Navarathri

Navarathri-Savitri in Navarathri

Savitri starred in both the 1964 Tamil Navrathri (dir. A.P Nagarajan) and the 1966 Telugu remake (dir. Tatineni Ramarao) and she is lovely as ever. What makes it particularly difficult to choose one over the other film is her leading men – Sivaji Ganesan (1964) and Akkineni Nageswara Rao (1966) – who each bring their own style to the proceedings. So I won’t pick.

That is so pretty with the Golu, the girls dancing and their sarees. The Telugu song is a bit more sparkly so I always pick that one.

Savitri is Nalina (Tamil) or Radha (Telugu). I’m going to just refer to her as Savitri throughout. After that lovely happy song, Savitri is told her father has fixed her marriage. She is already in love, and has no idea that her dad has unwittingly accepted a proposal from her boyfriend. Oh the drama. She runs to see the boy, only to be told he has gone to get married. She runs away, unable to face life as another man’s wife. Her character spends 9 nights wandering. She encounters different characters, all played by the leading man, who represent different aspects of human behaviour and emotion. These are named slightly differently in each film so I will just list them by night.

The film is more of an allegory than a realistic portrayal. Despite having lots of detail presented about who these men are, there is not a lot of depth to all the characters. The actors focus on the key emotion of the episode rather than trying to create nuances. Sivaji Ganesan is charismatic and is always instantly recognisable in this tour de force. ANR is generally better suited to low-key roles, but he also plays the various men as types. It is highly entertaining and stylised.

Night 1. A flamboyant widower interrupts Savitri as she contemplates suicide and drags her back to his house. Both ANR and Sivaji played this character as an eccentric, lonely man. The widower is devoted to his dead wife and little daughter (played by Kutty Padmini in both versions, I think). When compared flounce for flounce, there is little to separate the actors in this episode. I kept thinking of Snagglepuss.

Night 2. Tricked by a brothel madam, Savitri has to fend off a drunkard with a sob story. Savitri is determined, fierce and has a good throwing arm. Sivaji played this role as a wild eyed, plaid pants wearing letch with mood swings. ANR did a gorgeous self-parody as a self-pitying Devdas and for that, he wins my vote.

Night 3. Picked up by the police, Savitri is taken to a mental hospital. Both actors play the doctor as gently considerate and interested in why she was faking madness. I enjoyed ANR’s reactions to Savitri’s odd gesticulations and speeches. Sivaji is more of a generic saint in a white wig. Placed in a ward with several other women exhibiting different manias, Savitri joins in the various set pieces each inmate delivers and their song and dance medley. The Telugu patients (including Suryakantam, Chhaya Devi, Jamuna and Jayalalithaa) are funny and energetic, and I recognised most of the songs they used so I enjoyed their section a lot.  Manorama features in the Tamil film where the dancing and singing is more subdued but still fun. I’m usually averse to using the mentally ill as comedy fodder, but there was something good-natured and kind in this episode that helped me put my qualms aside.

Night 4. Frightened that the police had come for her, Savitri runs again. She meets a lurking gunman, out for revenge against the men who tortured and killed his brother. Savitri tries to persuade him to stop but he is killed by his enemies. It’s his character who has the most obvious demons to fight in this Navarathri. Both ANR and Sivaji play him with swagger and bluster. ANR had a little more vulnerability while Sivaji showed more of the wounded pride and ferocity. Both died spectacularly and both had to deal with interesting makeup and costumes. I guess it depends on whether you prefer a stripy t-shirt or a stripy lungi.

Night 5. Savitri contemplates suicide again. She is saved by a kindly villager and his sister who worry that she had been possessed by an evil spirit. A comedy conman arrives to fleece her poor but honest benefactors and Savitri decides to give him a taste of his own medicine. Nagesh originated the role in the Tamil verison while Relangi played in the Telugu film. I prefer Relangi in almost any role to Nagesh in most things! I think ANR does poor man with heart of gold so very well.  For this section, the Telugu film is the winner for me.

Night 6. Savitri sees an old man crawling along a path and goes to help. A formerly rich man, he is now a leper and shunned by all his family and associates. Savitri doesn’t let her revulsion at his physical state stop her from behaving with compassion and integrity. I really like that at around this stage in the movie, Savitri has stopped just passively absorbing help and is not only thinking about how to sort out her own life but is actively supporting other people. The makeup department were a bit more effective in 1966, and ANR does vulnerability so well. The Telugu film gets my points for this episode.

Night 7. A theatrical company is in need for an actress after theirs elopes. Savitri agrees to help them and the play goes on. I don’t think anyone can beat Sivaji Ganesan in Ye Historical Outfits and he looks like he has a ball in this turn as the rural actor/director. ANR is very good and his dancing has a higher comedy value, but the portentous dialogues flow so nicely in the Tamil film. Savitri is lovely in both films as she matches her leading man step for step.

Night 8. Whoever thought either of these men should wear short shorts should be given a severe talking to. Playing a policeman playing a hunter ANR and Sivaji both opt for a braying laugh, military bluff heartiness and those shorts. I think they used the same footage of the tiger in both films. Savitri masquerades as a man. She is not even slightly convincing, but her expressions are funny and her Telugu characterisation is enjoyably pompous. I think Sivaji’s shorts are both more terrifying (baggy, poor camera angles) and hilarious (baggy, poor camera angles). The Tamil film is a little more dramatic and better paced at this stage so I prefer that.

Night 9. In which we discover that intended groom/disappearing boyfriend Anand or Venu (Telugu) is of course Sivaji or ANR. Savitri has nice rapport with both actors and the reconciliation scenes were both funny and heartfelt by turn.  The wedding goes ahead and all the ‘other men’ turn up (except the dead gunman). Happiness prevails!

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I slightly prefer the Telugu soundtrack by Chalapathi Rao T as it is a little more filmi and festive but the songs in the Tamil film are quite soulful so it does depend on my mood. I have the Telugu DVD with subtitles but have only seen the Tamil film without (it’s on Youtube). The stories are identical but of course, the dialogues will differ somewhat. Despite having different directors, there are only differences in a few scenes. It’s interesting to see so little of the second director in the remake – when I first saw the films I assumed AP Nagarajan did both.

I have some minor doubts. How did Savitri keep finding new sarees with impeccably tailored blouses? And she seemed to be wandering in circles yet no one could find her. But nothing detracted from enjoying her journey and her realisation that she could go home and be happy.

I really like both films, and have rewatched them a couple of times. Savitri is brilliant as Nalina/Radha and despite the focus being on the men, her performance is varied and her characterisation develops beautifully. Both Sivaji and ANR are in fine form and make the task of playing nine roles seem effortless. Choose your favourite cast, choose on language, choose the songs you like most, choose your own adventure! 4 stars!

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Kandan Karunai

This is one of the few Tamil mythological films by A. P. Nagarajan that I’ve been able to find on DVD with English subtitles, and despite its sometimes pedestrian and almost documentary-like telling of key events in Lord Murugan’s life, it’s still worth a watch mainly due to the great cast and an excellent soundtrack.  The film covers the major incidents which define Lord Murugan and his place in the Hindu pantheon and it gives a good insight into why he is often regarded as the God of Tamils. Despite his more minor role Sivaji Ganesan is the star of the show but Gemini Ganesan, Savitri and various other stars of the time make an appearance, including an incredibly cute 4-year-old Sridevi in her first ever role as the young Murugan.  There are plenty of glittery costumes and even more sparkly jewellery set against some incredibly colourful sets which prove that there are no colours which clash in India. It’s garish but pretty and personally I’d like to see every army adopt the gold boots worn with such aplomb by Sivaji’s Veerabaghu.

The film starts with a devotional song to Lord Murugan by renowned singer and actress K. B. Sundarambal who appears in her characteristic role of Avvaiyyar.  She introduces the story of the demon king Surapadman (Ashokan) who is terrorising the people of heaven but cannot be killed due to a boon he and his people received from Lord Shiva.

When Surapadman’s sister Ajamugi attempts to kidnap the king of the heavenly people’s wife Indrani (S. Varalakshmi) as a present for her brother, subsequent events force Lord Shiva to become involved. Rather than kill the demons directly he creates a son to deal with Sundarambal but gets rather more than he bargained for with Murugan.

Murugan is clever, even as a child and faced with six divine girls as potential nannies, he rather practically splits into six versions of himself so that they each have a child to look after.  Later his mother Parvati reunites all of the children to create the god with six faces while the divine girls are rewarded by being transformed into stars. These first few stories dealing with the young Murugan are mainly told in song, although when there is dialogue Master Sridhar as the young Murugan holds his own in scenes with the older actors Gemini Ganesan as Shiva and Savitri as Parvati.

The adult Murugan is played by Sivakumar who sadly doesn’t give Murugan much personality at all,  and he plays the role rather passively.  However the ‘good man’ Veerabaghu, who comes to help Murugan in his war against the demons, provides plenty of attitude and Sivaj Ganesan brings the film to life in this role.  He acts first of all as a messenger from Lord Murugan to Surapadman, defying the demon’s arrogance by creating his own throne and servant girls when Surapadman denies him a chair.  He is instrumental in instructing Lord Murugan how to fight the various demons and later he gets to strut around in his wonderful gold boots as the army celebrates Murugan victory.

The latter half of the film deals with Murugan’s two marriages.  The first of these is to Indira’s daughter Deivanai (K. R. Vijaya) who manages to stay cool when faced with the riot of colour that accompanies her marriage and subsequent first night with Lord Murugan.

The explanation of marriage and a woman’s place in society sounds incredibly patronising, particularly when Deivanai is told that she has to remain faithful to her husband while Murugan goes off and finds a second wife.  However, since the basic theme of an obedient wife still seems to be expounded as the ideal even in India to-day it probably sounds more reasonable to its intended audience, particularly back in 1967 when the film was made.  Deivanai is still understandably outraged when Murugan comes back with Valli and there are some funny moments as Veerabaghu has to deal with the two angry women, which he does with great charm and lots of sparkle.  K. R. Vijaya looks beautiful but doesn’t have much scope to do anything else as her character is very one-dimensional.  Jayalalitha as Murugan’s second wife Valli has a better role with a little more substance including this lovely introduction.

Valli is the daughter of a tribal chief and her friends include Manorama and Tamil comic actor Nagesh who provide a little relief from all the noble deeds and dramatic pronouncements of the other characters.  Jayalalitha is charming and her Valli is graceful and elegant even in her simple village girl persona which translates well to her rise in station as the consort of Lord Murugan.

The film is very stylish and looks beautiful but lacks the warmth of other Nagarajan films I’ve seen, particularly in the character of the older Lord Murugan.  Perhaps it’s because Murugan has outgrown the mischievousness and arrogance which livened up the early scenes and it’s hard to portray worthiness and knowledge as being anything other than a little dull. Sivakumar is pleasant enough but is eclipsed by Sivaji who has much more presence.  The battle scenes are very stylised and the demons don’t ever look to stand much of a chance against Lord Murugan and his trusty spear, although the internal squabbles in Surapadman’s court are well portrayed.  I really liked the actress who played Ajamugi who got her outrage and vindictive nature across very clearly.

The music by K V Mahadevan won him a National Award and it’s definitely  a highlight of the film with some beautiful vocals by P. Susheela in many of the songs.  This film worked more for me as an explanation of some of the symbolism I’ve seen on my visits to temples in Tamil Nadu, and a synopsis of Lord Murugan’s life, although of course I always enjoy a film with lots of sparkle! Worth watching for the songs, Sivaji and the younger Murugan – 3 stars.

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.