Vasantha Maligai (1972)


It’s been a while since I watched some seventies masala, and what better way to indulge than K.S. Prakash Rao’s wonderfully dramatic Vasantha Maligai. Sivaji Ganesan and Vanisri star in this adaptation of Koduri Kausalya Devi’s novel about a rich prince and his romance with a middle class woman working to support her family. Like all good masala films there is a dash of everything – romance, tragedy, filmi medicine, an evil overlord, oppressed villagers and even a comedy cook, but it’s the performances from the cast along with some beautiful songs that make Vasantha Maligai well worth a watch.

Anand (Sivaji Ganesan) is the alcoholic younger son of a royal family and the film opens with a song detailing his drunken antics on a plane where Latha (Vanisri) is working as an air hostess. The opening scenes focus on Anand with Latha merely a figure in the background concerned about fastening seatbelts when the plane hits turbulence, so it’s a surprise when the next scene shows Latha returning home to her family and attention moves to her situation. I like this way of building anticipation for the next meeting between the two, while providing the back story that establishes Latha’s character.

Latha is the main wage earner in the family as her brother (Sreekanth) is a wastrel and her father (Major Sundarrajan) is crippled from an accident. Her mother (Pandari Bai) is unhappy about Latha’s job and persuades her to look for something safer where she doesn’t have to risk life and limb in an aeroplane every day. However, Latha’s subsequent venture into employment turns out to be much more dangerous than her work as an air hostess and Anand returns to the story when he rescues Latha from her amorous new boss. Anand just happens to be grooving the night away in the same hotel celebrating his birthday party, and our hero is such a style icon that he even takes time during the ensuing fight scene to fix up his hair – such panache!

Despite his drunkenness and playboy appearance, Latha accepts a job as Anand’s personal secretary where her kind heart and overall decency start to have an effect on his behaviour. However Latha is also proud and her self-esteem leads her to appear arrogant, particularly when she clashes with Anand’s servant and drinking buddy Panchavarnam (Nagesh). Nagesh is determined to keep Anand drinking to ensure his own supply of grog, while Latha is equally determined to wean Anand off the demon drink and make him a useful member of society. In the end it’s Latha’s concern for his well being that starts to win Anand over but it’s not until he injures Latha during one of his drinking binges that he finally starts to mend his ways.

While Anand is intent on drinking himself into an early grave, his elder brother Vijay (K. Balaji) terrorises the local villagers who work on the estate. Vijay is a nasty piece of work and Balaji has a great demonic laugh and seems to be thoroughly enjoying his role as a brutal despot. His wife Vimala is equally evil and plots to get rid of Latha before she can redeem Anand, although whether this is to keep her husband in control of the estate or just because she is a horrible person is hard to decide. I’m not sure who the actress is playing Vimala but she has a great sneer and is wonderfully condescending in her attitude to just about everyone else although she does seem to care for her husband and child.

Her concern is valid since Anand secretly builds a wonderful palace for the woman he adores, although he refuses to name her until the building is complete – no surprises for who his secret love is, although he does win marks for the way he finally reveals his love.

I know tastes were different back in the seventies but even then surely this would be considered over the top pastel décor:

There are endless ornate pillars, arches, and latticework with tacky silver statues practically everywhere. The indoor pool has giant lotus flower fountains, and the room where Anand reveals the face of his true love is full of mirrors (expected) and revolving pillars (totally unexpected) that don’t seem to have any purpose whatsoever. And what else will they ever use this room for? Latha however is enraptured by the palace and the discovery that Anand loves her, ending up leaping through the gardens in true masala romance style in the gorgeous song Mayakkam Enna.

However there is still a long way to go before the end and Vimala and Vijay manage to turn Ananad against Latha, ultimately resulting in Anand becoming very ill. According to his doctor his cough and general malaise are caused by his sudden drop in alcohol consumption, and no-one ever mentions his chain smoking habit as a possible issue. Aah – the seventies – life was so much simpler back then – unless you were the heroine in a masala movie of course. Poor Latha has many more trials and setbacks to endure before true love wins out, and she has plenty of opportunity to practice her emoting skills while enduring gallons of fake tears. Although she does have the benefit of industrial strength no-run mascara to ensure her make-up stays perfect despite all the crying.

Sivaji Ganesan is perfect as the hero and makes the most of both his drunkenness and his illness later in the film. He spouts dramatic lines and clutches at his chest, a convenient pillar or a chair while gazing adoringly at his glass of brandy one minute, and then switches to amused indulgence as he watches Latha try to make him work the next. It’s not all just over the top drama either, he does have some moments where the subtle raise of an eyebrow is just as effective as his later histrionics and he manages to make his character more than just a typical rich playboy. Balaji too is effective in his role as the elder brother, although I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction between the two brothers.

Vanisri looks gorgeous and wears some stunningly beautiful saris that stand out, even in the opulent surroundings of the palace. She does wear a couple more than once too, which fits nicely with her character needing to work for a living. Her Latha is a determined young woman with plenty of attitude and no tolerance for bad behaviour. I like that even when she is distraught she still fights back and has no hesitation in saying what she thinks, no matter who she is speaking to. She has good chemistry with Sivaji Ganesan too, and the romance between the two works well despite the limited time they have together as a couple.  The support cast are all good too, with Nagesh a good fit as Anand’s upstart servant, although the comedy track between him and the cook (V.K. Ramaswamy) is rather less successful.

The songs by K.V. Mahadevan are beautiful and T.M. Soundararajan provides the voice for Anand, ensuring the songs are just as dramatic as the action.

The film looks gorgeous too – the colours of the fab costumes are vivid and bright, even in my unrestored copy and I love the seriously over the top décor of both palaces. The bar in the palace is as seedy as in any hotel, Anand’s bed is a glorious ornate version of a gondola, and I almost didn’t notice the stuffed animals in the main hallway with the enormous and imposing staircase taking centre stage. This is exactly what I want from my masala films – determined hero, tragic heroine, plenty of melodrama, beautiful costumes and sumptuous settings. Vasantha Maligai delivers on all fronts and is even more readily available now that the film has been digitally restored and re-released. Highly recommended. 4 stars.

Athey Kangal (1967)

Athey Kangal DVD

Athey Kangal (The Same Eyes) is loads of fun. My DVD has this fabulous teaser leading up to the menu. How could you resist?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After a funky track over animated titles, the story kicks off with a bang. A spin on the country house murder mystery, AC Tirulokchandar opens with a murder staged to look like a suicide, a further murder attempt and a complement of suspects on the spot. A voiceover in the film asks that viewers refrain from spoiling the film for others so I will do my best to comply.

Athey Kangal_Murder 1Athey Kangal_Nahiin

The suspects include landlords Kamalanathan (S.A Ashokan), Vimalanathan (Ceylon Manohar), a visiting doctor friend (K Balaji), Nair the cook, and their resident physician. Things are further complicated when their niece Suseela comes home from college for a holiday, bringing a gaggle of girlfriends. Who will be next? And whodunit?

Don’t get too caught up in the murder mystery. The characters only give it occasional attention and they are easily distracted from the sense of impending doom. Despite the death toll, the tone is generally light and the romance between Bhaskar (Ravichandran) and Suseela (Kanchana) takes the centre stage. They meet, they like what they see and love blooms.

Athey Kangal_paintAthey Kangal_paint 2

Athey Kangal_Nagesh and RavichandranAthey Kangal_the breakup

Bhaskar is a jolly and uncomplicated hero except for pretending to be married (to Nagesh in drag) so he could rent a room reserved for married couples. He is working as a musician at the Hotel Emerald and seems happy with his life and prospects.

Suseela is equally straightforward. When she found out her true love was already ‘married’, she severed communication with him. But when he stalked her and produced both his wife and the explanation, she forgave him and enjoyed the absurdity of the situation as much as I did.

One of the best things about having a boyfriend in a hotel band appears to be access to the dress up department for New Year celebrations. This is such a demure can-can and yet it does provide the obligatory riot of colour (and a glimpse of tinsel trimmed bloomers)

There are abundant clues and red herrings. A cigar stub is found near all the victims, a mysterious lady in white flits around, Kamalanathan goes on ‘out of station’ journeys and just how many pairs of two tone wing tip shoes can there be? The aunty who survived a strangling attempt is unhinged and in danger. Following her near-strangling she also develops a fear of knives, loud noises and tomato sauce. Suseela starts to receive death threats over the phone and Bhaskar finds himself drawn into the hunt for the killer. This is good as the police have a sporadic and not very productive involvement in the case. Everyone seems to have been told to maintain an ominous expression with the intent to keep them all as viable suspects.

Athey Kangal_death threatAthey Kangal_the girls are afraid

Suseela puts on a brave face and surrounds herself with her friends but the threats escalate and so does her fear. The girls stay with Suseela and while they have very little dialogues, they do have excellent outfits and accessories which give them some individuality. I was tickled by their idea of suitable attire for social work in a village. Susi’s friend Julie is another bright spark although why why why would you look upon Nagesh and find insta-love?

The costume team reserved their best efforts for the ladies, and maybe Nagesh. I cannot think of a good reason for his pale pink satin dress with red velvet dragon applique but I am pleased they came up with it.

Athey Kangal_RavichandranAthey Kangal_plead and fondle

AC Tirulokchandar has opted for a broad, slightly over the top, style from his actors. Ravichandran looks like he is having a fine time in most of his scenes and gives the dancing a decent try.  While there should be a question mark over this plausible stranger he is just too nice to be the real killer. Kanchana is bubbly and a good match for Ravichandran, although thankfully her dancing is better. I did wonder at Suseela’s ability to seemingly forget that her life was in danger but maybe it takes more than a gunman mortally wounding her birthday cake to rattle Susi. It was nice to see a heroine who isn’t a total panic merchant. Nagesh is reminiscent of Jerry Lewis, and that stops me from liking him wholeheartedly. To be fair, he does enliven some scenes very nicely especially the dances or musical breaks.

Veda’s music is wonderful. Borrowing heavily from the James Bond theme at times, the tone is jazzy big band and brassy. The songs are beautifully filmed and have an exuberant and cheeky humour. There is a wonderful scene where Suseela and the girls are scared at home alone. As a way of whistling in the dark they put on a record and the dramatic percussion is a very funny counterpoint to their increasingly fearful faces.

The visual design is a delight from start to finish. The main mansion set is crammed with sculptures and taxidermy, just the thing to create startling shadows and get the nerves jangling. The interior designer loved feature walls with elaborate mouldings. There is excellent use of windows and niches framing shots, giving a sense of people lurking. I like the way the windows in the aunt’s room look like eyes gazing down at her. No wonder she was a basket case.

I like the relationship between Bhaskar and Suseela as they seem to have similarities in their approach to life and are equally committed to song interludes wherever possible. The comedy is painful at times and I just don’t think fat or wearing a dress is an automatic joke. But the hijinks are in keeping with the rest of the tone so while I could wish away the comedy uncles they aren’t a total disruption to the narrative. The supporting actors, and iMDB is useless for naming them, are mostly fine.

There are a few vague similarities to Teesri Manzil in the Bhaskar and Suseela romance and the murder mystery, but the story is different in some details and the level of angst is considerably lower.  Often with older films I find myself taking lots of notes or making diagrams and charts to keep track of who’s who. I just sat back and enjoyed Athey Kangal immensely. 4 stars!

Thillana Mohanambal

Padmini is Mohanambal, a beautiful and exceptionally talented bharatanatyam dancer. Sivaji Ganesan is the less beautiful but equally talented musician, nadaswaram player Sikkal Shanmughan. Crossing paths at a temple festival sparks fly between them but within minutes they go from this:

To this:

They challenge each other to a contest of dance versus music at some later date. So the stage is set for a fiery romance, riddled with misunderstanding, thwarted by pride and a meddling mother (Vadivambal, played by C.K. Saraswathi).

Mohana believes that dance is for everyone and for all occasions, inspired by the world around the dancer as well as a gift of god. Sikkal is more of a princess, demanding that his audience give him full attention and due reverence as he displays his gift. He believes art exists for god and for the artist. He refuses Mohana’s invitation to stay and watch her dance, but sneaks back later to see this.

There are some interesting observations on women in the performing arts and Mohana is certainly subject to some assumptions by men who desire her beauty and talent. Her mother seeks to ensure a wealthy man as her daughter’s protector or husband, but Mohana rejects all offers even before her feelings for Shanmughan are an issue. Nagalingam (K Balaji) is one thwarted suitor and a kidnapping attempt results in a comedy fight scene that I could have done without. I don’t quite get the undersized guy with stupid hair as instant hilarity, and there are two of them (double the fun?). This diversion means Mohana and her group catch the same train as Sikkal who has been waiting in the hopes they might turn up.

Padmini is gorgeous and her dance training is evident in her deportment and expressions as she uses all of her skill in conveying Mohana’s emotions. She also does an exceptionally good eyelash flutter. Sivaji is more old school theatrical, and lays it on almost as thick as his makeup. But his somewhat rubbery face is wonderfully expressive, especially his eyes, and he does have palpable chemistry with Padmini. There is a delightful scene of wordless communication and voiceover on the train journey that is funny, romantic and beautiful.

There is lots of sparring between the two and she is not the heroine to fall in love and lose her sense of self. I liked seeing a young lady who was a bit of a brat, very self-confident, and who felt no need to be apologetic. I don’t think I would enjoy her half as much in real life, but she did keep my attention in the film. And there was no suggestion that she should give up dancing to be a servant of Sikkal’s muse. She was a dancer and was valued for her gift.

There are abundant comedy elements. Manorama is Jil Jil Ramamani, a folk dancer and girl of suspect virtue. Her ‘comic’ dances are strange, and perhaps the subtitle team decided to make sure we knew this was a modern film:

In addition to being the butt of many jokes, she does play a significant role at several points in the story. Manorama made her character both a caricature and quite sympathetic. I was left thinking Jil Jil understood herself and how others saw her, and she retained some dignity despite the silliness. Nagesh as Vaithy had a role that just irritated me. He is a Jerry Lewis kind of character, so if you like the style, you may have warmer feelings towards him than I do.

His presence extends the story with pranks and frauds, and a longwinded and obtuse approach to being a go-between. The supporting characters are pretty broadly drawn and usually played for comedic effect or buffoonery. There is some excellent face throughout.

There are pointed references to the issues of art versus money, the dedication of great artists and who owns art.  Sikkal storms out of a private party rather than be ‘owned’ by the landlord and plays an impromptu concert to the locals gathered outside. I particularly enjoy this face off where the classical versus modern question is settled judging by the smug expression on Sivaji’s face (wait for the white couple to turn up at about 4 min):

Mohana is pursued with increasing vigour by the landlord and the ensuing scenes are quite farcical. I was quite annoyed that Sikkal immediately assumed Mohana was playing him, without speaking to her or investigating. He just did the heroic leap to the conclusion that she was duplicitous and decided to feel sorry for himself. I might have been more tolerant of manly brooding in a more attractive character, but really I just wanted to slap him. He then departs to sulk with Jil Jil, now calling herself Rosarani, who owns a drama company. Word of this gets back to Mohana who knows about his misunderstanding but had hoped he might still be interested. Rather than giving up, judging or moping, she decides to confront him.

Jil Jil and Mohana show themselves to be more decisive and action oriented than many a filmi heroine. I have doubts over the subtitle translation of some of the relationships as people refer to the landlord wanting Mohana to live with him, but he is also referred to as a groom, there is mention of dowry and so on and he has a wife already. In one scene, Padmini begs him not to spoil both their lives and mentions women being enslaved by money. So I am guessing she would have been his mistress but perhaps the subtitle team decided to sanitise the arrangements. Regardless, her modesty and chastity helps to persuade the landlord to be a brother rather than a suitor.

Mohana knew that the only way to keep Sikkal from leaving India with Jil Jil was to appeal to his artistic pride. The Thillana contest goes ahead. Nagalingam returns for skulduggery resulting in Sikkal taking a knife to the arm. Sivaji really milks the scene, thrashing around like a fish out of water for what seems like minutes. This injury prompts a further outbreak of overacting, and Sikkal gets another opportunity to feel sorry for himself again. Thanks to yet another smart competent woman (his nurse Mary) he begins to see that perhaps he has been a little narrow minded.

The finale is predictable but unravels over yet another complex scheme to sell Mohana, this time to a King. She defends herself, verbally and physically, and finds an ally in the very peculiarly accented Queen. Her chastity proves transformative once again, and the King decides to be a good husband.

Sikkal jumps to conclusions (yes, again!) and flings himself around chewing the scenery. This time Mohana has had enough and decides to resolve things. The climax is very filmi and over the top but the duelling diva personalities of the leads made it less unbelievable than it might have been.

This is such a pretty film. The ladies wear beautiful jewellery and costumes, there are lots of sparkly things, the temple locations and houses are lovely. It also has quite a timeless feel, with only a couple of scenes overtly placing the story in the late 1960s. The story is an overblown romantic melodrama but the theme of art and excellence gives the characters much more substance than I expected.  The female characters stand on their own feet, and have their own plans and desires. Padmini and Sivaji are exceptional and really made me care about their relationship even as their characters annoyed me sometimes. And of course, Padmini’s dancing alone makes this worth a look. Who won the contest you ask?  Art was the winner! 4 stars.