitive portrayal of a woman who is tempted by a love she cannot act on and manages to be sympathetic despite having been, at best, deceptive by omission.

As it happens, she is Sailaja’s mother, and so Balu’s life turns back on itself as Madhavi secretly engages him as a dance teacher for the stylish but shallow girl.

The photograph motif is used a lot. One of the most moving examples is when Balu and Madhavi try to use the timer thingie to take a picture of themselves together. The photo fails and all that can be seen is a worried Madhavi and ghostlike blur of Balu. They joke that it wasn’t meant to be. Then when Madhavi departs with her husband, Balu takes and keeps a photo of the couple as a reminder to himself of what had to be. It’s one of the few pictures he takes; usually Madhavi was the one to give him beautifully composed portraits showing what he was to her.

Their reunion is full on filmi and yet simple as Madhavi confronts Balu while he is stinking drunk. Balu’s drunken cavorting avoids being a mockery of his dance despite being accessorised with a bottle, perhaps as it comes straight from his heart with no artifice. Madhavi lets Balu see her sadness and fear for him while he seems to give her an earful for not teaching Sailaja to be a better dancer. In so many ways, they haven’t changed a bit. Balu doesn’t know that Madhavi is a widow, and once more she struggles with the pressure of family against her desire to move forward with Balu in her life.

Sailaja is unhappy at this revelation about her mother’s past, but she should be practicing her dancing more than spying, and do a bit of growing up as well. Happily for her, she does come around to seeing the value in Balu’s teaching (which he does from a hospital bed). Her performance was probably the weakest for me in terms of acting, but her dance scenes with Kamal Haasan were much more satisfying. And SP Sailaja can sing, so she was certainly talented.

The structure of the story is solid, and the characters seem believable. The Illaiyaraaja soundtrack is integrated into the drama and the dances reveal so much of the characters’ inner lives they are essential to the film, not just a pleasant addition. The dance practice and performance scenes are filmed beautifully.  I can’t comment on the lyrics by Veturi or the dialogues co-written by K. Vishwanath and Jandhyala (who wrote dialogues for Aaradhana) as I just made up what I thought was happening in some scenes.

The ending is over the top but despite all the silly trappings the leads keep it (mostly) restrained to let their characters’ emotions shine through. If nothing else grabs you, this film captures some exceptional dance performances. I wish I could fully appreciate the characterisations, as I did feel disconnected at times due to my lack of language skills, but it wasn’t a huge issue.

I give Sagara Sangamam 4 ½ stars.

Heather says: This is such a beautiful film and although I keep returning to it time and time again to watch the incredible dance scenes, there is so much more to enjoy in this film. To start with the dancing, there probably isn’t anyone other than Kamal Hassan who could manage to make it all look so effortless. The classical dance scenes are superb, and even the contemporary song (with that truly hideous yellow suit) is well added in to showcase his skills. Jayaprada is beautiful in her dance scenes and S P Sailaja is excellent, but it’s still Kamal Hassan who draws my eye each time. I absolutely love the dance scene in the kitchen which is fresh, spontaneous and makes such good use of the setting.

Leaving aside the amazing dancing, this is a really well told story. An alcoholic ‘hero’ is unusual and, since I work in the field, I like that it’s a useful public health message as well. The romance between Balu and Madhavi develops slowly and naturally considering their joint love of the arts and despite the difference in their social standing. The use of photography to link the story together is cleverly done and every image adds a little more to the story. Sarath Babu is excellent as Balu’s long suffering friend, and his generosity provides a stark contrast to Balu’s increasing selfishness as he beomes dependant on the demon drink. However Raghu is not a perfect saint either since he doesn’t scruple to use Balu’s guilt against him as a way to blackmail his friend into teaching the spoilt brat Sailaja. Of course it’s all for Balu’s own good and the fact that he gets treatment for his sick wife Sumathi is a bonus. All of the supporting cast is excellent here and K. Vishwanath develops their characters in enough detail to make their actions understandable and relevant.

I really like the way each flashback occurs when something which is happening in the present triggers a memory of a past event by one of the characters. It seems very natural and helps to link the past and the present. The film is very much about the arts: Raghu is a writer and poet, Madhavi is a singer and Balu’s dream that they all perform together seems a natural extension of their friendship. It’s also an excuse to have some beautiful songs and once again Illayaraja provides music that I love and I just wish I knew what the lyrics meant.  There are a few things I don’t enjoy quite so much. There are some really ridiculous co-incidences and the last few scenes are overly melodramatic. But then again this is a film from the eighties and we all know that wasn’t a time for restraint! This is a 5 star film for me.

27 thoughts on “Sagara Sangamam

  1. EXCELLENT review… for a master piece.. My most fav scene/song is thee on in which Kamal feels guilty of using his dance for a fimly song infact he hates dancing in that song 😀 The way Jaya and Kamal sit on the rock and go thru the Invitation card for a dance festival and Balu/Kamal realises it has got his pic in it.. Numerous such scenes… I can watch this movie ‘n’ number of times..

    I recommend you watch “Swarna Kamalam ” ( movie about dance) , “Swayamkrushi” (movie about hard work ) , “Shankarabharanam” and “Swathikiranam” … All from the same director.. I bet he would top your charts as one of the best directors to watch out for…

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    • Thanks 🙂 That scene where Kamal hates himself for turning a Krishna & gopi dance into the filmi dance is great and it really does explain his character. I loved the scene when Madhavi gave Balu the magazine, and next thing you know his room his wallpapered with copies of the picture. I have Swayamkrushi (no subs yet again) and will keep an eye out for more by K Vishwanath.

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    • Hi KB
      I love that scene with the two of them when she’s given him the invitation for the dance festival too – the emotions were so well shown that I found myself almost crying as well 🙂
      I did eventually find a subtitled copy but sadly the songs weren’t subtitled – but really the first 2 times I saw it were without the subtitles and I don’t think I missed very much.
      Its a great film 🙂
      Heather

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  2. As Krishna Bhargav said, the director K. Viswanath and the producer Edida Nageswara Rao made a series of dance based films in the late 70’s and 80’s, of which “Siri Siri Muvva” was the first, though Shankarabharanam was the first to get extreme popularity. In all of them one “gimmick”, if you want to call it such, was the portraying of dance sequences in “every day” settings, rather than in formal performances. So there are many scenes in all of these films where characters break into classical dancing while doing mundane chores, and without the “proper” costumes.

    When I first saw Sagara Sangamam, I was suffering from an excess of K. Viswanath glorification by the media and population in general, and also from seeing several of his “dance” films in succession, which I thought had their own “formula”, even though each was touted to be “unformulaic” and “pathbreaking.” In SS I thought the conceit reached its pitch at the ending. 🙂 As a result, while I enjoyed the dancing well enough, I didn’t have the OTT adulation reaction that everyone around me did. Anyway, I have recently decided to rewatch it, mainly for Kamal’s dancing, and am about half way through it. I may revise my opinion of it after I complete watching, since now I am doing so in isolation.

    It is almost impossible for me to imagine what someone who doesn’t know Telugu and doesn’t have subtitles can get out of the film beyond the fantastic dancing. I am very impressed that you could gather so much of the story without subtitles. One thing that you have missed is the beautiful lyrics to the songs, but I don’t know if any subtitles could have done them justice. I’m glad that you liked the film so much even without the subtitles.

    I recommend Sankarabharanam to you, since for one thing I know that it is available with subtitles (it was shown at several international film festivals), but also because the Chiranjeevi film Rudra Veena (which you have seen, I believe) is, in my view, an almost point by point rebuttal to Sankarabharanam. It is too bad that Rudra Veena isn’t available with English subtitles. If anyone has the technology to add subtitles, I will volunteer to supply them, as I think it’s that important a film. I just won’t promise in what time frame I can do this, though. 🙂

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    • Thanks mm 🙂 I totally understand the concept of fatigue after having had a surfeit of some directors/actors etc. I learned to force myself to take a break so I can try and avoid the cranky feeling of having seen it all before and give each film a chance. But when there is such a clear style and structure used by one film-maker, it’s hard to get past. Maybe it’s an advantage to know very little about the Telugu film industry at times!
      I was quite comfortable watching this without subs as there is a strong structure to the story and things made sense as they unfolded. The only thing I really wished I had subs for would have been the songs, but as you rightly say, the subtitles often fail to do justice to the lyrics. Have you seen the Hindi film Swades? The song subtitles are insane. They are an example of when it would have been better to have no subtitles than mock-Shakespearean ones. Anyway.
      Thanks for the thoughtful recommendations, they are all on my never-ending list now. I really liked Rudraveena (would love it even more with subs 🙂 ) and I will track down Sankarabharanam ASAP. Temple

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      • Ha, ha, yes, I have seen Swades, and I agree about the song subtitles. When the first of them came on, I remember sitting in the theater and saying, “What the heck!” What was really bizarre was that the actual Hindi lyrics were in very simple, colloquial language, so it wasn’t even as if they were trying to replicate the tone of very formal Hindi lyrics. I have no idea where those subtitles came from. 🙂

        Along those lines, when I first saw Sankarabharanam, it came with English subtitles (in a theater). I was particularly impressed with how well the song lyrics had been translated, since they were dealing with some sophisticated religious and philosophical concepts and symbolism.

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  3. I left a message on dolce’s blog recommending this movie few hours back and now I see your review for the same movie here . How wonderful. Nice review and glad that you liked it without the subs.

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    • Thanks tolly 🙂 I think every Telugu speaker I have ever talked movies with has recommended this film and I can see why. I’ll watch more K Vishwanath films as I find them, and hopefully can get some with good subs. Cheers, Temple

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  4. Aha! So THIS is the movie that that wonderful succession of different dance styles is from (the first song you posted)! 😀 Wonderful! All the more reason to watch it (not that Tolly would let me get away without watching it anyway :P). 🙂 And I am so using the old “subs on the laptop and movie on the TV screen” trick, I want the full experience, dialogues and everything.

    And you guys just saved me from doing a review for it, thank you! 🙂

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    • oh no you don’t Dolce! You weaselled out of reviewing Aaradhana already. I’m sure tolly demands (go on tolly, demand) as do I that you have a crack at this film. I’d be really interested in your perspective. And thank you for your kind comments, of course 🙂 Temple

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  5. So happy to see that you reviewed this one! I’ve been thinking lately how there is a dearth of K Vishwanath film reviews on the web, and I was considering finally making myself watch this one all the way through , so it was wonderful to read your well-written review.

    If you want subtitles, you should look for the Tamil-dubbed version of it called Salangai Oli, though I’m not positive the songs are subtitled. For some reason I’ve always had the impression that Salangai Oli is a bit more well-known or remembered than the Telugu original because folks often forget that it’s only a dub when they talk about it.

    mm, I found your comments very interesting. Happy to hear you mention Swarna Kamalam- that was the first South Indian movie I watched and I fell in love with Bhanupriya. I love love love her dancing in that film, though the film itself is very rough around the edges and without many of the charms of Sagara Sangamam. Perhaps I’ll make myself do a review one of these days. 🙂

    I’m also very intrigued that you got this much out of the film without subtitles! I doubt I could infer half as much. 🙂

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    • Thanks Minai 🙂 I have several copies of Salangai Oli that purported to be subtitled but weren’t. When I followed up with Nehaflix they emailed back to tell me to try using the subtitle button on my DVD remote! Grrrrrrr. So anyway, I now have a subtitled copy of Sagara Sangamam albeit too late for this post. In terms of understanding what’s going on – well only a small percentage of face to face communication is based on vocabulary, it’s more about expression and tone and non verbal stuff. So it does require paying attention but a lot of the interactions are clear, it is just the motivation that can be tricky. I’m resigned to the fact that so many older films will not be available with subs so if I want to see them, I have to improvise 🙂 Temple

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  6. I do not have much to add to the excellent review. One thing that might have improved with subtitles is the background love story of Raghu and Sumathi. I thought that was sweet.

    After they get married, the song sung as their ‘wedding gift’ and the focus shift to Balu and Madhavi and our expectation of them as next couple was one of the memorable parts.

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  7. Wonderful review! I try to watch SS every time it gets telecasted on TV. My favourite scene is where Kamal Hasan drunk dances on top of the well. Jayaprada gets worried and just before rushing out, applies a bindi because he she doesn’t want him to know that she’s a widow. When it rains later, and her bindi starts dripping away, he tries to protect it with his hands cupped on top of her head. It is a very symbolic scene enacted brilliantly and I can’t forget the look on Jayaprada’s face.

    Little touches like these are what make K Vishwanath’s movies great. Swathi Muthyam is another piece of gem. It starts Kamlal Hasan and Radhika.

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    • That is a lovely scene, I agree. My favorite is still him dancing in the kitchen as his mother pictures him on stage. It is Kamal Haasan at his simple best – no tricks or silly costumes, just beautiful dancing and a lovely light hearted spirit. Jayaprada is really good in this. I think she conveyed the conflicting emotions beautifully and I really wanted things to work out for her character. I’m so glad you’re enjoying reading our blog Uday – thanks for all the nice comments 🙂 Temple

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  8. wonderful review but u never mentioned about the music? it has some finest music and heart tugging BGM. hatsoff to ilayaraja!!

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  9. Vinod – I’ve deleted your comments as they were rude and abusive. If your biggest problem in life is that people appreciated this film in Tamil rather than Telugu, go count your blessings. Lots of people would love to have such insignificant issues to worry about.

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