Kasturi Nivasa

Kasturi_Nivasa

I keep an eye out for any early Dr Rajkumar films with subtitles, and was lucky enough to find this 1971 classic on DVD. It’s a simple story, but one that’s beautifully told with mesmerising performances from the main leads. The film was written and directed by Dorairaj and Bhagawan, who were also responsible for the excellent CID 999 films, Operation Jackpot Nalli and Operation Diamond Racket, also with Dr Rajkumar. Although quite dissimilar in terms of content, Kasturi Nivasa has the same attention to detail as these movies, with creative cinematography and memorable songs and music from G.K. Venkatesh. The film was re-released in colour in 2014 and is available (but without subtitles) on YouTube in both versions.

Kasturi Nivasa is the ancestral home of Ravi Varma (Rajkumar), an industrialist who runs a successful match factory. Ravi is a widower whose only daughter also died in an accident, which has left him alone in the large house except for his servant Ramaiah (K.S. Ashwath). At the factory, Ravi notices new employee Chandru (Rajashankar) because he doesn’t laugh at Ravi’s jokes. Appreciating his honesty, Ravi makes Chandru the Chief Foreman and decides to send him to America for further training. But Chandru is also a widower and has a young daughter, so he is reluctant to make the trip and leave Rani behind. However, Chandru’s situation is so similar to Ravi’s that he offers to look after Rani until Chandru returns.

The early part of the film sets up the character of Ravi as a rich but philanthropic businessman. He has inherited wealth and knows that his place in society is to function as a role model while also helping others who are less fortunate. Ravi is very aware of his lofty status but attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his workers by telling jokes and by generally treating them well, although he still seems himself as being of a higher class than his workers. In contrast Bhojarajaiah (Balakrishna) is a terrible owner and suffers financial loss due to his poor treatment of his workers. While that sounds potentially revolutionary and egalitarian, Balakrishna forms part of the comedy track, so his loss of money and face is more about his poor attitude rather than any real concern about workers’ rights – although to be fair, at least there is acknowledgement that everyone deserves a living wage.

Bhojarajaiah also tries to set Ravi up with his daughter Prabhu, but she prefers Bhojarajaiah’s brother-in-law Sampath (Narasimharaju) and the various contortions the couple go through to avoid Bhojarajaiah make up the rest of the comedy track. While Balakrishna and Narasimharaju are acknowledged comedic actors, their performances here seem somewhat flat in comparison to other films I’ve seen, while the comedy track doesn’t fit well with the rest of the narrative. I’m guessing that it was added because there ‘has’ to be a comedy track, since otherwise there seems to be added value to the characters of Bhojarajaiah and Sampath.

Ravi looks after Rani and recruits his secretary Neela (Jayanthi) to be a substitute mother for the little girl. (My subtitles say Leela, but Ravi seems to be saying Neela which is the name given on most character lists that I’ve seen.) The child actress here is excellent and very sweet, although she’s a fair way towards being spoiled given that Ravi caters to her every whim. Neela too sets Rani up as the sole purpose for her existence, so it’s hardly surprising that Rani throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wishes. When Chandru comes back, Rani is so used to Neela as her mother that she insists Chandru and Neela sleep with her together in their bed. This leads to Neela and Chandru getting married, which devastates Ravi as he was in love with Neela, but never actually approached her about his feelings.

Things continue to go wrong for Ravi as he loses business when Chandru starts up his own factory using more modern manufacturing methods. As Ravi’s situation deteriorates further, Chandru buys Kasturi Nivasa and to his credit tries to help his former boss. However, Ravi’s pride leads him to refuse all offers of help, which in turn seriously affects Neela who still has feelings for her ‘boss’. Jayanthi looks stunning and she does a fantastic job of portraying Neela’s conflicting emotions and loyalties as she is torn between her former employer and her husband. The situation leads to problems between Chandru and Neela, and eventually Ravi succumbs to a suitably dramatic and tragic end, symbolising the end of an era.

Dr Rajkumar is simply wonderful here and imbues his character with dignity and charm that suits his rather old-fashioned persona. Ravi is wealthy and generous, seeing himself as a benefactor for the poor and as someone who upholds traditional values. Chandru in contrast is more modern and practical, and Rajashankar plays him as intelligent and hard-working but impatient with the old order. Chandru is the one who sees the potential in upgrading the factory and on moving with the times, ending up successful as a result of his own hard work. Both actors excel in their roles and work well together to accentuate these differences which lie at the heart of the story. Ravi is old money and the class system, Chandru is equality and success based on personal achievement. Kasturi Nivasa then is a lament for the old order, for rich landlords who looked after their poor tenants and for an opulent lifestyle that few can continue to afford. It charts the rise of the new order– modern manufacturing techniques, the loss of a class divide as workers rise up to become equal with their former bosses, but with an associated loss of morals, seen here by Chandru’s addiction to alcohol and his violent behaviour.

What I find most interesting here is the large amount of symbolism used throughout to convey the message. The way Ravi and Chandru are contrasted with each other is also cleverly done to enhance the story. Both men run match factories and believe in treating their workers well, but while Ravi sells Dove matches, Chandru has branded his product with an Eagle, presumably to signify his more aggressive nature. As Chandru comes up in the world he starts wearing suits like Ravi, while Ravi wears the same suit for long enough that it starts to develop visible holes. The transfer of power is seen by their appearance as well as by the changes in the living standards of the two men, but it’s also interesting how they are both affected by having money and prestige. Dorairaj and Bhagawan seem to be suggesting that you need to be born with money to know how to use it properly – wealth corrupts those who come into money later in life.

The songs too continue the symbolism, particularly this one about a doll that always gets back up and cannot be knocked down. Sadly for Ravi, although this may have been his philosophy, he appeared to be getting less able to get back up again after each successive set-back

Kasturi Nivasa is deservedly called a classic, with stirring dialogue and the captivating and powerful combination of Rajkumar, Rajashankar and Jayanthi. G.K. Venkatesh’s songs are wonderful and beautifully pictured, while there is a socially important message underlying the excellent screenplay. Although I watched the black and white version, the richness of the house comes thought well, and the contrast between Kasturi Nivasa and Chandru’s house is perfectly set out. Although the concepts addressed here are rather dated and some of the beliefs now seem quaint and old-fashioned, there is still a powerful message here, and regardless of the date, the film has an ageless quality due in part to the spellbinding performance from Dr Rajkumar. Highly recommended, this is one of those films that should be on everyone’s checklist – 5 stars.

Gautamiputra Satakarni

gautamiputra-satakarni-poster

For his latest film Krish takes inspiration from historical figure Gautamiputra Satakarni; a king who ruled in the South of India a couple of thousand years ago. Since little seems to be known about his reign, Krish is free to take the few major events that have been recorded and develop these into a plausible story, which he does reasonably well. The film follows Satakarni (Balakrishna) through a number of battles as he consolidates his rule over Southern India, and then moves north to tackle the invading Greeks. As a historical epic, there is plenty to enjoy but the film doesn’t shed much light on the man behind the warrior king despite a few diversions into his relationship with his mother and wife.

Over the opening credits, the young Satakarni declares that the only way to stop the petty wars between neighbouring kingdoms is for one man to conquer them all and thus unify the country. Needless to say, even at such a young age, Satakarni knows that he is the right man for the job and as the film begins the adult Satakarni has already embarked on his campaign. He starts off small by conquering a few neighbouring kingdoms (Milind Gunaji is good as one of the kings here) and then turns his sights towards the north, sending emissaries to King Nahapana (Kabir Bedi). Unsurprisingly Nahapana doesn’t respond well to a demand that he peacefully submits to becoming a vassal of Satakarni, and the scene is set for war!

Satakarni alienates his wife Vashishthee (Shriya Saran) when he takes his young son along to battle which allows for the development of some tension between the two. At the same time, Satakarni is shown as having great respect for his mother Gautami Balashri (Hema Malini), whom he has left to govern while he is off fighting his battles. These two relationships allow for more emotional and character-driven scenes to balance the battles that form the rest of the film. These are epically grand and give Balakrishna plenty of opportunity to make declarations (they’re much more dramatic than mere speeches) while looking imposing in armour and carrying a large sword. He has the gravitas and spectacular moustache required to play the ruler of the Satavahanan empire, although his age does seem to slow him down in the action scenes.

I enjoyed watching Balakrishna as Satakarni and this was a good choice for his 100th film. The character allows him to behave as the usual style of Telugu hero (unstoppable one-man army) but this time he does have an army to back him up. He’s also impressive in the more emotional scenes and his delivery of the epic speeches is very well done. Shriya Saran is also excellent as Satakarni’s wife and makes an impact despite her limited amount of time onscreen. There is the excitement of her reuniting with the king after time apart, their happiness together and then the shock of her young son heading into battle. Although at times she does emote just a little too much, at least the historical nature of the drama allows her to do so. The historical aspect also makes the sight of an older and portlier Balakrishna chasing Vashti around the royal bedchamber a little more acceptable, although I was reminded of portraits of the English King Henry the Eighth and his procession of younger wives. I find Shriya Saran can be a bit hit and miss, but here she is a definite hit and the relationship between her and Balakrishna works much better than expected. Hema Malini too is very good as the dowager queen, dealing with the pesky problems that crop up while her son is away subduing the realm. She does this with grace and style, looking regal and definitely projecting an aura that she is not to be trifled with.

After subduing Nahapana, the next challenge for Satakarni is the army of invading Greeks led by Demetrius. While the scenes where Satakarni plots his campaign are well delivered, the battle scenes are a little more patchy. For the most part when the camera is showing close ups of the action the battles look superb, but there are a few glitches between the CGI and staged fight scenes. These are mainly errors of perspective where there is a CGI view of massed warriors which moves in to show a smaller group of men and horses surrounded by green fields. For the most part the effects are well integrated into the live action and the battles do look good, but the few errors do divert attention away from the overall spectacle. The other problem is that a couple of the battles go on just that little bit too long. Some of this is due to repetitions of the same scene, as for example during the storming of the walls of Nahapana’s citadel but some just seem overly drawn out while Balakrishna indulges in some heroics which would mean certain death on a real battlefield.

There is plenty to enjoy in Gautamiputra Satakarni, even with the slightly uneven mix of plentiful epic battles and intermittent emotional drama. Balakrishna exudes power and authority while the appropriately grandiose costumes and palace sets seem to paint the time period well. Not that I would know if they were wrong, but judging by the paintings in museums I’ve seen while in India, this all looked pretty good! The soundtrack by Chirantan Bhatt is also excellent and to his and Krish’s credit, the songs don’t feel out of place in the narrative. However at the end of the day there is no real insight into the characters and the all too brief glimpse of Satakarni’s achievements only leads to more questions. This isn’t an attempt to detail the life of a famous ruler or to tell the story of a kingdom, but instead is a series of vignettes of what might have occurred, without delving too deeply into the why. Too, Balakrishna plays Satakarni as a regular Telugu hero with all the unlikely ability to stop an army single handedly so the story never feels quite as realistic as it should. But once the drums start beating and the swords clash that seems unimportant – the spectacle and grandeur of ancient India sweep across the screen and Gautamiputra Satakarni charges to victory!

Aditya 369

Aditya 369-Poster

When I heard Singeetham Srinivasa Rao’s Aditya 369 described as ‘historical science fiction’ I was immediately curious.  It is less about science or history and more about the outfits and derring-do, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film is on Youtube without subtitles and there is a diverting but not very helpful plot summary on Wiki should you wish to swot before taking the journey. But no one in the film prepares, so please do not feel obliged.

Aditya 369-time machine

The plot goes something like this. Professor Ramdas (Tinnu Anand) is an eccentric inventor, but apparently does well enough for himself that he can support a large house and workshop and keep his daughter Hema (Mohini) in stylish polyester outfits. His life’s work is a time machine called Aditya 369. The professor takes a low key approach to security and intellectual property, allowing just about anyone to come and have a look at the machine.

Aditya 369-Amrish Puri

Raja Verma (Amrish Puri) is a crook with a particular interest in historical regalia and diamonds. He arranges to steal a golfball sized diamond from the local museum and replace it with a fake. Now, if you call one guard with obsessive rule observance a diligent approach to security, then this museum was world class. Young Kishore (Master Tarun) is accidentally locked in,  witnesses the theft and has to be rescued when he tries to outrun the thieves.

Aditya 369-Balakrishna and Master Tarun

He confides in his saviour Krishna Kumar (Balakrishna) who decides to investigate.  Kishore decides to take his fellow plucky orphans on a spin in the time machine, is rescued by Krishna,  and Krishna and Hema are sent back to the past where they rescue Silk Smitha and meet Sri Krishna Deva Rayalu (also Balakrishna) and learn about the Golfball Diamond.

You know how in lots of time travel fiction the first rule is don’t change anything and don’t use modern stuff and cause ruptures in the fabric of time? When I saw the two emergency suitcases stashed in the time machine I assumed historically appropriate costumes. Well, at least the inhabitants of 1526 got an eyeful of fine 80s fashions. And listened to a boombox.

I disliked Krishna once he had landed back in time. In the presence of poets and scholars he had only ever read about, he couldn’t help but stick his oar in and go for a bit of one-upmanship. It was really tiresome and just made no sense. The dialogue seemed to go along the lines of “As you know Jim, I have an electric shaver” “Wow! Please, unknown man who says he is from another time but based on those clothes may be a nutter, tell us what to do”.

Following that sojourn in the glorious past, the crew is catapulted into the future where they nearly die from radiation before being given their own shiny space suits. To be fair to Krishna and his lax approach to historical contamination, the future people didn’t seem to have any qualms about revealing significant details that characters would not yet have experienced. But while I could understand the future people knowing their history,  I expected a bit more curiosity from the people in that past. The final scenes bring hero, villain, professor and know-all child into conflict as things almost literally spin out of control as Krishna has to rescue his friends and save the world.

Balakrishna offers his usual high energy performance. He could never be accused of slacking off, except maybe in the dances where he often relies on a slow disco strut interspersed with vigorous flailing. Krishna doesn’t have any hidden depths so what you see is what you get. The character tried my patience and I found myself looking at the sets and backgrounds rather than caring about what was happening to the people. There were a couple of sickening stunts involving horses so that further tarnished the heroics.

Aditya 369-Mohini

Mohini is adequate as Hema given that for most of the film she is just part of Krishna’s baggage.

Aditya 369-walk like an Egyptian

Amrish Puri does his usual villain thing with flair. Raja Verma is a bit obsessed with things that are original and authentic which may explain his Faux-gyptian style robe.  The diamond was supposed to link all the times together but that part of the plot seemed like an afterthought.

There are comedy uncles but no one else gets much of a look in with Balakrishna in a double role so that is another positive for the film. Suthivelu plays a hapless policeman who gets dragged along on the time travels, and Brahmi makes a small appearance as a scientist.

Aditya 369-henchmen

I really enjoyed Raja Verma’s gang of purple shirted thugs who carried guns in violin cases, and then played violins as background music in an interrogation scene. I think that is the first time I’ve heard the violence/violins pun in an Indian film. Tinnu Anand seems to have his own personal wind machine in all his scenes, maybe to stop him overheating from overacting.  Annapurna is Krishna’s mum although she doesn’t get to do much apart from marvel at his awesomeness.

Illayaraja’s background score is lovely. The theme over the opening credits is lush and a little eery. The songs are melodic although mostly a bit random. I did like the dance off between Silk Smitha and Mohini to settle the matter of Krishna’s honour. Well, I did until of course Krishna decided he could play all the instruments AND do the dancing.

The production design has a retro charm that sometimes made me nostalgic for TV series like Lost in Space. Terminator 2 was released in the same year and the difference in technical capability is enormous.

The “ye olden days” segment was what I would expect from any Telugu film, but the futuristic episode was more remarkable for the efforts of the wardrobe department to really feature antennas and silver lame.

Apart from that, as noted earlier, the costumes were mostly 80s mainstream fashion – lots of high-waisted denim, synthetic fabrics and big hair. And the women didn’t fare much better.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and Telugu films are a great place to find them. See this for the curiosity value of the Telugu mass hero formula applied to a different genre and for the low tech effects that have their own appeal. 3 stars!