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.

Gudachari 116 (1967)

Long before Mithun Chakraborty squeezed himself into those tight white flares to play Gunmaster G9 in Suraksha, Superstar Krishna was the suave and debonair Agent 116 in this Bond-inspired tale of secret agents, evil villains and a fiendish plot against India. Or at least so I deduce, given that this was another adventure without subtitles. There are elements from a number of early Bond films, but Gudachari 116 seems to be very loosely based on Dr No with a few other classic sixties motifs that pop up from time to time. This was the first of Krishna’s forays into the spy genre and while it’s nowhere near as over the top as his later film James Bond 777 or other Hindi spy films I’ve seen, there are still a few fabulous moments and plenty of recognisable references to the Bond films.

Agent Gopi (Krishna), better known by his code number 116, is a typical James Bond character. He’s smooth and successful with the ladies, possible due to his natty collection of cardigans, sports coats and leisure shirts. (This may also explain some of his son Mahesh’s multi-layering and accessorising style).

However he has to leave his singing, dancing and romancing in the hills when news of Agent 303’s rather theatrical death reaches the head of their intelligence agency.

Agent 303 (Shobhan Babu) was shadowing a gang of men who were attempting to blow up a bridge. After foiling their plan, he managed to take pictures of the gang and their getaway car, thus ensuring he could track them down at a later date and find the boss of their organisation. Obviously this information is of critical importance for the security of the nation, but the intelligence agency seems to be operating on a tight budget so he drops off his pictures to the local camera store to be developed before visiting his sister.

Missions of national importance run a poor second to familial obligations for Agent 303, which mean that he is killed before passing on the information about the gang to his superiors. Gopi’s mission is to find the photographs, identify the bad guys and stop their plans to destroy India. Just in case that seemed to be rather a lot for a single man to accomplish, he does have a number of fancy gadgets and the somewhat dubious assistance of local man on the spot Simhachalan (Relangi Venkataramaiah) and his merry band of helpers.

On the way to his meet-up with Simhachalan, Agent 116 runs into the beautiful Miss Radha (Jayalalitha) and starts up a brief flirtation with her on the plane. However Radha is the daughter of Agent 116’s chief suspect for the role of evil mastermind behind the bombings which, luckily for Gopi, means that their friendship can be cultivated as part of his mission. Gopi ends up at Radha’s birthday party where he plays the piano for her in this song which reminds me of the Chordettes classic. I love the rather Christmassy decorations for her birthday which almost get tangled up with the backing dancers and the dancing couple in the bottle on top of the piano.

Simhachalan has given Gopi two of his men to help his investigation and they provide most of the comedy side-plot which as usual doesn’t add much to the proceedings. Ramana Reddy and Rajababu do however manage to provide Gopi with some assistance and with the aid of some helium balloons, a hidden microphone and of course a little phone tapping, Agent 116 discovers that Radha’s father (Rajanala) is only a front for the real villain.

Agent 303’s sister also gets involved in the action as Radha’s father convinces her that he is the police officer in charge of her brother’s murder case and enlists her help to trap Gopi. This involves her attempting to seduce Gopi in his hotel room by dancing and then drugging him before handing him over to the gang. He looks rather puzzled by her advances, although that may just be the combination of the wallpaper and the pictures which is rather overpowering. Gopi ends up in a rather drab and utilitarian secret hideout with a man intent on frying his brains as a means of extracting information from him but in true super-spy fashion quickly turns the tables and extracts some information himself.

The plot gets more convoluted as Radha is kidnapped by the evil mastermind’s men to force her father’s continued co-operation with their plans and Gopi tries to rescue Agent 303’s sister while foiling the plans of the real villain. These plans are never really clear but seem to involve a rather large factory and a team of scientists making poisonous gas for some nefarious purpose. The boss, a rather sinister Chinese-looking villain, communicates with a series of gestures rather than by using actual words so perhaps his main henchmen are all telepathic and therefore no description of the plot is needed.

Overall, Gudachari 116 keeps to the spy/action story without too many deviations into cheap special effects or ridiculous leaps of faith. The interiors are wonderfully decorated with some amazing wallpaper and curtain combinations and there are plenty of chandeliers making an appearance. In comparison the outfits are rather restrained (at least in comparison to the Hindi remake Farz) and Radha appears elegant and stylish in a number of beautiful saris. Gopi and the various other main characters are also all very dapper and it’s only the gang of hired thugs who appear in outlandish shirts and scarves.

There are one or two instances where obviously model cars and planes get blown up, but mainly the effects are limited to radio receivers disguised as books and knock-out gas in a cigarette lighter which seem fairly plausible. Perhaps the most incredible invention is a method of restoring burnt paper back to its original pristine condition and retaining the written message but everything else is within the realm of possibility (at least for a secret agent).

The songs are another highpoint and the music by T. Chalapathi Rao seems to suit the general sixties ambience. This is probably the best – a fusion of traditional music and rock and roll that lets Jayalalitha show off a number of dance styles.

Gudachari 116 has a convincing storyline written by Arudra with much influence from Ian Fleming and the Bond film franchise, and is capably directed by M. Mallikharjuna Rao to give an entertaining spy adventure. Krishna is excellent as Agent 116 and the role of the sophisticated spy suits him well. Despite the lack of subtitles and an occasional unfunny ‘comedy’ scene I really enjoyed this film and I’d recommend it as an excellent take on the spy genre. 4stars.

Temple says:

This is the first of Superstar Krishna’s Bond style forays and I don’t think he had quite hit his stride in terms of the balance of serious spy action and parody that the later films do so  much better. The Bond of Ian Fleming and that of (most of) the films are quite different characters, and this film sort of falls between the two. At times it was a bit closer to Get Smart than any credible spy thriller as the low tech gadgetry was so badly made that I could have done better with a shoe box and a couple of bits of wire!

The lead actors are good and Krishna fits the suave man of the world style. His knitwear was horrifying, but it was the late 60s so I am just thankful the film is in black and white. Apart from the instantly recognisable ears, he also seems to have passed on some of his dance mojo to his son, as that lanky frame and the laid back style was very familiar. Jayalalitha is a feisty heroine and some of her outfits are very eye-catching indeed, so she earned her screen time. The comic sideplot is bad enough, but Ramana Reddy’s hamming is the last straw. He really is terrible and I have grown to loathe the very sight of him.

The music is a real mish-mash. There are fragments of the Addams Family theme used at dramatic moments (more comic than dramatic for me). There are hillside cavorting love duets as well as a blend of 60s rock n roll with whatever else took their fancy. It’s entertaining even if the choices are bewildering!

The story is not particularly credible or thrilling as it is bog standard ‘good guy against ill defined villain’ and the pace is very slow, especially considering national security is at stake.  I enjoyed this mostly for the retro charm, excellent visual excesses, and the very entertaining songs.  I greatly prefer James Bond 777 (which is available on Youtube), which has a fab funky soundtrack and a gang of bank robbing dogs that compensated for the plotholes. Gudachari 116 is nice to look at, but you could just watch the songs and skip the narrative and you would still get a feel for the style of the film. I don’t think I would re-watch this, while other films in the spy caper genre have become favourites. 3 stars.