Idi Katha Kaadu (1979)

K Balachander’s 1979 movie is a remake of his own film, Avargal. Jayasudha and Kamal Hassan star and Chiranjeevi plays an important supporting role. It’s a sensitive and even handed look at relationships and standing up for yourself. The film is on YouTube without subtitles so bear with me as I have done my best to interpret what was going on.

Suhasini (Jayasudha) and Bharani (Sarath Babu) fall in love through a montage of the arts – he plays flute and she dances. They have a nice bond, he is laid back and she is very playful. But Bharani leaves town for work and he never replies to her letters. Sugunakar Rao (Chiranjeevi) moves in on Suhasini. He is superficially charming but once they are married he is controlling and abusive. In due course she leaves him and gets a divorce. He is clearly bitter but she leaves town to start her new life with their child. She finds an office job and makes new friends. Her coworker Janardhan/Johnny (Kamal Hassan) is particularly kind and considerate. He’s a ventriloquist so that set some alarm bells off because…just because. But Bharani is still on her mind. And now, he is just across the way as the apartment Johnny helps her find is right near his place. There is definite interest on both sides but she is more cautious and has a child now, and he lacks any sense of urgency and he has his friend Gayatri (Saritha) to consider too. And then Sugunakar Rao is back in the picture as Suhasini’s boss. He wants to reconcile and seems to have reformed. Suhasini has to decide what to do with her life.

I really enjoyed watching Jayasudha’s performance and Suhasini as a character. And on a very shallow note, her print sarees are wonderful too. She’s a lively young woman with a passion for dance and music, but she’s quite happy to get married sensibly because that’s what you do. When Sugunakar turns out to be a total arsehole, she does her best to tolerate him. But when he pushes her too far, she pushes back. In one scene she fantasises about stabbing him in the groin with his darts, and she does tell him to his face what she thinks of his behaviour. When she moves back to Chennai she seems to be accepted and liked in her new circles. Having a child isn’t a barrier to her getting a job and she makes the most of her new start. I got the impression Suhasini is not completely open about her situation but she certainly isn’t hanging on to her past. People, especially women, help each other in both big and small ways. Suhasini acquires a mysterious new maid (Leelavathi), actually her mother-in-law who had never met her.

Chiranjeevi is impressive as the horrible Sugunakar Rao. I think Chiru got on the bad side of the wardrobe team because those pants…He is charming but only as long as he gets his own way. He criticises Suhasini constantly and threatens her, smiling as he throws darts at her head or snarling as he tells her to give up dancing. One thing I always appreciate in these negative roles that Chiru took in his early career is that he doesn’t hold back on showing the full range of emotions, no matter how unlikeable or ugly. He is a fine dramatic actor under all the Megastar trappings. His mother (Leelavathi) finds out from a servant that the marriage was over and that Suhasini and their son were in another city. I couldn’t work out how he managed to keep everyone in the dark but I think he might have told her Suhasini was dead. Anyway, despite the filmi tradition that demands a Ma must support her boy, she is firmly in Team Suhasini and keeps working secretly for her daughter-in-law. That is how bad Sugunakar Rao is. He recognises mild and indecisive Bharani as a threat so he plants a seed that Bharani and Gayatri should marry. He belittles Johnny as he doesn’t compute the nice poor guy could be a rival. When he tries to ingratiate himself with Suhasini again he is almost believable as he clucks over her health and sends her fresh fruits. Almost.

Johnny (Kamal Hassan) has taken a shine to Suhasini too, although she only seems to have eyes for Bharani. Personally I’d pick the one who didn’t have a ventriloqusist dummy as his housemate. But Johnny is sweet and does things to make Suhasini happy without expecting any repayment – he finds her a flat, gets her movie tickets to a house full show, helps with work. He can’t articulate his feelings so he uses Junior to talk about his love. Of course, Suhasini treats it as a joke rather than a heartfelt confession. He’s well liked at work but a lonely soul underneath it all. Kamal Hassan isn’t challenged by the character except that the ventriloquism shtick calls on his physicality and control as he manipulates the doll while appearing to be oblivious to Junior’s shenanigans.

That weird clown song is completely unnecessary but when you have Kamal Hassan I suppose you’d be mad not to. And it lets him work off some energy that might have lead to overacting. His farewell scene with Suhasini was also unintentionally funny as he ran beside her train faster and for much longer than seemed possible, speechifying all the while.

Leelavathi and Sarath Babu are both good in their roles. But Bharani is so mild and understanding to the point of not seeming to care that he doesn’t give Suhasini any confidence and he kind of fades compared to Chiru and Kamal Hassan. Leelavathi’s Ma is an interesting woman who is prepared to believe evidence rather than continue to idolise her son. She makes decisions that are about how she wants to live her life and what she thinks is important. She’s a crier, but she gets things done. And she is the one to finally free Suhasini from her connection to her son.

Balachander uses some camera gimmicks and the ping pong analogy, and some shots are a little too composed to be natural, but generally the style of storytelling is low key and credible. Even the final comeuppance. Although I wish I understood the symbolism of the lion mask and the Mona Lisa. Oh well.

See this for some early career Megastar, a pared back and heartfelt performance from Kamal Hassan and a lovely role for Jayasudha. 4 stars!

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47 Rojulu

47 Rojulu poster

K Balachander’s 1981 film 47 Rojulu is a study of domestic abuse, and I found it uncomfortable to watch. It’s melodramatic yet has a ring of realism, largely due to Jayaprada’s characterisation of Vaishali, and the often quite graphic violence. Chiranjeevi stars opposite in a negative role, and he doesn’t hold anything back.

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The story is told in flashback, through the device of a visiting actress (Saritha) who comes to talk to Vaishali as preparation for a film. I have only seen this in an unsubtitled print, and it is a dialogue heavy film, so at first I was a little confused by the flashback structure. However, the emotional tone and pitch of the drama comes through loud and clear and I had no trouble in following the main story.

Vaishali (Jayaprada) and her brother are coming home from seeing Shankarabharanam (I think) at the cinema when she sees a wedding taking place. Kumar (Chiranjeevi) is discussing marriage with his parents and next thing you know, he is getting married to Vaishali. All looks fine until after the ceremony when he gets the wedding photographer to give him the film, and exposes all the rolls. Why wouldn’t he want pictures of his wedding day? He seems quite keen on the wedding night and wasn’t forced into the marriage (apart from some gentle parental coercion). Also a little odd, he tests to see if she can speak English. Soon after the wedding they move to France.

At first things seem fine. Kumar shows off the house in the countryside outside Paris, and introduces his naïve bride to heating, sliding doors, supermarkets and televised sports. They live in a cosy modern flat on the ground floor, and a woman called Lucy lives upstairs.

Then one day Kumar is chatting to someone in French and introduces Vaishali as his sister. Hmmmm. Of course she has no idea as she speaks only Telugu. It is clearly a lie when he says Lucy (Anne Patricia) is just a friend. There is an awkward dinner, with Lucy completely unaware Vaishali is married to Kumar and with Vaishali confused by who this woman is and why she acts so familiar with her husband. Lucy seems happily oblivious although she does realise Vaishali isn’t comfortable around her. And then one day Vaishali, overwhelmed by her unease and distrust, searches Lucy’s apartment and finds a wedding photo – of Kumar and Lucy.

If Vaishali asks any questions about their domestic situation, Kumar puts her down so she will feel ignorant and shut up. He cuts her off from any other Indian people in the area, and he is her only source of information. She loses her confidence, she feels stupid and disgraced, and she has no one other than Kumar. When she does a runner to Paris by herself, Kumar drags her home and burns her hand on a hotplate as punishment. It’s quite sad that Lucy tries to comfort her ill ‘sister-in-law’ when she is unwittingly part of the problem. Jayaprada does a great job of showing the changing emotions and moods of the abused wife. She really likes Kumar and her marriage when he is in a good mood, and Vaishali seems to excuse his early outbursts by blaming herself or thinks it is just because he is tired or stressed. Her growing realisation that she is in trouble and that her marriage is a sham is sad to watch.

Kumar does spend quite a lot of time with Vaishali (he doesn’t have a job as such) and seems affectionate and caring. They do the tourist thing around Paris, enjoying the sights and making fun of some fashionable locals. How he thinks he can keep hiding the truth is beyond me.  Kumar justifies and rationalises – he sees no reason why he can’t have it all, and no compunction about hurting either of the women.  He has an impulsive warmth which can be appealing, but that can swiftly turn to rage and brutality. His behaviour escalates from verbal nagging and bullying to physically attacking Vaishali.

In one sickening scene of what is essentially marital rape, he withholds her letter from home to coerce her into having sex. And when Vaishali falls pregnant he starts to really lose the plot as he sees his perfect life crumble. He seems to insist on a termination and certainly there is no baby later in the film, although how and if it was her choice isn’t revealed as far as I can tell. Chiranjeevi gives a strong and complex characterisation of a loathsome man. I certainly didn’t find the Chiru Mega appeal made the situation any more palatable, but his layered performance allowed me to empathise more with Vaishali’s disillusionment as she came to terms with the deception.

Some isolated and precarious locations seem intended to convey fear or dread, and I was certainly yelling at Vaishali to be careful, especially in one rooftop scene. Kumar abandons her in a forest at one stage, and tears the mangalsutra from her neck before leaving her in a park on another occasion. He uses her isolation and the unfamiliar surroundings to reinforce her caged existence. He also takes her to see a show of an ‘adult’ nature (to the Pink Panther theme music – how saucy) to prove his point that love and sex were different in France, but she is utterly repulsed by the spectacle. The cosy apartment that she loved on first sight becomes a prison.

The drama is almost claustrophobic as it all takes place in Vaishali and Kumar’s tiny world, so the support cast is small. Sarath Babu arrives late in the piece as Telugu speaking Dr Shankar, who becomes aware of Vaishali’s predicament. Ramaprabha is a petty thief who is hated by the wardrobe department and who gets Shankar involved in the situation. The plot manipulations required to get them into position don’t really stack up, but I was relieved to see Sarath Babu regardless. There is something very salt of the earth and reliable about him in these secondary good dude roles. And I was happy  that once Ramaprabha’s character understood Vaishali’s situation, she reached out to help. Anne Patricia is not the best actress ever, but I felt sympathy for Lucy and was glad to see how her storyline played out.

Some things didn’t quite fit with the realism of the initial set up. Who travels with an electric hotplate or element just on the chance they will want to burn their spare wife? The songs added nothing to the narrative development so I would have left them out, or kept them as background. And the final chase was dramatic but didn’t make much sense, logistically speaking.

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Lest this all sound too grim, back in the present day Saritha asks about the doctor, sparking an outburst from Vaishali. It seems she feels marriage is not essential for a good life.  Hear, hear!

This is a difficult film for me to watch as I find the subject repugnant and to be honest, I prefer a Chiru I can cheer for. I do appreciate the nuanced and sympathetic but not sentimental portrayal of women and relationships. 4 stars!

Rudraveena

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!