Bhairava Dweepam

Bhairava Dweepam DVD

Released in 1994, Bhairava Dweepam is a lavish lolly coloured Telugu folk tale. Writer/director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao picked up a couple of awards and the film was both a commercial and critical success. Although I found it quite entertaining, there are a few things I couldn’t help but compare unfavourably with other similar films.

Bhairava-Dweepam-Vasundhara is rejected

The story is easy to follow, which was handy as I haven’t been able to find subtitles. Vasundhara (K.R Vijaya) had a baby, probably out of wedlock but certainly not to the liking of the royal family. When she takes her son to the prince, the father in question, she is turfed out into the stormy night. She has an accident in her small unstable boat and mother and child are separated. Vasundhara is taken in by a kindly hermit who also creates a magical (poorly trimmed fabric) flower that will thrive as long as her son is also alive.

The boy is adopted by a village leader and grows up to be Vijay (Balakrishna). The people rejoiced – except that baby in yellow. Vijay and his sidekick or adopted brother, (Mohan Babu), are out and about doing what boys in folktales do when they spy Padma (Roja). Vijay is instantly smitten and sets about finding his way into the palace to spend more time with her. Unbeknownst to Padma, an evil magician also has his sights set on her. Padma is rendered seriously ill by a spell and Vijay searches for a cure. Along the way he meets his mother but they don’t yet realise their connection. She gives him a protective amulet which comes in very handy. He discovers the nefarious plot and after much travail, confronts Bhairava to set things to rights.

The story is very similar to the gorgeous 1951 film, Patala Bhairavi. And that is where the comparisons start. Where Patala Bhairavi was stunning and NTR was effortlessly charismatic, Bhairava Dweepam is a bit less magical and Balakrishna is more workmanlike in constructing his performance. The special effects in 1994 have not moved on all that much from 1951. I did wonder what my 1994 self would have thought, but in 1994 I had already seen films like Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). While there were some things about Legend I don’t care for (Tom Cruise for starters), it did look like a magical fairytale and the unicorns are beautiful. Compare and contrast these approaches to prosthetic horse makeup.

While I appreciate the spirit of making do, even if it does result in a grumpy looking horse with feathers stuck on, I was left a little underwhelmed. It was a mixed bag and often more amusing than enchanting.

There are other sequences involving a two headed rubber chicken dragon attacking the flying bed used to whisk Padma to the villain’s cave, some tiny miniature people who help Vijay obtain a magical necklace, a mirror monster in a peekaboo green rubber suit and so much more. It is kind of great but not really good. Ajooba-esque, perhaps. And there are some horse stunts that look horrible. One scene involved Vijay using a stick to trip horses, and not all of them looked like they were going to get up. I deducted Hero points from Vijay on seeing that tactic.

Balakrishna works harder than anyone else in the cast. Vijay is in almost every scene and usually throwing himself into a duel or bounding about rescuing the princess so this is a physically demanding role. If Balakrishna had been paid per leap he would have cleaned up. Vijay helps or liberates a number of magical beings along the way, and they give him valuable assistance in his quest. Balakrishna certainly has the confident swagger down pat even if his dancing is less than impressive. But making a film that is so similar to one of NTR’s acclaimed roles and trying to replicate his style is a big ask. I thought the same when I watched Sri Rama Rajyam. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but he doesn’t have the same expressive quality or panache and so comes off as less engaging. Tarak (NTR Jr) seems to take a slightly different tack by paying a tribute to his grandfather in his films but not trying to mimic him as closely. That allows for more individuality and he has developed a kind of everyman hero persona (with phenomenal dancing skills). Balakrishna is more closely tied to the legacy and so I find it hard to appreciate him as an individual actor, at least based on the handful of his films I’ve seen. Plus he will always be This Guy to me.

Roja is the love interest, Padma Devi. Padma is your standard damsel in occasional distress. She does nothing other than look sparkly, frolic with her handmaidens and wait to be rescued from Certain Death. Roja is pretty and lively, and she handles the numerous songs and dances easily. But I think she would have spent more time in hair and makeup than having to learn her few lines. I did wonder why, since Bhairava required a virgin for his spell, no one thought about how Padma could disqualify herself.

The supporting cast are all good without being outstanding. Rambha has one of the big musical numbers as Yakshini, the owner of both magical necklace and green mirror monster. Giri Babu and Subhalekha  Sudhakar play scheming brothers (and Vijay’s relatives) who not only depose their own father but have their eye on Padma’s kingdom as well.

K.R Vijaya is good as Vasundhara and she does get a couple of quite dramatic scenes, including a classic Nahiin Face Off with Balakrishna.

The design department certainly went for it. Their philosophy could be summed up as ‘all the colours, all the time’. Vijay has an extensive wardrobe of gaudy leggings and tunics, nicely accessorised with an array of ornate boots and matching wristbands. I was particularly impressed with the outfit that had canary boots to match the yellow terry-towelling trim and headband. Perfect for the active hero! Roja is very glittery, as are her attendants. Bhairava’s island cave lair is more impressive from the outside but he does have more than the usual number of talking statues so that was something. There are comedy demons that help Vijay, and they look like something straight out of the kindergarten dress up box.

Bhairava Dweepam is entertaining enough, but having seen it twice now I don’t think I’d invest the time on watching it again. See it for a relatively recent take on the folkloric blockbuster and for the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the cast. 3 stars! (But if you’re a diehard fan of Ajooba, add an extra star!)

Bhairava-Dweepam-Rabbit

Also – I love this production house emblem.

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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.

Saraswathi Sabatham (1966)

When I started watching films which dealt with the classical stories involving Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I noticed a number of parallels with the legends I heard as a child growing up in Ireland. There are many books and articles which deal with the similarity between the two cultures, but every time I watch one of these films it strikes me all over again and is probably one of the reasons why I love these mythological films. The lavishness of the sets and the stunning costumes are other reasons to watch and enjoy but I really do appreciate the stories and the opportunity to learn more about the Hindu pantheon of Gods. A. P. Nagarajan made many successful mythological films in the sixties, and I’m hopeful that after the recent success of the restored classic Karnan some of Nagarajan’s films will get the same treatment and become more readily available with subtitles.

Saraswathi Sabatham is a little different from the other Tamil mythological films I’ve seen, as it uses a fictitious plot rather than stories from the Sanskrit epics. It still draws on the personalities and traits of the various Gods and there is a strong message behind the narrative but it’s a simple story which is charmingly told. The film opens with a lovely song featuring the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswathi (Savitri) and her attendants.

Trouble enters into this beautiful and peaceful scene in the form of the sage Naradha (Sivaji Ganesan) who goads Saraswathi by claiming that wealth is more important than knowledge. After successfully riling Saraswathi, Naradha heads off to confront the Goddess Lakshmi (Devika) and again causes trouble by telling her that knowledge is more important than wealth. After successfully starting a rivalry between the two Goddesses, Naradha then adds the Goddess Parvati (Padmini) into the mix by claiming that wealth and knowledge are both more important than bravery. Despite some rather lacklustre protests from their husbands, Brahma, Shiva (Harnath) and Vishnu (Sivakumar), and even though they know that Naradha is a renowned trouble-maker, all three rise to the bait. Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Parvati each vow to make a champion for their cause on Earth and prove that their attribute is the most important while making the other two champions bow down before the winner.

Generally the different aspects of the three Goddesses are well depicted with Savitri appearing regal and dignified as Saraswathi. She conveys a sense of timeless wisdom in her manner, although still storms off in a huff when she gets annoyed with Naradha. Devika’s Lakshmi is playful and charming while Padmini is motherly to her children but feisty enough to challenge Shiva before Naradha intervenes with his teasing. The three Goddesses are also incredibly sparkly and although Lakshmi manages to out-glitter the other two it’s a close run contest.

Saraswathi chooses the mute son of a temple singer to be her champion. She gives Vidyapathi the power of speech and the knowledge to make him an accomplished poet who can sing her praises throughout the kingdom.

Coincidently choosing the same kingdom, Lakshmi uses her power to make a poor beggar girl queen. The ailing king, who has no heir, decides on a method of selecting his successor which will not open him to claims of favouritism. Acting on advice from his chief minister he gives an elephant a garland and decrees that the person garlanded by the elephant will be the next ruler. As he says, this is the perfect plan that no-one can object to – except perhaps the elephant who has to chase around after Selvambikar and then throw the flowers over her head.

Finally Parvati takes a total coward, Veeramallar (Gemini Ganesan) and turns him into a brave and fearless warrior, who quickly rises to be the new army chief as a result of his prowess in saving the queen when her horse bolts.

Vidyapathi, Selvambikai and Veeramallar all squabble amongst themselves as the three Goddesses jostle for power. Each character is full of their own importance and their arrogance is well portrayed by the three actors. Sivaji Ganesan is excellent as Vidyapathi. His transformation completely changes his personality and he is wonderfully condescending and self-righteous as Saraswathi’s champion.

K. R. Vijaya is beautiful, and her change from the poverty stricken beggar girl to haughty queen is just as convincing. Her Selvambikai still has an air of vulnerability despite her arrogance and pride which makes her the most sympathetic of the three and she does also get to wear some lovely sparkly costumes. I almost didn’t recognise Gemini Ganesan here compared to the young romantic in Kalyana Parisu but he has plenty of screen presence as the blustering warrior, although his character doesn’t have quite as much background as the other two.

There are clashes between Vidyapathi and Selvambikai as the poet refuses to sing in praise of the queen. More clashes occur between Veeramallar and Selvambikai as the warrior oversteps his authority, while Vidyapathi and Veeramallar are at odds from the moment they meet. Each embodies the attribute of their patron Goddess and none of them are prepared to back down. Of course it all gets resolved with a suitably moral ending, but it’s the conflicts between the various characters that make the film so entertaining. Plus the chance to see Sivaji Ganesan in a pink outfit with matching pink outfits for his guards.

The sets are fantastic and Lakshmi’s heavenly abode is incredibly golden and extravagant. Naradha walks through the clouds (although the rainbow he stands on isn’t one found in nature), and while there aren’t very many other special effects, they tend to be well used – such as when letters appear as Vidyapathi sings about his new ability to speak.

There is a comedy track featuring Nagesh and Manorama which fits into the story although Nagesh’s character is more successful. Unfortunately subtitles don’t really convey Manorama’s speech patterns which are the basis for the humour in her character.  All the lead actors are excellent but Sivaji Ganesan really stands out as both Naradha and Vidyapathi. He has some wonderful expressions and a real twinkle in his eye while he teases everyone as Naradha, and he keeps the character light and mischievous. He has the same liveliness as Vidyapathi but gives a sense of smugness and conceit rather than the teasing nature of Naradha and his anguish and despair as the mute temple worker praying to Saraswathi is very moving.

The music by K. V. Mahadevan is beautiful and the lyrics by Kannadasan work well even in their English translation. As always I would have liked a little more dancing, although there is a short piece of Bharatanatyam by Padmini to enjoy. It’s probably not a film for everyone’s tastes as the story develops slowly and there is a lot of wordy interplay between the characters to establish the conflict. However for fans of Tamil mythological films, A. P. Nagarajan takes a simple story and aided by excellent performances from his all-star cast makes Saraswathi Sabatham an entertaining and appealing watch.  3 ½ stars.