Kalai Arasi (1963)

Kalai Arasi

Post Tik Tik Tik, I’d read a few articles that mentioned Kalai Arasi, which may have a better claim to the title of Tamil cinema’s first space film. Kalai Arasi was released in 1963 and features M.G.Ramachandran, P. Bhanumathi and Rajasree in an adventure that does indeed go to the stars and back (even if the stars look suspiciously like the inside of a film studio). There are some excellent ideas here and good special effects, especially considering the age of the film, but what make it worth watching is a well-told story that ties everything up into a satisfying conclusion by the end. It’s definitely a simpler time as no-one seems to worry about why the aliens all speak Tamil so well, or why they decide to target India either. However with the charming Bhanumathi and MGR in double roles, all you need to do is sit back and watch the space ships fly through the sky and death rays blow stuff up! Note: Kalai Arasi is available on YT, although a number of scenes appear to be missing (in both available versions although the one with the most annoying water mark has 3 more minutes), the quality is poor and of course there are no subtitles, but it’s still watchable and lots of fun.

The film starts with farmer Mohan (MGR) singing on a bullock cart with his sister as they wend their way back home. They come across Vaani (P. Bhanumathi) and her friends whose car has broken down, mainly because Vaani drove it into a pot-hole and ran out of petrol. Needless to say, Mohan is all over the rescue, and it turns out that the pair are already a couple, although all is not plain sailing since Mohan is a poor farmer and Vaani is the daughter of a rich man. Worse still, her father is trying to marry Vaani to her cousin Kannan (P.S. Veerappa) a nasty man with anger management issues, but at least Vaani seems able to cope. There’s a cute scene where she pretends to faint after he shouts at her, and then winks at her maid to let her know she is really OK. Vaani has plenty of personality, and also a great voice which turns out to be her downfall.

A wandering spaceship, on the lookout for musicians to kidnap and take back to their planet happens to see Vaani on their TV surveillance instrument. The leader of the expedition, Thinna (M.N.Nambiar) and pilot Malla decide she is exactly what their planet needs and head off to kidnap Vaani.  On the way they use their ray guns to explode a bear that attacks, emphasising they’re dangerous and aren’t likely to take no for an answer if Vaani resists. Plus ray guns – cool!

The spaceship is really rather wonderful too. It is a bit reminiscent of Flash Gordon but there are lots of panels and dials with flashing lights and mysterious screens.  The space ship’s travels through space are pretty good too, there is even a large asteroid they have to dodge, but who knew that there was so much steam in space! Once in the Earth’s atmosphere the flight becomes a bit shaky but I like how the spaceship is shown flying over temples and fields of workers to show that they actually have reached Tamil Nadu and not some random planet. Scenes shot inside the space ship are jerky with the camera moving erratically as Thinna and Malla walk around stiffly in their shiny and embellished spacesuits. This is explained later. Thinna is wearing a pair of shorts which I don’t think would provide much protection from space, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern, although they are both wearing helmets, goggles and masks.

After kidnapping Vaani, Thinna zooms off in the spaceship while Malla is left behind. Vaani’s disappearance is blamed on Mohan as he was the last person to see her, and Kannan arranges for him to be put in jail. As if this wasn’t enough, Kannan then throws Mohan’s mother and sister out of their house, leading his sister to end up dancing and singing in a brothel. Kannan is also convinced that he’s found Vaani, although he’s really found Valli (Bhanumathi again), a poor mentally ill girl whose father is unable to convince Kannan that she isn’t Vaani. This is Sixties Tamil cinema so Valli is played for laughs, but Bhanumathi is excellent as she portrays Valli’s instability, veering between innocence and violence and always not seeming quite aware exactly where she is or what she is doing. It’s a great performance and a good contrast to her portrayal of Vaani who is confident and poised, even during an alien abduction.

Meanwhile, Vaani has reached the alien planet and is teaching the world to sing, or at least teaching the princess Rajini (Rajasree) dancing and singing. This goes down well with the locals and Thinna heads back to pick up Malla, who doesn’t seem to have done anything useful, so I’m not sure why he was left behind. By this stage Mohan has been released from jail and has also rescued his sister, although his mother appears to have vanished. Thinking that Vaani has married Kannan, Mohan is wandering through the wilderness when he sees Malla and for no apparent reason (there isn’t even any dialogue) he attacks and kills him. I’m presuming that there is a missing scene here, which explains why Mohan attacks and why he assumes Malla had something to do with Vaani’s disappearance. That would explain why he then sneaks aboard the spaceship too, but maybe he just thought it was a good idea.

Once on the alien planet, Mohan has to deal with different gravity which is brilliantly shown in a sequence where he appears to be almost weightless. This is cleverly done and still looks fantastic, mainly due to MGR’s facial expressions and physical contortions. Even though the background isn’t particularly alien or outlandish, MGR makes it look as if he’s completely out of his depth and struggling – great acting and beautifully filmed too. Luckily for Mohan he meets a minstrel/joker character (also played by MGR) who helps him, and whose place in the palace Mohan is able to take when the joker is unfortunately killed. Once in the palace Mohan finds Vaani, but before they can escape he has to deal with the Princess Rajini’s amorous advances towards him, and Thinna’s murderous tendencies, as well as work out how to pilot the space ship and get Vaani back home.

Kalai Arasi works well because it’s a good story that’s simply been transported into space. The various devices added, such as Mohan’s weightlessness and the aliens’ difficulty with Earth gravity, are cleverly done and show that you don’t need CGI and splashy special effects if you have good actors and clear vision. Some of the things I really liked are that the flunkies on the alien planet rise up onto their toes rather than saluting their superiors, while Rajini has a very impressive suite of furniture that pops out of the wall whenever she presses a button. Director A. Kasilingam keeps everything moving along, as there is a lot to fit in, while writer Raveendar adds some novel ideas that refresh a relatively standard story. There is plenty of good detail, even in the secondary plot lines, which still all reach a satisfactory conclusion by the end. The costume department obviously had a great time dressing the aliens with capes, half capes, shorts, flouncy trousers and lots of embellishments and hair ornaments. I wish this had been filmed in colour to see exactly how OTT everything really was, particularly since Mohan’s borrowed shoes look wonderfully glitzy when paired with the joker’s outfits.

There are couple of really good songs from K.V. Mahadevan, including one featuring Valli and a beautiful duet between Bhanumathi  and Mohan. My favourite though is the very first song with Bhanumathi performing on stage. It’s not all about the singing and dancing either as there is an excellent sword fight and also some standard fisticuffs for those who prefer their fight scenes more traditional.

Although Mohan is the hero of the story, Vaani gets to keep her composure when she’s abducted too. She’s no damsel in distress as she first of all sizes up the situation and then does the best she can. She seems assertive and confident, even on the alien planet and in the end it’s Vaani who successfully pilots the spaceship back to Earth. In fact, none of the women in the story come out of it too badly compared to modern day heroines. Even Mohan’s sister takes action when faced with a life of prostitution, and Princess Rajini may be useless in a sword fight and a drama queen, but she’s sensible enough to lock Mohan in chains when Thinna suggests he might be a flight risk.

It’s not just the women who fare well either. MGR is wonderfully heroic, switching between his simple farmer persona, to confident trickster once on the alien world. His fight scenes are good, and his character is sensibly capable of dealing with every situation as it arises. This is a film where he really does get a chance to show off his acting skills and he nails it every time. I thoroughly enjoyed Kalai Arasi, it’s a real find and I wish someone would consider restoring and re-releasing it with subtitles. Even without the missing scenes it’s a film that does have something for everyone and the space theme is much better than expected. One that’s well worth tracking down if you’re a fan of old B&W movies and want something a little different. 4 stars.

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Vasantha Maligai (1972)

Poster

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.

Mooga Manasulu (1963)

Mooga Manasulu-title

Mooga Manasulu is a reincarnation romance directed by Adurthi Subba Rao and starring Savitri and Akkineni Nageswara Rao. Some time ago I asked around for reincarnation film recommendations, and several people mentioned Milan (Hindi, 1967). While tracking that down, I discovered Mooga Manasulu is the original. I slightly prefer the Telugu original to the Hindi remake although I like both films. The music by K V Mahadevan is just lovely and I think the cast has a small edge over their Hindi counterparts.

I seem to have a higher melodrama tolerance in reincarnation films. Perhaps it is because the core theme allows that the end is not the end so even if tragic events occur, there is still a chance for characters to have the life they deserve or at least get a do over.  When I know the outcome of a story I tend to focus more on the characters and how they get to that resolution. Mooga Manasulu’s strength is in the lead actors and their characterisations, some determined forays into scenery chewing notwithstanding. I do find the acting a little dated and stylised, but that is the same when I watch most films from the 50s and 60s in any language.

The film starts with newlyweds Gopi (ANR) and Radha (Savitri) leaving for their honeymoon. En route Gopi has flashbacks and recognises landmarks. His past comes back in a rush and he narrates the story to Radha, also present in that past life. So in effect, it starts with a happy ending and that helped tide me through. They meet Gauri (Jamuna) who had played such a role in their past, and is now an old woman waiting for death. The story shifts to the past and we relive the love triangle. ANR has a nice rapport with both actresses and it was easy to empathise with the three characters over their circumstance if not their actions.

Mooga Manasulu-Gopi and GowriMooga Manasulu-ANR and Savitri

ANR looks every inch the middle class city boy in his modern life, and is charming if a bit over the top as past life Gopi. The present day frames the core events so Gopi the orphan boatman is the central figure. He is simple, occasionally verging on stupid as is often the case when ‘simplicity’ is being portrayed. But by and large ANR doesn’t overdo the wide eyed naivete too much. There is a clear difference between Gopi playing dumb to irritate Gauri and Gopi being genuinely clueless. He is argumentative and brotherly with Gauri, showing an affectionate but not romantic interest. Gopi is keenly aware of the gulf between himself and Radha but has an innocent idealistic love for her. They sing together and he presents her with a flower every day. He might pine for years after she marries, but he has no genuine expectation of being the groom.

Mooga Manasulu-SavitriMooga Manasulu-Radha and Rambabu

Savitri is Radha. She is a very proper young lady but she has a definite personality and doesn’t take nonsense from swoony college boys.I enjoyed Savitri’s facial expressions when her suitor Rambabu was waxing lyrical about letting her win a singing competition. Her response – do what you like, I’ll win it anyway. Savitri maintains a sweetly neutral facial expression while often her eyes tell a different story. In many ways Radha is the initiator in her largely imaginary relationship with Gopi. She steals his food, she buys him clothes and sits on the floor with him. She knows the rules and decides which ones to break. Her love for him is more romantic where his affection is idealised and a bit abstract.

In song fantasies she imagines Gopi surrounded by balloons – that can only be love! But she does as her family wishes, and marries and moves away (ferried, of course, by Gopi). When she returns she is a widow and Gopi is devastated that her life has taken such a turn.

Mooga Manasulu-marriedMooga Manasulu-leaving home

Mooga Manasulu-double the woe

I tried to be sympathetic but the reactions of Gopi to Radha’s misfortune and her grief at his horror were just a bit too much. But it is a melodrama. Their closeness is the talk of town and that is bad news for all.

Mooga Manasulu-Jamuna as GauriMooga Manasulu-Gauri looks after Gopi

Thank heavens for Jamuna as at least someone could dance a bit to the wonderful songs. (Reincarnation does nothing to improve my low montage and weepy duet tolerance.) Gauri is determined to marry Gopi and had things gone to plan, she would have. Jamuna is occasionally grating as Gauri is so loud and childish but like Gopi, a lot of her acting up is done for effect. She does have a sensitive side and seems more of a young woman and less of a silly girl when Gopi is beaten up and needs care. Gauri is also the object of lust for Radha’s uncle Rajendra (Nagabhushanam) and he is not fussy about whether she consents or not. She had no luck at all with the men in her life, and her decision making was not always helpful. Her impulsiveness inadvertently brings doom upon Gopi and Radha, and she cannot stop the backlash. Gauri is overshadowed by the connection between Gopi and Radha, yet her role is pivotal and Jamuna really holds her own. In fact, she went on to reprise the role in the Hindi version along with Sunil Dutt and Nutan.

While there are lashings of impassioned dialogues, there is also a strong visual language underscoring the events too. There are recurring motifs of lamps, flames and lights that recall the momentary flickering that is a human lifespan.

Mooga Manasulu-sorrowMooga Manasulu-misery

Some things are shown rather than told – when Radha pinches Gopi’s tiffin instead of her own as a means of putting herself closer to him. And it is just so pretty to look at. Whoever was in charge of boats had their hands full as in the background of almost every scene there are sailboats gliding along the Godavari. Gopi tells Radha that the Godavari is his mother and will always carry him safely in her hands. There is a drowning in the film, and while the actual scene is a bit clumsy and not at all convincing or perilous looking, it resonates with the constant presence of the river in the characters’ lives.

Mooga Manasulu-Radhas family

The support cast are minor in terms of characterisation although they do instigate some key incidents. I did enjoy Suryakantham’s turn as the not very wicked stepmother.

Mooga Manasulu-Gopi and RadhaMooga Manasulu-balloons

The soundtrack by K V Mahadevan  is delightful and suits the mood and characters perfectly. I couldn’t locate subtitles for the songs but from all accounts the lyrics are still highly appreciated. The songs amplify what is happening in the drama rather than breaking from the narrative. The picturisations are lyrical and moody often enhancing the feeling of impending disaster.

See this for the excellent lead trio,  if you like your melodrama laid on with a trowel, or the notion of recalling a past life appeals. 3 ½ stars! (Deductions for excessive Nahiin Face)

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