Saraswathi Sabatham (1966)

When I started watching films which dealt with the classical stories involving Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I noticed a number of parallels with the legends I heard as a child growing up in Ireland. There are many books and articles which deal with the similarity between the two cultures, but every time I watch one of these films it strikes me all over again and is probably one of the reasons why I love these mythological films. The lavishness of the sets and the stunning costumes are other reasons to watch and enjoy but I really do appreciate the stories and the opportunity to learn more about the Hindu pantheon of Gods. A. P. Nagarajan made many successful mythological films in the sixties, and I’m hopeful that after the recent success of the restored classic Karnan some of Nagarajan’s films will get the same treatment and become more readily available with subtitles.

Saraswathi Sabatham is a little different from the other Tamil mythological films I’ve seen, as it uses a fictitious plot rather than stories from the Sanskrit epics. It still draws on the personalities and traits of the various Gods and there is a strong message behind the narrative but it’s a simple story which is charmingly told. The film opens with a lovely song featuring the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswathi (Savitri) and her attendants.

Trouble enters into this beautiful and peaceful scene in the form of the sage Naradha (Sivaji Ganesan) who goads Saraswathi by claiming that wealth is more important than knowledge. After successfully riling Saraswathi, Naradha heads off to confront the Goddess Lakshmi (Devika) and again causes trouble by telling her that knowledge is more important than wealth. After successfully starting a rivalry between the two Goddesses, Naradha then adds the Goddess Parvati (Padmini) into the mix by claiming that wealth and knowledge are both more important than bravery. Despite some rather lacklustre protests from their husbands, Brahma, Shiva (Harnath) and Vishnu (Sivakumar), and even though they know that Naradha is a renowned trouble-maker, all three rise to the bait. Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Parvati each vow to make a champion for their cause on Earth and prove that their attribute is the most important while making the other two champions bow down before the winner.

Generally the different aspects of the three Goddesses are well depicted with Savitri appearing regal and dignified as Saraswathi. She conveys a sense of timeless wisdom in her manner, although still storms off in a huff when she gets annoyed with Naradha. Devika’s Lakshmi is playful and charming while Padmini is motherly to her children but feisty enough to challenge Shiva before Naradha intervenes with his teasing. The three Goddesses are also incredibly sparkly and although Lakshmi manages to out-glitter the other two it’s a close run contest.

Saraswathi chooses the mute son of a temple singer to be her champion. She gives Vidyapathi the power of speech and the knowledge to make him an accomplished poet who can sing her praises throughout the kingdom.

Coincidently choosing the same kingdom, Lakshmi uses her power to make a poor beggar girl queen. The ailing king, who has no heir, decides on a method of selecting his successor which will not open him to claims of favouritism. Acting on advice from his chief minister he gives an elephant a garland and decrees that the person garlanded by the elephant will be the next ruler. As he says, this is the perfect plan that no-one can object to – except perhaps the elephant who has to chase around after Selvambikar and then throw the flowers over her head.

Finally Parvati takes a total coward, Veeramallar (Gemini Ganesan) and turns him into a brave and fearless warrior, who quickly rises to be the new army chief as a result of his prowess in saving the queen when her horse bolts.

Vidyapathi, Selvambikai and Veeramallar all squabble amongst themselves as the three Goddesses jostle for power. Each character is full of their own importance and their arrogance is well portrayed by the three actors. Sivaji Ganesan is excellent as Vidyapathi. His transformation completely changes his personality and he is wonderfully condescending and self-righteous as Saraswathi’s champion.

K. R. Vijaya is beautiful, and her change from the poverty stricken beggar girl to haughty queen is just as convincing. Her Selvambikai still has an air of vulnerability despite her arrogance and pride which makes her the most sympathetic of the three and she does also get to wear some lovely sparkly costumes. I almost didn’t recognise Gemini Ganesan here compared to the young romantic in Kalyana Parisu but he has plenty of screen presence as the blustering warrior, although his character doesn’t have quite as much background as the other two.

There are clashes between Vidyapathi and Selvambikai as the poet refuses to sing in praise of the queen. More clashes occur between Veeramallar and Selvambikai as the warrior oversteps his authority, while Vidyapathi and Veeramallar are at odds from the moment they meet. Each embodies the attribute of their patron Goddess and none of them are prepared to back down. Of course it all gets resolved with a suitably moral ending, but it’s the conflicts between the various characters that make the film so entertaining. Plus the chance to see Sivaji Ganesan in a pink outfit with matching pink outfits for his guards.

The sets are fantastic and Lakshmi’s heavenly abode is incredibly golden and extravagant. Naradha walks through the clouds (although the rainbow he stands on isn’t one found in nature), and while there aren’t very many other special effects, they tend to be well used – such as when letters appear as Vidyapathi sings about his new ability to speak.

There is a comedy track featuring Nagesh and Manorama which fits into the story although Nagesh’s character is more successful. Unfortunately subtitles don’t really convey Manorama’s speech patterns which are the basis for the humour in her character.  All the lead actors are excellent but Sivaji Ganesan really stands out as both Naradha and Vidyapathi. He has some wonderful expressions and a real twinkle in his eye while he teases everyone as Naradha, and he keeps the character light and mischievous. He has the same liveliness as Vidyapathi but gives a sense of smugness and conceit rather than the teasing nature of Naradha and his anguish and despair as the mute temple worker praying to Saraswathi is very moving.

The music by K. V. Mahadevan is beautiful and the lyrics by Kannadasan work well even in their English translation. As always I would have liked a little more dancing, although there is a short piece of Bharatanatyam by Padmini to enjoy. It’s probably not a film for everyone’s tastes as the story develops slowly and there is a lot of wordy interplay between the characters to establish the conflict. However for fans of Tamil mythological films, A. P. Nagarajan takes a simple story and aided by excellent performances from his all-star cast makes Saraswathi Sabatham an entertaining and appealing watch.  3 ½ stars.

Seeta aur Geeta

Seeta Aur Geeta is a classic dual role movie so common in Bollywood, but for a change it’s the heroine who has the double part to play and Hema Malini excels as both characters in this tale of separated sisters. This is my favourite film with her as she flawlessly provides drama, action and comedy and looks totally stunning throughout. It’s a pleasant change to have a heroine-centric film and although Dharmendra keeps trying to sneak a piece of the action, Hema always gets the last word. You go girl!

The film opens by explaining how the twin sisters get separated at birth and brought up by different families. But there are no mystical songs, lockets or other identifying objects needed because the two just happen to be identical, which means of course that there will be confusion between the two when they grow up.

First of all we meet Seeta and her family. Her parents are dead and Seeta is living with her Aunt Kaushalya, Uncle Badrinath and their two children. Also living in the house is Kaushalya’s brother Ranjeet (Roopesh Kumar) and Seeta’s grandmother.

Kaushalya and her daughter Sheila treat Seeta as a slave and she is constantly abused and overworked. Seeta is the weak-as-water type of heroine I usually want to slap and tell to pull herself together, but since her rather pathetic and hopeless character is the whole point of this part of the film, I can live with it. Anyway, the focus at this point is much more on Kaushalya who is the best wicked aunt ever. Manorama is outstanding in her role as Kaushalya and has the best selection of grimaces I have seen outside of a gurning competition. Here is just a selection of some of her expressions which she uses to excellent effect.

Honey Irani appears in front of the camera in one of her first roles as an actress playing the mean and spoilt mommy’s girl Sheila. I love the way she stands and screams as an iron burns her sari rather than just lifting out a hand to move it away. She really does seem to believe she is the delicate flower her mother calls her and she wonderfully nasty towards her cousin. Ranjeet is appropriately sleazy and obviously the villain once he turns up in a selection of increasingly bad shirts and terrible scarves.

After Seeta’s trials and troubles have been established we are introduced to Geeta. What a difference! Seeta is introduced in a scene where she is scrubbing the floor and her evil aunt is yelling at her. Geeta is introduced by a song – upbeat, full of life and fun, it’s an apt description of Geeta and her outlook despite her humble status.

Geeta lives with her mother and works as a street performer with Raka (Dharmendra) and Jhumroo (Master Ravi). She’s loud, vivacious, a bit of a crook and nothing at all like her twin sister. There is much made of the differences between the two: Geeta’s fiery nature and her loving relationship with her mother for example, compared to Seeta’s meek obedience and her constant craving for her lost parents. It all sets the scene for the inevitable switch between the two sisters.

After further abuse and inappropriate attentions from the slimy Ranjeet, Seeta finally escapes from the house and Kaushalya reports her as missing to the police. However Geeta happens to be at the local police station where she is ‘recognised’ as the missing Seeta and picked up by her ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’.

On the way home Geeta decides she doesn’t want anything to do with the crazy fat lady and escapes, ending up hiding in a car with Dr Ravi (Sanjeev Kumar) in a coincidence that is only ever possible in Bollywood. Dr Ravi has already met Seeta as a possible marriage candidate and at the time wasn’t impressed at the way Kaushalya presented her niece, but he finds the new ‘Seeta’ intriguing and the two end up falling in love.

Since she feels sorry for the grandmother, Geeta ends up back in the mansion living with Seeta’s family, but she doesn’t appreciate the idea of being their servant and certainly won’t put up with any abuse. It’s a shock for everyone in the family when their previously docile slave lashes out and forces everyone else to work instead. Geeta is hilarious as she pretends to be Seeta and turns the tables on Kaushalya and Ranjeet. There is so much to laugh at, but also plenty of drama and a good balance between the two. It all works so well because of the excellent performance by Hema Malini as the two different sisters. Geeta is a strong and determined character and Hema conveys this resolution with body language and expression just as much as by the dialogue. Seeta is quieter and more submissive, keeping her eyes downcast and her voice softer, but in her own way is just as determined to get what she wants once she breaks free of her restrictive family. It’s hard to believe that no-one seems to question the identity of the two sisters, especially since Hema makes them two very different people but no-one ever seems to consider the possibility and that allows the chaos to continue.

While Geeta is busy reforming Seeta’s family, Seeta is found by Raka who naturally thinks she is Geeta and takes her back to Geeta’s foster mother Leela (Radhika Rani).  Seeta blossoms with the love of her new ‘mother’ while Leela is amazed to have a daughter who can cook, sew and volunteers to visit the temple.

Despite her abysmal attempts at street performing, Raka falls in love with Seeta while for no real apparent reason, Seeta falls in love with him. Although to be fair he is probably the first person she has met who is as self-absorbed about his orphan status as she is, and their shared misery does create a bond. Their wedding is set, as is Geeta’s to Dr Ravi but of course the path of true love never runs that smoothly and there is still the confusion between the two sisters to sort out. Although Raka tries to save the day, in the end it’s Geeta with a little help from her sister who proves that anything a Bollywood hero can do, a heroine can do even better. It’s all totally crazy, over the top and Hema seems to have an excellent time beating up all the bad guys in the fight scenes.

The cast here are all excellent and they are perfectly cast to fit well into their roles. Sanjeev Kumar is effortlessly charming and debonair as Dr Ravi. His assertion that he wants a good Hindustani girl as his ideal wife did make me groan, but despite his initial statement he doesn’t seem to mind when Geeta dresses in more Western style clothes and he positively encourages her to go roller-skating (which may actually be something that good Hindustani girls do considering the number of times it happens in films). I’m often quite ambivalent when it comes to Dharmendra, but since he is rather overshadowed by Hema Malini and his over acting goes almost totally unnoticed beside the caricature of Kaushalya, I really enjoyed his performance. Both Pratima Devi as the long-suffering grandmother and Satyendra Kapoor as Kaushalya’s hen-pecked husband provide excellent support, as do the various other members of the cast. But it’s  Hema and Manorama who are the two essential elements to the film and their scenes together still make me laugh every time.

The music is by R. D. Burman and his songs are lovely and well-integrated into the story.  Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar provide beautiful vocals for Hema while Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey provide the male voices for Sanjeev Kumar and Dharmendra. The songs are all pictured on Geeta rather than Seeta which is perhaps a shame, although there is one solo song with Dharmendra which works well. I love this famous song with Geeta pretending to be drunk to dissuade Dr Ravi from marrying her. It’s funny but very sad too and while Hema is excellent, Sanjeev Kumar provides excellent backing for her drama.

Javed Akhtar, Satish Bhatnagar and Salim Khan have done a great job adapting the ‘Prince and the Pauper’ storyline to suit a Bollywood audience and the dialogue is well written and very funny. Director Ramesh Sippy keeps everything moving along and despite knowing the switch is going to happen he still builds plenty of suspense into the story.  This is a total Bollywood classic for me – great performances, good songs and excellent comedy, all delivered with such style by Hema Malini. I absolutely love this film and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it. A full 5 stars!

Temple says:

I like Seeta aur Geeta, but I don’t love it. I first saw it several years ago and I really liked it at the time. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, and each time I enjoyed it a little less and fast forwarded a little more. I can’t quite warm to Hema Malini, Sanjeev Kumar is not my idea of hero material and I lack the Dharmendra Swoon gene. So it all comes down to the story and the characters.

I really like the way the story plays with the masala tradition of twins separated at birth, and there are lots of fun moments as Geeta impersonates Seeta. But it does drag on a bit once the twin swapping starts, and Seeta is such a wet dishrag that I get restless whenever she is at centre stage. Geeta is more lively but as with so many filmi heroines, she can only get a husband when she pretends to be something else – in this case, a demure young lass like her sister. So that detracts from the ‘you go girl’ mood as it turns into ‘you go girl and put on a nice sari and a long-sleeved high-necked blouse’. I also found the roller skate scene stupid and not in a good way – Geeta was a tightrope walker and acrobat and all of a sudden she can’t work out how to balance or control her body? Yes she was on wheels, but it was just a lazy way of asserting the hero’s superiority when there was no real need. Kickarse girls can only kick so much before decorum demands they are put in their place. And then to have Sanjeev Kumar as the vision of young love…oh dear. The romances didn’t grab me in the slightest as neither couple seemed to be well suited or even mildly interesting. There wasn’t really enough of a threat or menace to keep the dramatic tension either, as most of the ‘bad’ characters were more slapstick than villainous.

Overall, I like this enough to say see it as a good timepass. It’s colourful, the music is pleasant although I don’t think it’s great, the mood is generally upbeat (apart from all the attempted rapes and beatings). But it’s not a film that rewards repeated views and there are many other masala favourites I would rather see again. 3 stars.


Thiruvilayadal is a wonderfully embellished pastel confection of a film, supported by a powerful performance from Sivaji Ganesan as Shiva. Thank you to Suja and Ajit for their enthusiastic recommendations. I am also very grateful to the rajshritamil channel on Youtube for making the film available with subtitles. Suja asked how meaningful or interesting a vintage devotional film would be to a non-Hindu? The answer is – very!

I was raised Catholic which, as a friend said recently, is the glitzy end of Christianity. Catholicism incorporates numerous saints, some having their own specialities or areas of influence so the faithful can pray to the one best placed for their situation. They are identifiable by different visual elements and props, often referencing a gruesome means of death if the saint had been martyred. So the colour, pageantry, stylised imagery and iconography of a devotional film are familiar elements for me even though the philosophy and faith are different. One of the biggest differences is something I remarked on after watching Mayabazar. The relationship with God as depicted seems a lot more direct and personal than I am used to. And Shiva is not immune from displaying vanity and caprice as well as humour and tolerance, so I found it a more human interpretation of God.

I suspect more than one team was responsible for the subtitles. Why? Lord Shiva speaks like this occasionally:

While fisherfolk in a rustic village complain thus:

Anyway, the story begins as a resplendent Shiva (Sivaji Ganesan) receives the praise of his devotees, including his wife Parvati (Savitri), which promotes that groovy mood.

Even divine families have their squabbles and a contest between Ganesh and Murugan ends when Ganesh uses his erudition to define the question and win the prize. Murugan is incensed by losing to his sibling and leaves home. Parvati tries to persuade Murugan to return, and explains that it is Shiva’s way to test his devotees.

She narrates several stories of Shiva’s ‘games’ to persuade her son that there was no insult intended. The stories are very entertaining and the format allows different aspects of Shiva to be explored in array of visually delightful settings. Again, the theme of God testing the faith of an individual is a familiar one to me, but the style and methodology do differ.

Shiva tests the knowledge (and ego) of a renowned scholar and teases a poor poet. Both get their rewards, but for Shiva the reward seems to be the fun of the game.

And for the viewer, we get an answer to the vexing question ‘Does a woman’s hair possess a natural perfume?’ Muthuraman and Devika are lovely as the King and his glamorous queen, and their ornate palace is stunning.

Sivaji Ganesan revels in the role, exuding a majesty and playfulness that makes him compelling. He is not what I would call handsome but he is absolutely magnetic. His larger than life style is perfect for Shiva. I love this song, performed by Shiva posing as a firewood vendor. An arrogant musician challenges the Tamil court to best him, and the kingdom is at stake. Shiva sets up outside the musician’s residence and psychs him out before the contest by singing a song so perfect it stops the birds in the air and the waves in the ocean. Even if you don’t love the music as much as I did, watch this clip for Shiva’s exuberance and joy in creation and art, and his pleasure in being really annoying.

Savitri is regal and composed as Parvati. She has endured Shiva’s whims for aeons. She is his equal in temper, but he wields his destructive power without fear of consequences where she is more restrained. Once, after momentarily diverting her attention from her husband to her son, she was punished by being born in a fishing village with no memory of her divine nature. I think that was a harsh reward for good parenting. Parvati showed herself to be a leader in a human incarnation while in the village. I also enjoyed seeing Manorama as one of her girlfriends.

Of course Shiva wasn’t going to let anyone else win his wife in the ‘he who is bravest’ competition, so he appeared as a mysterious heroic fisherman.

Their flirting was cheesy but lots of fun. And this episode includes one of my favourite filmi things. A shark fight! Admittedly it is more like a rubber whale with dentures in some shots, but look upon the mighty beast and despair!

Shiva defeated the shark, won the girl and kindly restored her to her former glory.

The comedy is character driven and fits into the main narrative. Nagesh plays a poor poet who becomes a pawn in Shiva’s game. His mix of rapacity and naivete is funny without being too much. Shiva’s answers to questions by mortals are often a witty partial truth or play on words. It’s a sprightly and engaging film.

The subtitles are generally very good but I did have some questions about the translations. The balance of Shiva and Shakti is the subject of one story, with neither being able to exist without the other – the balance of opposing forces. After a squabble over her father Shiva uses his power as the destroyer and Parvati/Shakti’s lifeforce is vanquished. (The dance of destruction is dramatic but not terribly accomplished.)

The senior gods intervene and remind Shiva that without her the world becomes barren and dark and he relents and restores her. There are a couple of dialogue exchanges about how all women must submit to their husbands that seem at odds with the theological position. I wonder if it was translation that chose ‘submit’ when the actual word was more nuanced, or if it reflects other beliefs. This image seems to support a balance rather than the dominance of one aspect suggested by the script.

There is a strong theme of the purity and beauty of Tamil language and culture and Shiva rewards those who love and protect the tongue. Many key supporting characters are Tamil scholars and are accorded great respect and some indulgence by the gods. Since this is from the 60s maybe the positioning of Tamil culture and language as superior and preferred by the gods was a reflection of the Dravidian movement or other factors? I’m sure someone will tell me.

K.V Mahadevan’s music is not only enjoyable but is integral to the stories. The art design is just wonderful. There is such a wealth of beautiful detail, right down to treasures like the fish themed musical instruments and a fabulous bird shower.

The central performers are brilliant, the stories are engaging, and it is a pleasure to see and listen to. There is so much to enjoy in Thiruvilayadal whether you watch it as a colourful entertainment or with a more philosophical analysis. 5 stars!

Heather says: This is a simply a beautiful film. The colours are amazingly bright and it is incredibly iridescent and sparkly throughout. From the opening song and dance until the very end it is captivating with beautiful music and stunning performances. I think this was the first film I saw with Sivaji Genesan and he seems to be the perfect person to play Lord Shiva. He has such charm and brings so much character into the role. I particularly love his Tandava dance after the death of Sakthi where his facial expressions are superb and I love that he dances with his eyes. My dance teacher keeps telling me this is how to dance properly, and this is the perfect example of how much it brings to the performance. Even if as temple points out he’s not technically perfect otherwise. My favourite story is the one about the musician Hemanathan and the song above where there are multiple Lord Shiva’s playing different musical instruments is brilliantly done. Considering the film was made in the sixties and the special effects were presumably rather limited, it’s all put together very well and creates a magical effect every time I see it. And I totally agree with Temple’s comments about the subtitles – the ‘I feel groovy’ perhaps is showing the influence of the sixties, but some of the rest I have no explanation for at all.

There is at times so much detail in the film that at times it distracts a little from the main action for me. The backing musicians during Hemanathan’s performance have amazing facial expressions and really get into the music. I tend to end up watching them and the various other servants and hangers-on rather than concentrating on the lead characters. But then again, so much of the detail is charming. There is the fish tika on Kayarkani’s forehead as the fisherman’s daughter, the wonderful peacock chariot that carries Hemanathan to the Pandian King and Shiva’s third eye that blinks just to name a few.

Thiruvilaiyadal is an absolute classic, and as a friend said when we were discussing the film, it’s one to watch again and again. 5 stars.