Idi Katha Kaadu (1979)

K Balachander’s 1979 movie is a remake of his own film, Avargal. Jayasudha and Kamal Hassan star and Chiranjeevi plays an important supporting role. It’s a sensitive and even handed look at relationships and standing up for yourself. The film is on YouTube without subtitles so bear with me as I have done my best to interpret what was going on.

Suhasini (Jayasudha) and Bharani (Sarath Babu) fall in love through a montage of the arts – he plays flute and she dances. They have a nice bond, he is laid back and she is very playful. But Bharani leaves town for work and he never replies to her letters. Sugunakar Rao (Chiranjeevi) moves in on Suhasini. He is superficially charming but once they are married he is controlling and abusive. In due course she leaves him and gets a divorce. He is clearly bitter but she leaves town to start her new life with their child. She finds an office job and makes new friends. Her coworker Janardhan/Johnny (Kamal Hassan) is particularly kind and considerate. He’s a ventriloquist so that set some alarm bells off because…just because. But Bharani is still on her mind. And now, he is just across the way as the apartment Johnny helps her find is right near his place. There is definite interest on both sides but she is more cautious and has a child now, and he lacks any sense of urgency and he has his friend Gayatri (Saritha) to consider too. And then Sugunakar Rao is back in the picture as Suhasini’s boss. He wants to reconcile and seems to have reformed. Suhasini has to decide what to do with her life.

I really enjoyed watching Jayasudha’s performance and Suhasini as a character. And on a very shallow note, her print sarees are wonderful too. She’s a lively young woman with a passion for dance and music, but she’s quite happy to get married sensibly because that’s what you do. When Sugunakar turns out to be a total arsehole, she does her best to tolerate him. But when he pushes her too far, she pushes back. In one scene she fantasises about stabbing him in the groin with his darts, and she does tell him to his face what she thinks of his behaviour. When she moves back to Chennai she seems to be accepted and liked in her new circles. Having a child isn’t a barrier to her getting a job and she makes the most of her new start. I got the impression Suhasini is not completely open about her situation but she certainly isn’t hanging on to her past. People, especially women, help each other in both big and small ways. Suhasini acquires a mysterious new maid (Leelavathi), actually her mother-in-law who had never met her.

Chiranjeevi is impressive as the horrible Sugunakar Rao. I think Chiru got on the bad side of the wardrobe team because those pants…He is charming but only as long as he gets his own way. He criticises Suhasini constantly and threatens her, smiling as he throws darts at her head or snarling as he tells her to give up dancing. One thing I always appreciate in these negative roles that Chiru took in his early career is that he doesn’t hold back on showing the full range of emotions, no matter how unlikeable or ugly. He is a fine dramatic actor under all the Megastar trappings. His mother (Leelavathi) finds out from a servant that the marriage was over and that Suhasini and their son were in another city. I couldn’t work out how he managed to keep everyone in the dark but I think he might have told her Suhasini was dead. Anyway, despite the filmi tradition that demands a Ma must support her boy, she is firmly in Team Suhasini and keeps working secretly for her daughter-in-law. That is how bad Sugunakar Rao is. He recognises mild and indecisive Bharani as a threat so he plants a seed that Bharani and Gayatri should marry. He belittles Johnny as he doesn’t compute the nice poor guy could be a rival. When he tries to ingratiate himself with Suhasini again he is almost believable as he clucks over her health and sends her fresh fruits. Almost.

Johnny (Kamal Hassan) has taken a shine to Suhasini too, although she only seems to have eyes for Bharani. Personally I’d pick the one who didn’t have a ventriloqusist dummy as his housemate. But Johnny is sweet and does things to make Suhasini happy without expecting any repayment – he finds her a flat, gets her movie tickets to a house full show, helps with work. He can’t articulate his feelings so he uses Junior to talk about his love. Of course, Suhasini treats it as a joke rather than a heartfelt confession. He’s well liked at work but a lonely soul underneath it all. Kamal Hassan isn’t challenged by the character except that the ventriloquism shtick calls on his physicality and control as he manipulates the doll while appearing to be oblivious to Junior’s shenanigans.

That weird clown song is completely unnecessary but when you have Kamal Hassan I suppose you’d be mad not to. And it lets him work off some energy that might have lead to overacting. His farewell scene with Suhasini was also unintentionally funny as he ran beside her train faster and for much longer than seemed possible, speechifying all the while.

Leelavathi and Sarath Babu are both good in their roles. But Bharani is so mild and understanding to the point of not seeming to care that he doesn’t give Suhasini any confidence and he kind of fades compared to Chiru and Kamal Hassan. Leelavathi’s Ma is an interesting woman who is prepared to believe evidence rather than continue to idolise her son. She makes decisions that are about how she wants to live her life and what she thinks is important. She’s a crier, but she gets things done. And she is the one to finally free Suhasini from her connection to her son.

Balachander uses some camera gimmicks and the ping pong analogy, and some shots are a little too composed to be natural, but generally the style of storytelling is low key and credible. Even the final comeuppance. Although I wish I understood the symbolism of the lion mask and the Mona Lisa. Oh well.

See this for some early career Megastar, a pared back and heartfelt performance from Kamal Hassan and a lovely role for Jayasudha. 4 stars!

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Nagara Haavu (1972)

Nagarahaavu

Nagara Haavu is a classic film from Kannada cinema featuring Vishnuvardhan in his first lead role. Director Puttanna Kanagal based his 1972 screenplay on three novels by T.R. Subba Rao, telling the story of an angry young man, his love affairs and his relationship with his old primary school teacher, who seems to be the only one who has any patience with his outbursts. The film is set in the 1950’s and although many of the social conventions are now outdated, there are some that still apply to-day; while Ramachari’s struggle against conformity continues to be a popular theme in modern cinema. At almost 3 hours Nagara Haavu is a bit of an epic, but it’s an interesting film to watch and essential viewing to anyone interested in the evolution of cinema in Bangalore.

The film begins and ends with the same images of rocks and the sun viewed through a red filter, presumably an indication that despite the tumultuous events portrayed, by the end nothing has actually changed. The young Ramachari of the opening scene is a rude and angry child with terrible hair, who grows into a rude and angry young man, still with a terrible haircut. This time perhaps he has reason for his anger since his teacher instructs him to remove his trousers when he is caught cheating at college. It seems rather extreme, but Ramachari (Vishnuvardhan) has a reputation as being a bad student and his reaction is even more over the top. He decides that if he is considered to be villainous, then he will become villainous, going to his professor’s house and smashing the windows. Not content with this wilful destruction of property, Ramachari then ties Shyamrao (Lokanath) to a lamppost and leaves him there overnight to the horror of Tungamma (Leelavathi), Ramachari’s old schoolteacher’s wife. And me! How he avoids being arrested is baffling!

Ramachari seems to be angry with everyone and everything, but the reason for his apparently all-consuming rage is never fully explained. It may be partly due to frustration with his religious parents who revere God above all else, and seem to have little time for their son. Possibly his anger is a reaction to being forced to study when he clearly has no interest or aptitude, but whatever the reason, Ramachari has a well-deserved reputation for belligerence in his home town.

The only person who seems to have any time for Ramachari is his old schoolteacher Chamiah (K.S. Ashwath) who has practically adopted Ramachari and considers him to be his son. His wife Tungamma also has a soft spot for the troubled youth and between them they act as mentors and advisors whenever Ramachari finds himself (yet again) in trouble. The relationship between Ramachari and Chamiah is well written and excellently portrayed by Vishnuvardhan and K.S. Ashwath through both the good and the bad times. There is real warmth between them, and Vishnuvardhan does an excellent job of capturing the respect and love that Ramachari feels for his mentor. For his part, K.S. Ashwath is compassionate and stern as required while making it clear that he can see beneath the surface anger to the possibility that Ramachari represents. The dialogues between the two are the best parts of the film, as Chamiah tries to instruct Ramachari how he should behave in society, while Ramachari does his best to point out the double standards and hypocrisy that make him rebel against convention.

Ramachari’s best mate is Varadha (Shivaram), a man who knows the value of product, and who happens to have a beautiful sister Alamelu (Aarathi). When Alamelu is harassed by local sleaze Jaleel (Ambareesh) her brother is too much of a wimp to do anything, so he recruits Ramachari to deal with the problem. Ramachari has seen Alamelu, so his price for helping her dissuade her unwelcome suitor is to marry her himself. Neither Varadha nor Alamelu have any problem with this plan but it’s a different story for Alamelu’s parents who have no desire to marry their daughter to the local rowdy.

There is much drama when Alamelu steals away to tell Ramachari of her impending marriage to someone else and it’s up to Chamaiah to persuade Ramachari that Alamelu’s parents should decide her fate. After much emoting, Ramachari is eventually persuaded that sacrificing his love is the noble thing to do although it’s clear that Chamaiah doesn’t believe this at all and is simply bowing to conventional wisdom and the presumed dictates of society.

This has serious consequences for Ramachari’s relationship with Chamaiah when he later discovers that instead of living in luxury, Alamelu has been forced into a life of prostitution. This could have been one of those terribly over-dramatic scenes so common in seventies Bollywood, with Alamelu dying rather than continue to live in shame, but instead Puttanna Kanagal gives her a beautiful song and impassioned speech where she says that she wants to live! OK, she’s not happy, but it’s better than the usual attempt at suicide at least. There is also a lovely moment of symmetry too when this time it’s Alamelu who walks away from Ramachari and sacrifices her love for his sake. It’s all wonderfully melodramatic as Alamelu recites her story to Ramachari beside a red-lit fountain.

After Alamelu is married, Ramachari is pursued by Margaret (Shubha), a girl from his class in college who is determined that he should fall in love with her. She is portrayed as being more modern, chasing after Ramachari shamelessly, wearing Western clothes and declaring her love quite openly. Margaret seems to get away with all this because she is Christian and the daughter of a single mother – which is apparently all we need to know to realise that she is no better than she should be. Once again Chamaiah is recruited to break up the relationship as Margaret’s mother Mary (M.N. Lakshmi Devi) has much bigger plans for her daughter while Ramachari’s parents are mortally offended at the idea that their son would marry a Christian. The question is, will Ramachari listen to his long-time mentor or has he lost faith after what happened to Alamelu?

There is plenty of over-the-top drama in Nagara Haavu and some of the best ‘death stares’ I’ve seen for a long time. Everyone overacts like crazy, Ramachari throws chickens at Margaret after she teases him in class, her mother accuses him of rape, while Chamaiah clambers over rocks trying to find Ramachari to drag him off to apologise to the latest person he has offended. All apparently part of a normal day in downtown Chitradurga!

As well as showing the relationship between a troubled youth and his kindly teacher, the film paints a picture of a dysfunctional society where appearances and prestige matter more than love and happiness. Chamaiah believes that Ramachari just needs time to mature and indeed he becomes a more responsible person when he is allowed to leave college and work for a wage. The rest of the town however brand him a troublemaker and don’t allow him the opportunity to ever become anything else. No matter how much Chamaiah tries to fit Ramachari into the role that society demands, he is never going to conform, particularly when Chamaiah realises just how shallow and self-centred society has become.

Nagara Haavu is deservedly classed as a classic film with good performances, a well-written story and engaging music from Vijaya Bhaskar. Despite the length, the film doesn’t drag and is a fascinating look at times past, society attitudes (and fashions!) and family dynamics of the time. Some thing have changed, but many of these issues are still a concern even now, making the film relevant and not as outdated as it first appears. The dialogues might seem stilted, but the ideas behind them are valid and used to good effect. I enjoyed Nagara Haavu and recommended watching it for Visnuvardhan, Aarathi and K.S. Ashwath, the excellent screenplay plus beautiful shots of Chitradurga and countryside. 4 stars.