Rudraveena is a quiet contemplative film, written and directed by K Balachander, about the responsibility of the individual in matters of caste and society. Chiranjeevi must have felt strongly about making this film as he produced it. I only wish someone would release a decent quality DVD with subtitles as it is just beautiful, and I know I must have missed a lot by not understanding the dialogues. Having said that, the things I don’t fully understand are more the cultural and social aspects, and that is usually not spelt out anyway. I am torn between wanting to write about every little detail and not saying anything about the story so you can discover it for yourself. I really do love Rudraveena and think it is one of Chiranjeevi’s best performances in an engaging and intelligent story.
A man throws a banana towards a blind woman begging, and she accidentally knocks it away. A young Brahmin boy watches her struggle to find the fruit, but does nothing as he cannot touch her or the food that she has touched. He is troubled by her situation, but doesn’t act. Eventually someone does come to her aid, and he also gives the boy a lecture on the futility of mouthing a mantra if you do not act in accordance with the values contained in the prayers. This incident infuses the story, told in an extended flashback as Suryam (Chiranjeevi) shows a visiting minister around the apparently perfect village.
Suryam is that boy all grown up – the son of famed musician Bilahari Sastry (Gemini Ganesan). Suryam is a gregarious fellow, interested in what people do and how they live. He loves music and expresses his feelings through song, seeing it as a way of sharing and giving happiness.
Music in the Sastry home is ceremonial, devotional and not for fun or for the people. The father is very traditional and conservative, living in strict adherence to caste rules. Bilahari Sastry raises his voice in song to drown out the pleas of someone needing help, and would rather be on time for a concert than help a dying commoner. And he pulls this face a lot:
He is a difficult man, but not a total monster. It’s obvious he has done the best he could after his wife died, and he misses her guidance or support. There is already tension in the family purely because of the different personality types and this is heightened when Suryam meets Lalita (Shobana).
He sees her dancing on a hillside opposite a temple, ogled by men from their sacred vantage point. I think Lalita makes a point about men worshipping goddesses when women are excluded, and whatever she said it makes an impression. Suryam has a statue placed on the hilltop and is surprised to see the villagers lined up for pooja within shouting distance of a temple that didn’t include them.
Shobana has good chemistry with Chiranjeevi and although I know there is an age difference, it isn’t obvious and they look great. Lalita isn’t a pushover to be impressed by the Brahmin boy and he doesn’t act entitled. Having the lower castes represented by the beautiful Lalita could have easily fallen more into the fairytale romance but thanks to some good writing and the excellent performance by Shobhana, Lalita is strong and individual.
Their shared love of music is another form of communication and bonding that helps this seem like a potential life partnership rather than a fluffy instant romance. Illaiyaraja’s songs are set into the narrative so they are part of the story, and the minimal dancing is in character for Lalita and Suryam so it all flows beautifully. The music is a real highlight of Rudraveena.
Their flirtation is fun as Lalita keeps Suryam guessing, which he kind of enjoys, and they do all those little things that are only really funny for people in the giddy stage of love. She’s not all cool and calm though, as she changes her sari five times before he arrives to visit. Lalita refuses to be cowed by Sastry’s disapproval and is clearly confident in her relationship with Suryam.
Lalita’s family are the opposite of the Sastrys. When Suryam arrives he is greeted with hugs and an extemporaneous welcome song introducing each family member and what they were doing. It’s an attractive environment for a boy who feels stifled at home.
Not that home life is all grim. Suryam confides a little in his sister-in-law about his love and she mocks him gently even as she is pleased to think he might soon marry. Prasad Babu gives an appealing performance as Suryam’s mute brother.
He is an observer of the tension in the house, and he uses music to force communication or at least momentary harmony. He is also a kind of moral compass, miming to his father that donning the trappings of religion doesn’t make you close to god if you don’t also do the right thing.
Bilahari will not tolerate what he sees as Suryam’s rebelliousness. As punishment, he takes on another student and promotes him to favoured disciple status. This guy is a fraud who pretends to be pious and dedicated but really he just wants to marry daughter Sandhya (the beautiful Devilalita). That relationship is quite nice, but the character is there more to be a contrast with Suryam who is outwardly not the ideal son but is a good and honourable man. Of course, Bilahari learns of his error eventually but he is a proud man and the damage has been done.
After yet another disagreement Suryam leaves the family home, but he doesn’t just marry Lalita and live happily ever after. Their wedding is interrupted by drunken louts out to cause him trouble, including an uncharacteristically nasty and dramatic Brahmi.
Suryam stops the ceremony rather than allow Lalita to be insulted further. He takes on a challenge to reform the village before he can marry and Lalita supports him despite her heartache. I think she is sympathetic partly because she wants to be certain that Suryam is sorted before they start a life together.
I liked that Lalita was active in the reforms, showing that a young low caste woman could be a leader too. Suryam sees that people don’t always have the motivation or resources they need, and he can help. It’s not as preachy as it sounds as he is a doer not just a talker, and is as likely to be driving a tractor as making a speech. It’s clear that he feels his position requires him to do something to raise people up rather than keeping them down. And I think there’s also a bit of wanting to show his father who was right.
Yes it is a little heavy handed at times but the romance and more fun elements provide the necessary balance. The ending made me a little angry at Sastry jumping on the bandwagon, but you cannot get a clearer message than this:
Rudraveena says people can create change by doing something in their own community, and it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale to achieve a great result. I like that philosophy and it is as fresh and pertinent today as it was in 1988. All that thought provoking material, and a sweet love story to boot. And really, if you can resist Chiranjeevi in this role I just don’t know what’s wrong with you. 5 stars!