Swarnakamalam has been highly recommended by several readers and other friends, and I saw Bhanupriya’s dances in the film on Minai’s excellent blog. I really like Venkatesh and Bhanupriya. They are appealing, both are good actors, and I always enjoy seeing them on screen. K. Vishwanath wrote and directed, and while this contains several themes in common with his earlier Sagara Sangamam, this is a far less satisfying film. There is some great dancing and a nice domestic setting that helps build the sense of who these people are. But I don’t wholeheartedly like the lead characters and I have issues with several points in the story. My DVD is mostly subtitled but occasionally I guess the subtitle team nipped out for a coffee or something and a few chapters were left untouched. Happily these were mostly scenes involving Tinku the annoying child sidekick, but perhaps there was something essential that I did miss.
Venkatesh is Chandrasekhar. He is introduced as an artist who paints cinema hoardings and billboards. He has a sidekick, annoying young Tinku, and seems to get by from day to day. He cons his way into renting a room from a pious couple, and initially his character seems to be a bit shady. But as time goes by he seems to have contacts all over town, knows everyone, and can facilitate pension and passport applications. Venkatesh is a really likeable actor. He always seems to be acting with his co-stars rather than acting for the camera, and I love watching him in ensemble scenes as he never seems to switch off when he is in the background. Although I did find myself thinking ‘Oh it’s a good thing his back-hair is distracting me from the too short shorts’. See if you agree!
It’s a shame Chandrasekhar is quite unappealing once the superficial charm is taken out of the equation. He is controlling and a bit of a bully. He always knows best, and pushes people to do what he wants.
He also seems to be quite obsessed with Meenakshi and paints multiple hoardings with her image, and has loads of photos of her strewn about his studio which is a bit creepy. From his rooftop terrace he can see into his neighbours compound.
Bhanupriya is Meenakshi, the girl next door. She is the daughter of a celebrated dance guru, and lives in genteel poverty. She doesn’t see the point of dance as it doesn’t put food on the table. Her sister Savitri (Devilalitha) works tirelessly making and selling snacks, and singing with their father. Meenakshi just wants to escape the artistic life and get a job that pays for life’s necessities and a few luxuries. Of course, everyone around her seems to know better. Even allowing for the pressure, Meenakshi is a brat, and seems like a very young teenaged girl. She is sly, sneaks off to the movies and other outings, and tries to get out of dancing by staging various misfortunes but never speaks to her father about her reservations. Once her father passes away, Meenakshi gets a job and seems to be set to stand on her own feet and live the life she wants. She is strong enough to confront Chandrasekhar about his actions but not strong enough to stop him from interfering.
Bhanupriya is beautiful, and I loved the songs that featured her excellent dancing. But there was something about Meenakshi that I just couldn’t like as much as I wanted to and I blame that on the writing for her character. This is one of my favourite songs. I enjoy the way Bhanupriya is initially cranky about having to practice but seems to enjoy dancing more as the audience builds.
The supporting cast are mostly members of the household or compound. There is a pleasantly disorganised informality in the way characters wander in and past each other’s houses and share chores. I loved the set dressing that included little details like the knick knacks in the house.
Savitri and the landlord’s son have a nice romantic sideplot that made me happy as theirs seemed like a genuine partnership founded on mutual affection and respect and they were nice people. There is a comedy sideplot involving Sri Laxmi and her unfortunate husband, and it was tolerable if not hilarious. Tinku, the annoying child sidekick, does have some nice scenes where he is copying Meenakshi’s dance, and becomes very focussed and joyful. The uplifting power of music and dance permeates the film.
Director K Viswanath is known for his message films. But the message in Swarnakamalam seems to get a bit scrambled. Initially we are presented with the ideal of classical art, pure and beautiful. Bureaucrats are criticised for not paying pensions to senior artists and giving them their due respect. But then the message seems to be that art cannot be forced, it must come from the heart and be allowed to adapt lest it stagnate, so there is approval for Meenakshi’s rejection of her artistic heritage. Then Chandrasekhar decides that Meenakshi is born to be a classical dancer despite her own views and badgers her into performing, has her fired from a job she enjoys as it is supposedly beneath a great dancer and generally insists she be his perfect artist according to the ideals of culture and tradition.
Meenakshi wants to dance when and as she feels like it, not as her whole life or for her living. She is railroaded into becoming a cultural performer in a fancy hotel and then Chandrasekhar sets her up with a wealthy American dancer and patron who wants Meenakshi to tour the US. After a very emotional scene where she learns to value her father’s legacy and embraces the dance, admitting that dancing with love and commitment would make her happy and fulfilled, she is forced to choose between Chandrasekhar and success.
Chandrasekhar wrote Meenakshi a letter to read at the airport as she was about to set off on tour. He writes that no one else but him would ever tolerate Meenakshi’s lying and misbehaviour, no one else but him would force her to be a great dancer and every time her anklets chimed that was his voice, the voice of a man who loved her. I found it really manipulative in forcing a choice that didn’t have to be a choice. Why shouldn’t she have love and artistic success?
So the whole great art as its own reward idea seemed to go out the window, as did the independence of the artist. The message seems to be it’s OK to stalk someone, then bully them into a career they don’t want, until they realise they do want it, then you pull the rug out from under them. Venkatesh and Bhanupriya did have a lovely rapport on screen, but my liking for their performances is just for their acting, and not the characters behaviours.
On a purely visual level, Swarnakamalam is gorgeous. The songs are delightful, and allow Bhanupriya to show off her skills and a range of beautiful classical dance costumes, and Venkatesh shows off his strolling and knitwear modelling in some beautiful locations.
The framing of the dance scenes is meticulous and Lok Singh made the most of the scenery and the beautiful lines of Bhanupriya’s dancing. The music by Illayaraja is perfect for the context and the subtitles for the songs did offer some additional insights as well as being lovely.
Watch it for excellent performances and beautiful dancing, sadly not matched by the story or characters. I just can’t warm to the film, but I love the songs. 3 stars.
Heather says: This is a beautifully pictured film which focuses on the art of Indian Classical dance and to a lesser extent Carnatic music. I love the two sisters, Meenakshi and Savitri, and their very genuine interaction. It makes it very natural that the only person Meenakshi conveys her discontent to is her sister. Savitri’s placid nature means that she is happier and more settled, but she accepts Meenakshi’s view and does her best to help her attain her dreams after their father dies. This relationship and that of the two girls with their father makes a very solid foundation to the film. Enter Venkatesh as Chandrasekar – the interfering neighbour. If I was Meenakshi, I don’t think I would have had as much patience with Chandrasekhar’s meddling in my life. Although it’s clear that he has her best interests at heart he is determined to make her conform to his view of her. The film tries to point out that you have to have passion and belief in order to truly excel, and I’m not sure that Meenakshi really does have what it takes. She enjoys dancing for herself but doesn’t enjoy performing so it does seem cruel that everyone keeps forcing her, when all she wants is a normal life. I also agree with Temple that it was very stalker-ish for Chandrasekhar to paint her picture everywhere. I found that really creepy, especially considering that he was essentially also watching her all the time. Savitri’s relationship seems much more genuine and is more enjoyable to watch develop. Top marks as well for showing the landlord’s son playing the violin properly. It makes me cringe every time I see someone massacring a violin on screen and this is a lovely change. Even if he isn’t actually playing the notes that we heard!
Despite my quibbles with Chandrasekhar’s character, I thinkthatVenkatesh was excellent in this role. He was passionate and devoted and really looked the part. Due to dodgy subtitles I didn’t get a clear idea of his relationship to Tinku but it was effective to have the comedy mainly between Chandrasekhar and Tinku rather than the usual obtrusive and subsequently unfunny ‘comedy track’. The humour between the couple with the wife devoted to blessing everyone was also funny and well integrated into the movie.
The standout of the film though is the dancing, and Bhanupriya was fantastic in these scenes. It was interesting to have real life dance guru Sharon Loven in the film, although her character didn’t really make much sense in the context of the rest of the story. The whole trip to America idea felt tacked on as a reason for Chandrasekhar and Meenakshi to finally admit what they felt for each other. I have 2 copies of this film and since they both had patchy subtitles and wouldn’t play right to the end I was quite frustrated by the time Meenakshi left for the airport. I watched the climax online with no subtitles and would love to know what was written in that last letter since Meenakshi’s decision at the end might make more sense to me. I was hoping she would leave and make a life for herself in America where she would finally be able to choose to do what she wanted to do. Still, the film looks beautiful and both the dancing and the music are excellent. Worth watching for those alone. 3 ½ stars.