Aapathbandavudu

Aapathbandavudu is a melodrama by K Vishwanath that has a bit of action, a ‘will they won’t they’ romance, ‘medicine’ found only in films and some lovely MM Keeravani songs. The memorable performances by Chiranjeevi and Meenakshi Seshadri make their characters likeable and their predicaments seem meaningful. Even with the tear soaked dialogues, dubious plot devices and inexplicable decision making, it is very entertaining, sometimes funny, and often moving.  I admit my love of Chiru helped me get past the ‘oh no they didn’t!’ moments but there are interesting ideas and dialogues that help balance out the excesses.

Good hearted low caste Madhava (Chiranjeevi) is attached to school teacher/poet (Jandhyala, who also wrote the dialogues) and his family. Apart from cow herding, Madhava is also the preferred Lord Shiva in district theatricals. Do not try and usurp his role – or this could happen to you:

Sigh. Did I mention this is a visually pleasing film?

Camera angles reflect the sense of elevation Madhava feels when he is compared to Lord Shiva, and he glows with pride at embodying the deity. But he is a country boy at heart and when his cow Ganga goes into labour his first thought is to get her off the train and into some privacy so she won’t be stressed. It’s a dynamic role that gives Chiranjeevi ample scope to use his mass hero shtick as well as delivering a nuanced performance. Most of the laughs come from situations and dialogues as well as Chiru’s knockabout physical comedy.

But I didn’t really need Madhava hamming it up in bovine (or ursine) ‘speech’.

People exploit Madhava’s generosity to make him fix their problems, but as Hema (Meenakshi Seshadri) says, it is usually him who pays the consequences. Despite his simplicity, Madhava is not stupid. He can find a loophole in an instruction as well as any lawyer, such as promising not to lay a hand on someone and still managing to rough them up. He takes on a local bigwig and employs a fighting style possibly inspired by Hanuman as well as Shiva, complete with his own vengeful song. In turn, the politician resorts to elaborate and inefficient methods to try and get Madhava out of the picture – including an attack by an enraged bull (mostly a fibreglass prop), and a murder attempt in a rigged performance. Luckily Hema realises what is going on and takes the guise of Shakti to protect Shiva. I love his dancing from around 5 minutes onwards as Shiva’s rage is unleashed.

But seriously – what is it with the rabbits?

Madhava has always called Hema a goddess, and when they dance as Shiva and Parvati he sees her as his goddess. He is very aware of the barriers between them.

Meenakshi gives Hema a distinct character and intelligence, and her emotional development is well portrayed. She is becoming physically as well as emotionally drawn to Madhava, and is both disturbed and excited by these feelings.  Hema tells Madhava she wishes he had the sense to understand what is in people’s minds, but he doesn’t. There is yearning and dreaming on both sides.

The first section is mostly rural romance with a caste barrier and a few dishooming fights, and I really didn’t expect the twist to take the form it did. Have a happy song before things get dark.

Hema’s father dies suddenly in the middle of a ceremony to honour Madhava. Chiru is brilliant as he shows the overwhelming emotions surging through the grief stricken and furious Madhava. He crafts a clay lingam and berates Shiva for his neglect despite all the prayers and offerings.  A kindly priest points out that just as Madhava could destroy what he had made, man is god’s creation and god has a right over our lives too. That seems to comfort him, but Hema is just devastated.

While Madhava is away, Hema visits her sister Lalita (Geetha) and baby niece. She is assaulted by her lecherous brother-in-law and Lalita is killed when she tries to intervene. The police are paid off and that is that. The shock, her grief over her father and sister, fear of a repeat attack – all these things cause Hema to become unstable. She exhibits extreme aggression towards men and is committed to a psychiatric hospital as her family cannot cope. Apparently a punch-up and a food fight is all it takes to fake insanity, so Madhava is soon an inmate and watching over Hema. Most of the inmates act happy and childlike and mental illness is made to seem harmless.

Rape and mental illness should not be used as cheap entertainment fodder, and there are disturbing abuses of power by characters in the film. What I liked was that other characters found these incidents as reprehensible as I did, and tried to get some justice. The mental patients had a right to decent treatment. Hema wasn’t blamed for being attacked or having a breakdown, and her family never abandoned her. There was some empathy shown for the damaged people. Not everything was swept under the carpet, but the powerlessness of the average person in the story was so frustrating.

Meenakshi plays traumatised Hema as intensely angry and determined to fight any perceived threat, which includes all men. When the drugs kick in she becomes empty eyed and withdrawn. She can’t recognise Madhava as her friend but she does eventually recognise she can trust him. When a staff member tries to rape Hema, Madhava defends her and is given shock treatment as the doctors think he is psychotic.  He is further accused of being the rapist, and his suffering is palpable as is his desperation to help her.

Chiranjeevi adds an extra layer of pretence as he switches from Madhava to Madhava (over)acting crazy, and there is a marked deterioration in his appearance once he is an inpatient.  On that note, while the idea of Chiru dressing up and having himself delivered to me in a box has some appeal, this costume may have caused the more fragile patient to have a bit of a setback. But the dancing is great!

Madhava manages to spend some time with Hema and uses a very ugly doll to reignite her memories of home and loved ones, sparked by a favourite lullaby. Compared to some of the other goings on in the asylum that struck me as quite sensible and therapeutic, and indeed she is soon released.

Madhava is left beset by fear and sadness. He has given everything he can, including selling his herd to get money to help the family, and may have ruined his own life. He berates himself for his stupidity in a powerful speech to his reflection, but can’t see any way out of this mess, or the asylum.

The ending is so filmi incredible but I still found myself on the edge of my seat. Just how could it possibly work out? And why on earth were so many people overcome with bad luck and bad judgement all at once?

There are no comedy uncles as such. Brahmanandam is Madhava’s friend and provides some physical comedy but largely this is a straight character role for him and they share a nice rapport. Allu Ramalingaiah as the uncle resents Madhava’s position in the family and has a sharp tongue when voicing his disapproval. Like Brahmi, his role is dramatic, not the comedic turn I expect from him. Sarath Babu as Sripati wants to do what is right, and is the sympathetic ‘other guy’. There is something reassuring about Sarath Babu and having him as a friend does seem to make the good guys that much more resilient. Jandhyala is very fatherly, and suits his role as the unfashionable teacher and poet who refuses to cheapen his art.

The emphasis is more on characters than causes although the film does say something about caste, dowry and other facets of society. It is wildly melodramatic, but the writer and actors invest in the central characters and there is plenty to enjoy along the way.

My DVD cover says this is a ‘must see movie before you die’. I’m not sure about that, but I encourage you to at least look at the song clips. The village scenery is pretty and beautifully filmed, the music is lovely and the dancing is excellent. But really, this is all about the performances by Chiru and Meenakshi and they won me over from the start.

3 ½ stars!

Sorry Chiru.  4 stars?

4 stars!

PS – thanks tolly for the recommendation all those months ago – where are you tolly? It’s been ages!