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.

Maro Charithra (1978)

This classic film can be briefly described as bi-lingual Romeo and Juliet set on the beaches of Vizag. From the engaging lead pair of Kamal Haasan and Saritha, the strong supporting actors, to the bold black and white cinematography, catchy soundtrack and fab 70s fashions, this K Balachander film is stunning.  But be warned – Romeo and Juliet never lived happily ever after and this film stays true to its inspiration.

I haven’t identified all the actors in the cast as the information isn’t on my DVD and online sources don’t seem to match actor with character so please let me know who I’ve missed out.

Kamal Haasan is Balu, a Tamil Brahmin lad who moves in next door to Telugu speaking Swapna played by the lovely Saritha.

They feel an instant attraction, but cannot communicate easily through speech so improvise a language of percussion, mime, light switch flicking and of course dance! I don’t know whether I was happy or disheartened to see the one and only Learn Telugu in 30 Days text book. Surely things have changed since 1977? If not in romance, then at least in school books?

Saritha is beautiful, headstrong and a minx. I’m glad this was filmed in B&W as I suspect what looks striking in monochrome might have been horrifying in colour! Swapna is a modern girl, quick to deal with unwanted attention from the creep in the bookshop and proud of her academic achievements. She and her father read (badly subtitled) Shakespeare to each other; indeed, Romeo and Juliet are mentioned. Saritha has an earthy physicality and she lights up when Swapna is happily in love. Her character keeps unfolding which is impressive in a fairly simple story.

Kamal Haasan is his usual cocky self and at times bears a distracting resemblance to Siddharth. Balu is a self centred layabout, happily sponging off his family and using his charm to keep his mother on his side. His high waisted flares are enough of a disincentive for me, not to mention the shorts, but Swapna is made of sterner stuff. Balu’s reactions are always hasty, and usually about him and what he wants.

Once his temper cools he is quite rational, but he never seems to learn this about himself and so his character development is not particularly strong. He totally loses himself in the classical dance sequences which reflect the inner turmoil of his character, and they are beautiful to watch as well as adding some emotional depth to Balu.

Nothing can remain secret for long, and Balu and Swapna don’t try very hard to be discreet, as the rocks and trees covered in their graffiti shows. She is pursued by the sleazy bookshop guy who happens to have a penchant for secret photography. He shows some very candid photos to Swapna’s parents with predictable results. As befits Romeo and Juliet, their families disapprove and seek to pressure the youngsters into marrying within their caste. The young lovers undertake to separate for a year to prove that they aren’t just infatuated. Once they are forced apart, the film becomes a lot more interesting as the story expands beyond the fresh faced puppy love and the supporting characters show some surprising qualities.

Swapna alternates between plaintive and defiant but never loses her resolve. Her behaviour at times frightens her parents who can’t understand her obsession let alone her bizarre actions. She drinks the ashes of a photo of Balu mixed in her coffee, she scrawls his name thousands of times on the walls. Her parents try to entice her away from Balu by dragging rich cousin Pattabhi into the household, but she plays him for a sucker and never wavers.

Balu is sent to Hyderabad to work for Hari Babu. Hari Babu takes Balu to a party at Reddy’s, a dissolute character with a band of freeloading friends which includes Balu’s neighbour in the lodging house, Papa. Her first scene includes a fairly detailed conversation about the effects of caffeine on the digestive tract and a flash of belly so it’s obvious from the get go she isn’t a shy girl. She wears trousers, goes to Reddy’s boozy parties and smokes. Papa pursues Balu and falls in love with him. When she realises that he is lost to her, she initially begs for him to sleep with her just once and after being rejected again, schemes for revenge. Considering all this, her character is surprisingly sympathetic and is even admired (with reservations) by her drinking buddies.

Also in the background of Reddy’s set is his sister Sandhya (Madhavi). A widow and an accomplished dancer, not quite a Mrs Robinson figure, she is a sympathetic presence for Balu. She helps him learn proper Telugu and to channel his energy, hormones and emotions into some beautiful dance sequences. She is drawn to his sadness and passion, and their common interests make a closer relationship seem inevitable.

After a misunderstanding over Swapna’s relationship with Pattabhi, Balu turns to Sandhya. Their affair is shown as a very matter of fact thing – they weren’t a couple and now they are, and a wedding is on the cards. No one seems terribly shocked by this relationship, except Papa who wants Balu for herself. Sandhya is shown as a resourceful woman who got on with life after her husband died, and isn’t needy or pathetic.

Sandhya discovers Balu’s unsent letters to Swapna, and takes herself to Vizag. She sees immediately that Swapna had never betrayed Balu and was waiting for him to return.  Instead of just  going home and getting on with her own wedding, she reassures Swapna that Balu has been faithful and will come back to her.  Sandhya’s anger in the scene where she sends Balu away with a flea in his ear and a ticket for the train is so moving. I felt that she identified with the girl who was going to lose her love, and partly hated Balu for cheating her on an emotional level. Contrast that with Balu’s immediate descent into self pity and woe, and I really had to cheer for the strong female characters that dominate the action.

Papa, Sandhya and Pattabhi are all swept aside by Balu and Swapna’s True Love. It’s a raw deal for Sandhya who seems a decent person, and sure to make her life that bit more difficult in the aftermath. There is a level of arrogance to the argument that love means never having to deal with the consequences for anyone other than your soulmate.

After giving signs of a happy future finally, the universe then aligns every possible obstacle and circumstance to prevent the marriage. As expected in a Romeo and Juliet inspired tale, the lovers come to a brutal, senseless, tragic end. The sleazy bookshop guy seizes his chance, and Swapna is brutalised in a sickening yet brilliantly edited sequence at the same time that Balu is attacked by paid rowdies. I really was on the edge of my seat through the final twenty minutes or so, hoping that the youngsters might make it even while knowing that a happy ending was never on the cards.

The film opens with disembodied voices talking over scenes of the places Balu and Swapna spent time together, almost like ghosts who couldn’t let go of their lives. It’s a scene that haunted me after the end titles had run. I have to give this 4 and 1/2 stars – for the stunning visuals, the charismatic lovers and the sheer skill of a film maker who could keep me watching even when I knew I didn’t want to.

Here’s a bonus clip for you – The dancing starts about 1 minute in:

Geraftaar

Geraftaar is not just a simple tale of two brothers separated at birth as this film manages to incorporate almost every Hindi film cliché.  There is the long suffering mother, a significant song, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, a significant necklace and to top it all off death by bulldozer. As if that wasn’t enough we have not one, not two, but three heroes.  Kamal Hassan, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth appear together although unfortunately not all on screen at the same time.

Karan Kumar Khanna is a brat of a child, but still doesn’t deserve to be framed for his father’s murder. Adding to his misery, the real killers convince him that he may have been responsible. Nirupa Roy, in true filmi Ma style, instantly believes that he did indeed kill his father.  Karan runs away and tries to kill himself.

This allows his brother Kishan to grow up free from his teasing at least.  Kishan grows up into Kamal Hassan. Working as a stuntman in the film industry he has big dreams of making it as a hero but struggles to get paid the basic rate for his work.

His personal life is no more successful. After a rather unpromising start, he finally marries the unbelievably spoilt and self-centred Anuradha.  Anu is played by Poonam Dhillon, who does a very good job of making her character initially unappealing.

Back to those clichés!  Anu’s brother is a gangster and is involved with a number of shady businessmen, who were also responsible for the death of our heroes’ father.  They devise a plot to frame Kishan for the murder of his dancer friend Lucy, (but unfortunately not before she does a really bad version of flashdance), and he ends up in jail.  Coincidence rules and thanks to that significant song he manages to find Karan, although he doesn’t know who Karan is.

Karan (now the much taller and much more serious Amitabh Bachchan) explains why he is in prison though a series of flashbacks that pick up from his failed suicide attempt.  We learn that he was found by a Muslim boy, and taken in by him and his mother.  Both boys grew up to be police inspectors, but Hussein (Rajnikanth) was killed by Vijay, the police commissioner’s son.  Karan is in love with Vijay’s sister Geeta, played by Madhavi in a role that involves quite a bit of fisticuffs!   So we have a symmetrical arrangement of two good(ish) girls who both have evil brothers plotting against our heroes who are long-lost-brothers. There are various jail breaks, song breaks, court dramas, deaths by bulldozer (yes, more than one) and the inevitable family reunion, so that all ends well.

There are some great things about this film.  Inspector Geeta gets to join in for a lot of the fight scenes and does a really good job.  Rajnikanth is excellent as the cigarette tossing Inspector Hussein and manages a suitably dramatic and filmi ending – defiantly smoking his cigarette to the bitter end.

The gang are the comedy relief and manage some funny moments in their convoluted plans.  Kader Khan has a really insane moustache, and is clearly the head villain as he has a talking skull that gives him advice!

The scenes of Karan and Kishan singing and wandering around what appears to be a very nice open-plan prison are well done and the drama of their meeting is well handled.

The character of Anu is initially unlikeable and shows no empathy for anyone.  She tricks Kishan into believing she loves him (and his Ma) and then humiliates him in front of her friends — all because she couldn’t stand the idea that he wasn’t interested in her.  In revenge, he insists on marrying her before sending Anu back to her brother’s house so she can be trained to be a worthy bride. This deception on both sides leaves Kishan’s Ma in hospital as she crumbles under the weight of so much bizarre behaviour. Anu has an epiphany and  magically morphs into the perfect wife, praying to die before Kishan and wait for him in the afterlife.

Neither of the female leads show any regret about their brothers – either for the life they lead or when they both suffer the consequences for their wrong-doing.  Geeta initially tries to reason with her brother Vijay, but doesn’t seem at all happy to find that reports of his death were premature.  Anu is shown vowing to cast aside her other relationships and accept Kishan as her husband but that was part of her deception so it wasn’t clear if she decided a vow was a vow, or if some other change of heart took place. The rest of the film is dedicated to family so this lack of feeling from the sisters towards their respective brothers did seem odd.

Kamal Hassan turns in a very good performance as Kishan but is upstaged by Amitabh in the second half. The two heroines do what they do, but don’t really have much to work with although they both get to participate in the action in the final scenes. Nirupa Roy with her trademark knuckle bite is once again the dramatic filmi mother.  The music by Bappi Lahiri leans heavily towards disco – this was filmed in 1985 – but the significant song Aana Jaana Laga Rahega is lovely and sung beautifully by Shabbir Kumar and Bappi Lahiri himself. Kader Khan, Ranjeet and Shakti Kapoor play their usual stock characters and once again reap the benefit of a well funded wardrobe department. The fight scenes are very amusing.  Although sped up to a ridiculous degree they still look quite leisurely. Perhaps the fights composer, credited as Judo Rathnam, was really a tai chi expert.

Heather says: I started this film a few times before I finally managed to watch it to the end.  I find the first half drags, and the character of Anu was so annoying that I ended up shouting at the screen.  But the whole tempo of the film changed at the appearance of Amitabh and Rajnikanth, so it was well worth making it to the second half – thank-you Temple for insisting I finish it!  Rajni steals every scene he is in. Despite the fact that this is a special appearance with only a small role, he made the most of every second and I loved every single one of them!  Amitabh was overly dramatic which made him somewhat more comic  than I think was intended, but seemed to fit the general feel of the film.  I couldn’t really take death by bulldozer seriously and spent most of the film laughing at the melodrama of it all.  When I wasn’t getting annoyed by Anu at any rate.  I enjoyed the songs and thought that the comedy track was well written in, and had some very funny moments.  I have the feeling they couldn’t decide if this was meant to be a drama, a comedy or an action film, but instead of adding everything to make it full masala it just ended up switching from one style to the other and was just that little bit less satisfying.  That little bit of Rajni helped make it more palatable. This film gets 3 stars from me.

Temple says: I agree with Heather that the director couldn’t quite decide how to spread out the masala ingredients in Geraftaar—so I think they decided Kamal Hassan got the comedy (mostly), Amitabh took drama and Rajnikanth was the action man. Which made for an uneven, albeit wildly entertaining, film. Bulldozers are not a weapon for the spontaneous killer, so the build up to get to the death by moving equipment was overly complicated and really made the film drag. And how some of the victims didn’t see it coming is just beyond me. The three heroes did an excellent job, especially Amitabh and Rajni as their roles had more substance and, I can’t believe I am going to use this word in relation to this film, logic. The heroines were OK for their under-written and sketchy roles and Madhavi looked like she was right into the biffo in the final scenes. I do have to give an extra cheer for Kamal Hassan’s dancing duel in his featured song. Its worth seeing Geraftaar just for the star cast. It’s a bit of a chore to hang in there til the action kicks in, but it is worth it. I give this 3 and 1/2 stars. It gets extra for the skull with glowing eyes and for Kamal Hassan’s dancing.