Anbe Sivam

Anbe Sivam is a film that many people recommended to me and since it stars two of my favourite actors, it was one I quickly moved up the ‘to be watched’ pile. The film has as its basis the themes of politics and religion, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and there is plenty of comedy along with all the drama.  The viewer is taken on as much of a journey as the two protagonists and although the film details their endeavours to make their way to Chennai it’s not just the physical travel which is explored. The film was directed by Sundar C while Kamal Hassan wrote the screenplay and even sang on a couple of the songs. Anbe Sivam has a more unusual storyline for a Tamil film, and although there are one or two clichéd characters and a few unlikely coincidences, overall it’s an entertaining watch. Kamal Hassan and Madhavan make a great team and both give excellent performances.

The film starts in Bhubaneswar airport in Orissa where Anbarasu (Madhavan) and Nallasivam (Kamal Hassan) are stranded due to the rains. Anbarasu works as a film maker in the world of advertising and since he despises the part of his name which refers to love, he prefers a shortened from of his name A. Aras. Initially Aras mistakes the bespectacled and physically handicapped Sivam for a terrorist wielding a pipe bomb, when in fact Sivam is armed with nothing more deadly than a cucumber.

A.Aras is as much of an idiot as his name sounds. He’s arrogant, quick to make judgments and quite convinced that he is always right. Sivam is a man afflicted with a paralysed right arm, one leg shorter than the other and an abundance of facial scars following an accident. He also has thick glasses and a facial tic which impressively Kamal Hasan manages to keep going throughout the whole movie. However, after his confrontation with the authorities Sivam explains to Aras that most terrorists don’t look like him at all, but instead are more likely to look handsome like Aras.

After all flights are cancelled Aras ends up unwillingly sharing a room with Sivam. Although Aras sneaks out early the next morning he still doesn’t manage to evade his unwelcome travelling partner as Sivam catches up to him in a flooded train station. Again Sivam comes to the rescue of the more impetuous Aras and aids him in his onward journey to Chennai. There are some beautiful shots throughout the film and the scenes here of the rain drenched streets and the countryside from the bus are excellent.

The duo end up taking a bus and a train on their quest to get to Chennai and along the way Sivam is unfailingly cheerful, chatty and full of unsolicited advice which drives the more reserved Aras crazy. Aras distrusts  Sivam and is rude and even callous in his continual attempts to get rid of Sivam, but his efforts backfire every time. This leads to a lot of comedy which, although often quite slapstick, is well-integrated into the story and is really quite funny. The conflict between the two allows discussion of their opposing views on almost every topic but most commonly Sivam’s communist beliefs. The dangers and benefits of globalisation and multi-national companies are touched on while the clash between Aras’s belief in capitalism and Sivam’s in socialism is an ongoing theme.

As they wait for the train back to Chennai, there is a long flashback which explains some of Sivam’s beliefs and how he came by his disabilities. An unscarred and healthy Sivam organises and takes part in street plays as a way to spread his message of equality and rights for workers. The main person ridiculed in these street plays is the rich and outwardly religious industrialist Kandaswamy Padayachi who is in conflict with Sivam as he refuses to give his workers adequate pay. Sivam meets his daughter Balasaraswathi and after some initial conflict the two end up falling in love. She persuades Sivam to paint a picture in her father’s factory as the fee for his art work will help fund further communist activity. His painting cleverly includes a large amount of communist imagery and I was intrigued to learn that both this scene and the painting itself were influenced by Diego Rivera’s mural at the Rockefeller Centre. Dolce and Namak’s excellent review notes a number of links between Dali’s work and the imagery depicted throughout the film too.

This part of the film is however the least satisfying and goes on a bit too long. Kiran Rathod is rather unsatisfactory as the rich daughter although I can’t decide exactly why, but she never engages any sympathy for her character. The love story seems very trite and there is no chemistry between the two actors here at all.Nasser as Kandasamy Padayachi is a typical evil factory owner although the duality of his evil deeds while continually offering prayers to Shiva was an interesting trait. There is a rather odd fight scene with Sivam using an umbrella as a weapon which doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the story although it is well choreographed. An earlier scene where the theatre group’s performance is broken up by the police is much more realistic and convincing, and this later confrontation seems unnecessary and more contrived. However the flashback does give insight into why Sivam looks at the world with his glass half full attitude despite his disabilities.

As the rest of their journey unfolds, Aras gradually becomes more compassionate, eventually becoming involved in the struggle to save a young boy’s life following a train accident. Sivam explains his belief that anyone who shows compassion and love to their fellow-man is themselves a god turning the more usual statement ‘God is Love’ neatly around. The last scenes are particularly powerful and moving and Sivam’s unfailing goodness does give the impression that he may indeed be a god. Albeit a flawed and very human one.

What really makes this such a good film are the performances from Kamal Hassan and Madhavan. Kamal Hassan plays Sivam with humility and warmth as a basically good man, but one who is not above playing tricks on his travelling partner. He’s also expressive and vehement in his role as an activist but rather more obtuse when it comes to personal emotions. The change in his character as a result of his injuries is very well depicted and despite his many irritating habits, Sivam is a very sympathetic character. Madhavan does well to hold his own against such a performance from Kamal Hassan. He has a great sense of comedic timing and his scenes with Kamal Hassan are compelling. Sivam is the person you really don’t want to sit beside you on the bus and Madhavan’s increasing frustration and anger is understandable and totally believable. His gradual change as he is exposed to the realities of life in rural India is also convincing and well portrayed. Perhaps the only odd note is his sudden desire to adopt Sivam as his older brother as this seems a rather sudden jump from just wanting him at his wedding. The coincidence that both men love the same woman is also a little unbelievable but for the purposes of the story I’m willing to ignore it. Uma Riyaz Khan appears in a small but very effective role as Mehrunnisa, a member of the theatre troupe and Santhana Bharathi is also well utilised as Padayachi’s enforcer. Both characters have more involvement with the story than first appears and I really enjoyed their contributions. The music by Vidyasagar doesn’t stand out particularly but it does fit well into the film and the songs seem to flow very naturally out of the dialogue. The title song, which appears as a recurring theme, is the most effective and haunting. This clip is fairly graphic and does reveal quite a bit of the story around Sivam’s injuries so skip it if you don’t like blood or don’t want to know more about what happens.

Anbe Sivam is a film I’ve now seen three times and I get more out of it on each viewing. Everything seems to have a second meaning, and that duality is reflected in the fact that the main characters are all known by two different names. It’s a fascinating film and it raises some interesting questions about love and the nature of God. I add my recommendation to all those people who advised me to watch it. 4 stars.

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Pushpak

Although made in 1987, Pushpak is a silent film with no dialogue. However there is background noise and a very funky soundtrack. Presumably inspired by the early silent films from the start of the last century, director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao has included plenty of situational and physical comedy but Pushpak manages to be a compelling, if somewhat moralistic drama at the same time.

The story centres on an unemployed graduate played by Kamal Hassan. He lives in a one-roomed apartment on the roof of his building, and spends his days wandering around the streets unsuccessfully looking for work. By chance, he comes across an alcoholic millionaire (Sameer Khakhar) lying at the side of the road and recognises him from an earlier encounter near the Hotel Pushpak.

Kamal Hassan decides to kidnap the unfortunate millionaire and carries him back to his meagre apartment where he restrains and gags the unconscious man (although he does thoughtfully turn on the fan), and then heads off to Hotel Pushpak where he assumes the millionaires identity. He sleeps in the millionaire’s room, eats his food and uses his cash to buy smart new clothes. Kamal Hassan is perfect in his indecision as he tries bread sticks, then some nuts and finally cannot decide which chocolate bar to eat – too much choice for someone who has been used to no choice at all. And I love the way they serve breakfast in the hotel.

Clever shots of photographs in both the hotel room and the millionaire’s home allow us to identify the millionaire’s wife, to whom he appears devoted and the millionaire’s best friend, who appears to be devoted to the millionaire’s wife. The two are having an affair and we learn that the best friend has hired an assassin to get rid of the husband for good.

The role of the assassin is played by Tinnu Anand who throws himself into the role and seems to have a great time stalking his target. However as he has only the hotel name and room number, he clearly doesn’t know that he is attempting to kill the wrong man. His weapon of choice is a throwing dagger made of ice which he carries around in an ice bucket (of course!). His efforts to remove the lid of the ice bucket, pull the ice dagger from the mould and then throw and hit his target are wonderfully inept leaving me wondering why he didn’t just bring one of his large collection of guns along as a back-up plan. The daggers also seem rather friable although they work well enough in the dummy he has brought along to the hotel room in order to practice his technique.

Added in to all this farce, there is a rather sweet romance which develops between Kamal Hassan and the hotel magician’s daughter, beautifully played by Amala. The film builds to a moralistic but somewhat poignant ending where everyone appears to have learned that money cannot buy everything and that there is more to life than wealth.

Of necessity the acting in a silent film has to be more obvious when there is no dialogue to explain the reasons behind people’s actions. However the various characters here are explained by a few simple scenes which give a clear understanding of their personality and there isn’t really any heavy-handed overacting by the lead actors. As with many of the early silent films there is a high reliance on slap-stick humour and most of this involves the efforts by Kamal Hassan to keep his prisoner quietly hidden and the assassin’s attempts on Kamal Hassan’s life. There is a lot of toilet humour as Kamal Hassan goes to rather detailed lengths to make sure his prisoner is relatively comfortable throughout his captivity and there is perhaps a little too much detail for it to be really funny. Rather, I was impressed by the ingenuity shown in the ‘waste disposal’ plan, although perhaps this is to be expected in a college graduate.

Where the film works best is in the small details. For example the large sign on top of the adjacent cinema which reads ‘Talkies’, and Kamal Hassan flexing his muscles with a Rambo poster in the background above. One of the standout moments in the film is the intricate choreography enacted as a number of building residents vie for the bathrooms in the morning.  

The opening scenes of the film give a snapshot view into the lives of the various residents of the building and also show the type of man Kamal Hassan is. He is not averse to spying on his neighbour as she fixes her sari, carefully washes only the underarms of the shirt he means to wear that day and tries to skip ahead in the employment lines. All these little traits allow us to build up the impression of a man who, when tempted, would possibly be amoral enough to kidnap a man and take over his life.

I also like that frequently there is a reason for there to be no dialogue as part of the storyline and this makes it easy to forget that it’s a silent film. The magician’s daughter and Kamal Hassan communicate by gestures across rooms and from balconies on opposite sides of the hotel as well as when she is onstage with her father, while the millionaire is both drunk and incoherent or gagged.

The film looks fantastic and the contrast between the two social worlds is reflected in the different lighting between the rooming house and the hotel. The hotel décor is lavish and there is plenty of attention to detail throughout. I kept wondering if the Windsor Manor Hotel in Bangalore where this was filmed still has all those huge lift lobbies and chandeliers as it looks amazing.

The hotel logo of a circle and wings recurs a number of times, and I agree with other opinions that it is meant to represent dreams and wishes. When an ice-cream is dropped on the ground, it’s Kamal Hassan’s shadow that we see reaching out for the treat, and again it’s fallen right in the middle of the shadow of the hotel symbol. I think that his inner feelings are very well represented in this way.

Much is also made of the death of a beggar, who actually has much more money than the unemployed Kamal Hassan, but whose corpse is unceremoniously dumped at the side of the road when his stash is revealed and everyone fights to get a share. This is also contrasted with the death of the hotel owner who has a parade of people who come to mourn him, but their grief isn’t all genuine either. Just in case Kamal Hassan was slow to get the message about money not buying happiness, Amala turns down his offers of clothes and household white goods (yes really!) when he takes her shopping, and asks for a wild flower growing on a ruined building instead.

Kamal Hassan is excellent in his portrayal of the unemployed and perpetually unsuccessful graduate, as he manages to express so much very simply without words. His economies with toothpaste and washing powder initially made me a little more sympathetic towards his character and although his treatment of the millionaire was terrible, it was all made a little more believable by the amount of detail shown in the scenes where he was looking after his prisoner.  Amala was beautiful as the magician’s daughter, although as usual for a Tamil heroine, she didn’t really have much to do. She was the moral compass for Kamal Hassan and as such played her role perfectly. Both Tinnu Anand and K. S Ramesh as the magician looked to be having the time of their lives in their roles and I suspect they spent a lot of their time laughing about what they were actually getting to do on-screen.

I do have a few small issues with the film even though overall I think it’s an entertaining watch.  The story is really quite simplistic and without dialogue it occasionally feels like a collection of very good ‘moments’ all strung together with some unnecessarily long repetitive comedic scenes. These don’t really add anything to the story or to my understanding of the characters and tend to just be irritating instead. The long scene where Kamal Hasan dresses up as a hotel employee to give the magician’s daughter some earrings could very easily have been skipped for example. In contrast the inept assassin and the magician scenes are funny and well handled. I also think that keeping someone tied up and insensible with alcohol does seem very extreme and it’s very unlikely that the millionaire would just go home without contacting the police. Especially in this instance where he had evidence that the whole experience wasn’t just an alcohol induced dream. And really while money may not buy you happiness, it certainly can buy comfort which is not to be sneezed at – the overly moral tone in parts was a little overbearing. But there are so many good things about this film that I can ignore these little irritations and just appreciate the acting skills that bring this silent movie to vibrant life. It’s an interesting and quite unusual film and I think that Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and Kamal Hassan deserve praise for attempting something so very different and managing to pull it off in such style. 4 stars.

Sagara Sangamam

I had no luck finding a subtitled version of this film (legal or otherwise), which is a shame as I think that difficulty will stop a lot of people from watching. I’m not sure where Heather got her subtitled copy from. However this is the story of a dancer, often expressed in action rather than speech and many scenes required no further explanation.

The film uses a flashback structure so we actually meet the older Balu (Kamal Haasan) first. He is a disgruntled drunk and newspaper critic who, despite all his issues, demands a high standard for dance. He writes a scathing review of the latest dance sensation Sailaja (SP Sailaja), and rather than apologise when she confronts him, belittles her by showing her how it should be done.

Young Balu is a poor boy, dedicated to dance in many forms – and a purist. He wants to be successful but is held back by his dislike of the shallow sexified version of dance that is in demand (and is perhaps dismayed by the outfits).

Balu’s world is small. He has his mother, dance, and his friend Ragu (Sarath Babu). He also meets Madhavi (Jayaprada) who is wealthy and happy to be his patron. She gives him many opportunities, and becomes more than a sponsor in his eyes.

Each episode reveals something more of Balu’s character and how he came to be in his current situation. It’s a big challenge for a film maker, and in this instance it is handled beautifully by K. Vishwanath. The fragments fall together to make a cohesive story, and it is easy to follow the narrative.

Kamal Haasan is fantastic. Since we more or less know how the story ends before it begins, it really does require a great performance to keep a viewer engaged on the way to the foregone conclusion, and he delivers. Yes, there are some dubious wardrobe moments and bizarre posturing, but they were intentionally ridiculous, being Balu’s commentary on the commercialisation of dance. Balu dances his joy, pain and despair – he dances his heart out and it is hard to look away.

This is one of my all time favourite film dance sequences and I love it for its joyous emotion, simplicity and the brilliant editing. Despite his dedication to dance as a pure art form, Balu isn’t a total stick-in-the-mud. He adds some sweet comedic flourishes dancing with kitchen utensils, and plays up to his mother who dreams of seeing Balu on stage. Madhavi is impressed too!

Life seems set and success is just around the corner so naturally, I expected a tragedy. Because he is such a perfectionist and intolerant of things that don’t fit his vision, Balu is ill equipped to deal with setbacks. He falls into a bottle after losing his mother, missing his big dance debut and then learning that Madhavi is not free to return his love (she is married to a man who looked absolutely miserable in their wedding photos). His character frustrated me greatly. I could empathise with Balu, but I really wanted him to see sense and find a way to bend before he broke.

Sarath Babu’s role was small but he is a constant and reassuring presence and instilled Ragu with an air of integrity and generosity.  I’m not entirely sure why Ragu stuck by his friend as he seemed to give endlessly to an often ungrateful sod. There were lively glimpses of Balu’s character in a couple of scenes that made me believe in the friendship, and perhaps I missed a lot in the dialogues.

Madhavi tracks down her old friend and would be lover through the newspaper and Ragu. Her side of the story is also revealed through flashbacks. This episodic style seems apt as her love for Balu is revealed through her candid and perceptive snapshots of him long before either of them acknowledges any feelings. Jayaprada is lovely and manages to be light and funny as young Madhavi without being shrill or giggly, ably matching Kamal Haasan in the physical comedy.

She gives a sensitive portrayal of a woman who is tempted by a love she cannot act on and manages to be sympathetic despite having been, at best, deceptive by omission.

As it happens, she is Sailaja’s mother, and so Balu’s life turns back on itself as Madhavi secretly engages him as a dance teacher for the stylish but shallow girl.

The photograph motif is used a lot. One of the most moving examples is when Balu and Madhavi try to use the timer thingie to take a picture of themselves together. The photo fails and all that can be seen is a worried Madhavi and ghostlike blur of Balu. They joke that it wasn’t meant to be. Then when Madhavi departs with her husband, Balu takes and keeps a photo of the couple as a reminder to himself of what had to be. It’s one of the few pictures he takes; usually Madhavi was the one to give him beautifully composed portraits showing what he was to her.

Their reunion is full on filmi and yet simple as Madhavi confronts Balu while he is stinking drunk. Balu’s drunken cavorting avoids being a mockery of his dance despite being accessorised with a bottle, perhaps as it comes straight from his heart with no artifice. Madhavi lets Balu see her sadness and fear for him while he seems to give her an earful for not teaching Sailaja to be a better dancer. In so many ways, they haven’t changed a bit. Balu doesn’t know that Madhavi is a widow, and once more she struggles with the pressure of family against her desire to move forward with Balu in her life.

Sailaja is unhappy at this revelation about her mother’s past, but she should be practicing her dancing more than spying, and do a bit of growing up as well. Happily for her, she does come around to seeing the value in Balu’s teaching (which he does from a hospital bed). Her performance was probably the weakest for me in terms of acting, but her dance scenes with Kamal Haasan were much more satisfying. And SP Sailaja can sing, so she was certainly talented.

The structure of the story is solid, and the characters seem believable. The Illaiyaraaja soundtrack is integrated into the drama and the dances reveal so much of the characters’ inner lives they are essential to the film, not just a pleasant addition. The dance practice and performance scenes are filmed beautifully.  I can’t comment on the lyrics by Veturi or the dialogues co-written by K. Vishwanath and Jandhyala (who wrote dialogues for Aaradhana) as I just made up what I thought was happening in some scenes.

The ending is over the top but despite all the silly trappings the leads keep it (mostly) restrained to let their characters’ emotions shine through. If nothing else grabs you, this film captures some exceptional dance performances. I wish I could fully appreciate the characterisations, as I did feel disconnected at times due to my lack of language skills, but it wasn’t a huge issue.

I give Sagara Sangamam 4 ½ stars.

Heather says: This is such a beautiful film and although I keep returning to it time and time again to watch the incredible dance scenes, there is so much more to enjoy in this film. To start with the dancing, there probably isn’t anyone other than Kamal Hassan who could manage to make it all look so effortless. The classical dance scenes are superb, and even the contemporary song (with that truly hideous yellow suit) is well added in to showcase his skills. Jayaprada is beautiful in her dance scenes and S P Sailaja is excellent, but it’s still Kamal Hassan who draws my eye each time. I absolutely love the dance scene in the kitchen which is fresh, spontaneous and makes such good use of the setting.

Leaving aside the amazing dancing, this is a really well told story. An alcoholic ‘hero’ is unusual and, since I work in the field, I like that it’s a useful public health message as well. The romance between Balu and Madhavi develops slowly and naturally considering their joint love of the arts and despite the difference in their social standing. The use of photography to link the story together is cleverly done and every image adds a little more to the story. Sarath Babu is excellent as Balu’s long suffering friend, and his generosity provides a stark contrast to Balu’s increasing selfishness as he beomes dependant on the demon drink. However Raghu is not a perfect saint either since he doesn’t scruple to use Balu’s guilt against him as a way to blackmail his friend into teaching the spoilt brat Sailaja. Of course it’s all for Balu’s own good and the fact that he gets treatment for his sick wife Sumathi is a bonus. All of the supporting cast is excellent here and K. Vishwanath develops their characters in enough detail to make their actions understandable and relevant.

I really like the way each flashback occurs when something which is happening in the present triggers a memory of a past event by one of the characters. It seems very natural and helps to link the past and the present. The film is very much about the arts: Raghu is a writer and poet, Madhavi is a singer and Balu’s dream that they all perform together seems a natural extension of their friendship. It’s also an excuse to have some beautiful songs and once again Illayaraja provides music that I love and I just wish I knew what the lyrics meant.  There are a few things I don’t enjoy quite so much. There are some really ridiculous co-incidences and the last few scenes are overly melodramatic. But then again this is a film from the eighties and we all know that wasn’t a time for restraint! This is a 5 star film for me.