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.

Kalyana Parisu

Kalyana Parisu (The Wedding Present) is the 1959 debut film by prominent director C.V. Sridhar. It features Gemini Ganesan, B. Saroja Devi and Vijaykumari in the lead roles but also has notable appearances from Akkineni Nageshwara Rao and K. A. Thangavelu amongst others. While at times the overly dramatic story tends to dip into farce, there is still much to enjoy in this love triangle about 2 sisters who both fall in love with the same man.

The film opens by introducing the two sisters and their mother who all live together. Vasanthi (B. Saroja Devi) is a successful college student and has a sunny and often mischievous disposition. Her elder sister Geeta (Vijaykumari) is more shy and reserved and is the breadwinner of the family through her work as a seamstress. To supplement their income the family decide to rent out the top floor of their house and end up with Bhaskar (Gemini Ganesan) as a lodger. Vasanthi and Bhaskar have some previous history as they were both at college together and the two indulge in some mild flirtation. This soon blossoms into romance and Vasanthi has dreams of marrying Bhaskar just as soon as she can get her elder sister married, that being the natural order of things.

However Bhaskar falls ill and in nursing him back to health, Geeta also falls in love with the handsome lodger. Once Vasanthi discovers her sister’s ambition she is thrown into confusion and has to weigh up her Geeta’s sacrifices to ensure Vasanthi could continue her studies against the dream of marrying Bhaskar.

After a lot of sighing, chest-heaving and general melodrama, Vasanthi decides to sacrifice her love for her sister and persuades Bhaskar that he should marry Geeta. Bhaskar also indulges in yet more sighing, chest heaving and melodrama before finally agreeing to the marriage. Geeta has no idea about her sister’s true feelings and Vasanthi manages to keep her tears under control until the deed is done and the married couple are on their way to Coimbatore.

However, as she would have realised if she’d stopped to think about it, all that Vasanthi has managed to do is make three people miserable instead of just one.  Geeta struggles to cope with a husband whose indifference she cannot understand while Vasanthi tells her suitor Raghu (ANR) that she cannot bring herself to love another man. The situation spirals even more out of control when Vasanthi ends up moving in with the couple and their young son after the death of her mother. Everything just gets more and more melodramatic as the tension between the two sisters’ increases and it becomes obvious that not everyone is going to make it to the end of the movie. Don’t expect a happy ending!

The very sweet love story which opens the story is lovely and shows exactly why Gemini Ganesan earned the titles of the King of Romance. Saroja Devi looks absolutely stunning and the two have plenty of on-screen chemistry. But as much as I love a good romance, what really appeals to me about this film is the totally over the top drama and good old fashioned histrionics that everyone indulges in. Once the two sisters are in conflict, every statement and every action have dramatic consequences all of which require much chest heaving and drama queen poses. When Vasanthi walks into a room where Bhaskar is sitting, he stands and moves to pound his head against the wall. When Vasanthi is reading a letter she reads a line and then pauses to grimace at the camera and clutch her chest in anguish! It’s wonderful and the three main leads make the most of the opportunity to chew the scenery as hard as they possibly can. Rather more unusually, the comedy track is notable for its comparable restraint and both K. A. Thangavelu as Sampath and M. Saroja as his wife Malini provide some quite welcome relief from all the drama.

Most of the film is concerned with the relationship between the two sisters and how this changes with the introduction of Bhaskar into the dynamic. Both Vasanthi and Geeta show great rapport in the early scenes and the gradual erosion of their bond is well portrayed. Although the idea of making such a sacrifice for your sister seems ludicrous to-day, director C. V. Sridhar does his best to show that Vasanthi felt she was making the right decision for a young girl at that time. Geeta’s jealousy and suspicion of her sister is nicely developed and her emotional rollercoaster is almost as wearing for the viewer as it seems to have been for Geeta. Bhaskar becomes less effective as the conflicted husband as the story goes on as his inability to put aside his feelings for Vasanthi and concentrate on his wife makes him seem rather weak. I do hope that the young child playing the role of Bhaskar and Geeta’s son managed to escape without any longstanding mental scars as he often seemed to be stuck in the middle between some quite realistic shaking and shouting.

The film is beautifully shot and it’s a shame that the print has deteriorated in quality making the image difficult to see at times, although that may just be my DVD. C. V. Sridhar uses the shadows and the various shapes made by screens and windows to good effect, often enhancing the oppressive feeling. There is also a significant plant which grows taller as romance blooms but withers away and dies when Bhaskar and Vasanthi break up. I do enjoy the way nature is a stand in for so much in Indian cinema.

The music by A.M Rajah is lovely and there are some beautiful songs. One of my favourites is this one which is part of the celebration of  Seemandham for Geeta when she goes home to have her baby.

Kalyana Parisu was a big hit on its release and certainly gave an indication that C.V. Sridhar would be a director to watch in the future. It was remade a number of times by C.V. Sridhar in other languages using a number of the same cast, and ANR took on the role of Bhaskar in the Telegu remake the following year. Nazrana, the Hindi remake starring Raj Kapoor and Vyjayanthimala also starred Gemini Ganesan playing the role of Vasanthi’s potential groom. It’s not a film I would watch again and again, but is one for those days when a slice of melodrama is required. All the lead actors are excellent, slightly excessive histrionics aside, but in particular Kalyana Parisu is worth watching for Saroja Devi who really shines. 4 stars.