Vetagadu (1979)

Vetagadu

K. Raghavendra Rao’s 1979 film is a classic featuring N.T. Rama Rao and Sridevi in a mystery/romance full of stupendous seventies fashion and glorious home décor. Jandhyala’s story seems to have all the required elements but despite having 2 DVD copies of this film that say ‘with English subtitles’ neither my copies, nor the versions available on YT are subtitled, so I’m really just going with my interpretation of events. And there is a lot going on. As well as a jewellery theft, there is a murder, a feud between two rich families, some shenanigans in a tea plantation, a tribal village with a propensity for celebrating by dancing, a cosy villain’s lair and a convoluted plot to expose the criminals. N.T. Rama Rao looks a little old to be romping around the forest and fighting off the bad guys, but he does it with plenty of style while Sridevi is simply stunning as the heroine trying to find out what really happened to her mother. Apologies for the poor quality of the screencaps – in addition to no subtitles the DVD’s are of equally bad quality.

The film starts with Gayatri (Pushpalata) performing a musical interlude for her family, including her husband Ananda Bhupathi (Jaggayya) and young daughter Roja, at what seems to be a house-warming for their new palace. During her performance Gayatri wears a super-sparkly necklace which quickly attracts the attention of the palace’s steward, Sivananam (Rao Gopal Rao). Sivananam hatches a plot to steal the necklace that involves kidnapping Gayatri the next time she attends the temple. However, Gayatri manages to escape from her captors and runs into the forest where she meets Kalyana Gajapathi (Kanta Rao), a friend of the family who lives in the neighbouring palace. Kalyana Gajapathi attempts to fight the kidnappers but is killed in the struggle, while Gayatri manages to give her necklace to a local tribesman before the thugs catch up with her too.

The film moves to the present day where Ananda Bhupathi has moved back to the city after losing his wife, and the young Roja has grown up into Sridevi. Sivananam has taken over running the estate where he runs various shady businesses, including trafficking young women, with the help of his son Hari (Satyanarayana). As with all good villains, Sivananam has a lair, which judging by the fishy view, appears to be underwater and is furnished with the usual accoutrements including a handy trap door and convenient crocodile for disposing of recalcitrant girls. Hari wanders around the tea plantation, acting as a lord of the manner in his fancy suits with matching hat and flower, selecting the women he wants and disposing of them in his father’s business.

Sivananam has grand plans to marry Hari and Roja, which he puts into action when Roja visits for a hunting trip. However, he’s reckoned without Raja (N.T. Ramo Rao), the son of Kalyana Gajapathi and a hunter still living in his father’s old palace. Roja meets Raja on her way to the forest and immediately dislikes his rather sleazy approach to romance. After crashing into her car and harassing her on the train, Raja then follows the tried and true method of tormenting Roja and stalking her to make her fall in love with him, but to Roja’s credit this doesn’t seem to work. However, Raja’s heart is really in the right place and when he rescues Roja from a gang of thugs she changes her mind and the two can get down to some serious prancing.

One night Roja hears music coming from the old abandoned palace, and when Raja investigates he finds a masked man attacking a young woman in the building. Further investigation leads him to suspect something shady is going on, but it’s not until he rescues another young tribal woman and meets her father (Chalapathi Rao) that he starts to put everything together. Since he’s a man of good sense, he enlists Roja’s help with his investigations, and between them they discover the real story of what happened to Gayatri and her necklace.

Of course that’s not nearly enough drama, so added in is a feud between Ananda Bhupathi and Raja’s family as he believes Kalyana Gajapathi was behind the theft of the necklace and disappearance of his wife, resulting in his refusal to allow Roja to marry Raja. There’s also something about a little girl who was killed in a road accident, who I think was Raja’s sister, which may explain why his father was off hunting in the forest when Gayatri went missing. Or may not – I’m not clear exactly how her death fits into the rest of the story. Naturally there is a comedy track too and Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah ham it up between them in a feud over one of the women from the tea plantation. There is also a rather sad and toothless tiger who gets dragged into the mix and is supposedly part of the ‘comedy’, but for the most part Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah play well off each other even if their antics seem rather dated now.

What helps Vetagadu immensely is the mystery-based storyline and the enthusiasm and energy of the leads. Rao Gopal Rao is good as the villain of the piece with a generally benevolent air as he plots and plans his way through various schemes. Satyanarayana is also excellent as his son, with all his affectations which he drops easily once he’s involved in a fight scene. There’s a particularly good moment where he swaps shoes during an item song to pick up some diamonds and has to carry off the disruption to his perfectly matched outfit. I do like his style!

But the real stars are NTR and particularly Sridevi who manages to make her romance with the ageing superstar reasonably believable. NTR helps things along by some energetic fight sequences and a number of good dance numbers including this one in the tribal village where he imagines Roja and himself as the lead dancers.

Sridevi is simply stunning and has plenty of scope to demonstrate the full range of her acting skills Her initial comedy scenes with Raja are good, and I definitely think she gets the upper hand even though she does eventually succumb to Raja’s charms, or at least his ability to get them out of a sticky situation. Roja also gets a chance to turn detective as she partners up with Raja to find out what happened to her mother and the heirloom necklace, vamping it up and flirting with Hari as well as schmoozing up to Sivananam. She’s also gorgeous in the dance sequences and manages to carry off the various ruffles and seventies fashion (even a crocheted dress) with plenty of style. NTR does well to keep up with her, and he’s excellent in scenes where he is chasing down the answers to the puzzle of his father’s disappearance and the mystery of the missing necklace.

Although the finale, where Raja attempts a disguise to fool Sivananam and Hari doesn’t work quite as well, the rest of the story is a good mix of romance and action, just the way a masala should be. I would love to see this properly restored with English subtitles but until then, this was an enjoyable watch, even without understanding the dialogue– worth it for Sridevi, N.T. Rama Rao and Chakravarthy’s catchy dance numbers. 3½ stars.

 

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Vasantha Maligai (1972)

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It’s been a while since I watched some seventies masala, and what better way to indulge than K.S. Prakash Rao’s wonderfully dramatic Vasantha Maligai. Sivaji Ganesan and Vanisri star in this adaptation of Koduri Kausalya Devi’s novel about a rich prince and his romance with a middle class woman working to support her family. Like all good masala films there is a dash of everything – romance, tragedy, filmi medicine, an evil overlord, oppressed villagers and even a comedy cook, but it’s the performances from the cast along with some beautiful songs that make Vasantha Maligai well worth a watch.

Anand (Sivaji Ganesan) is the alcoholic younger son of a royal family and the film opens with a song detailing his drunken antics on a plane where Latha (Vanisri) is working as an air hostess. The opening scenes focus on Anand with Latha merely a figure in the background concerned about fastening seatbelts when the plane hits turbulence, so it’s a surprise when the next scene shows Latha returning home to her family and attention moves to her situation. I like this way of building anticipation for the next meeting between the two, while providing the back story that establishes Latha’s character.

Latha is the main wage earner in the family as her brother (Sreekanth) is a wastrel and her father (Major Sundarrajan) is crippled from an accident. Her mother (Pandari Bai) is unhappy about Latha’s job and persuades her to look for something safer where she doesn’t have to risk life and limb in an aeroplane every day. However, Latha’s subsequent venture into employment turns out to be much more dangerous than her work as an air hostess and Anand returns to the story when he rescues Latha from her amorous new boss. Anand just happens to be grooving the night away in the same hotel celebrating his birthday party, and our hero is such a style icon that he even takes time during the ensuing fight scene to fix up his hair – such panache!

Despite his drunkenness and playboy appearance, Latha accepts a job as Anand’s personal secretary where her kind heart and overall decency start to have an effect on his behaviour. However Latha is also proud and her self-esteem leads her to appear arrogant, particularly when she clashes with Anand’s servant and drinking buddy Panchavarnam (Nagesh). Nagesh is determined to keep Anand drinking to ensure his own supply of grog, while Latha is equally determined to wean Anand off the demon drink and make him a useful member of society. In the end it’s Latha’s concern for his well being that starts to win Anand over but it’s not until he injures Latha during one of his drinking binges that he finally starts to mend his ways.

While Anand is intent on drinking himself into an early grave, his elder brother Vijay (K. Balaji) terrorises the local villagers who work on the estate. Vijay is a nasty piece of work and Balaji has a great demonic laugh and seems to be thoroughly enjoying his role as a brutal despot. His wife Vimala is equally evil and plots to get rid of Latha before she can redeem Anand, although whether this is to keep her husband in control of the estate or just because she is a horrible person is hard to decide. I’m not sure who the actress is playing Vimala but she has a great sneer and is wonderfully condescending in her attitude to just about everyone else although she does seem to care for her husband and child.

Her concern is valid since Anand secretly builds a wonderful palace for the woman he adores, although he refuses to name her until the building is complete – no surprises for who his secret love is, although he does win marks for the way he finally reveals his love.

I know tastes were different back in the seventies but even then surely this would be considered over the top pastel décor:

There are endless ornate pillars, arches, and latticework with tacky silver statues practically everywhere. The indoor pool has giant lotus flower fountains, and the room where Anand reveals the face of his true love is full of mirrors (expected) and revolving pillars (totally unexpected) that don’t seem to have any purpose whatsoever. And what else will they ever use this room for? Latha however is enraptured by the palace and the discovery that Anand loves her, ending up leaping through the gardens in true masala romance style in the gorgeous song Mayakkam Enna.

However there is still a long way to go before the end and Vimala and Vijay manage to turn Ananad against Latha, ultimately resulting in Anand becoming very ill. According to his doctor his cough and general malaise are caused by his sudden drop in alcohol consumption, and no-one ever mentions his chain smoking habit as a possible issue. Aah – the seventies – life was so much simpler back then – unless you were the heroine in a masala movie of course. Poor Latha has many more trials and setbacks to endure before true love wins out, and she has plenty of opportunity to practice her emoting skills while enduring gallons of fake tears. Although she does have the benefit of industrial strength no-run mascara to ensure her make-up stays perfect despite all the crying.

Sivaji Ganesan is perfect as the hero and makes the most of both his drunkenness and his illness later in the film. He spouts dramatic lines and clutches at his chest, a convenient pillar or a chair while gazing adoringly at his glass of brandy one minute, and then switches to amused indulgence as he watches Latha try to make him work the next. It’s not all just over the top drama either, he does have some moments where the subtle raise of an eyebrow is just as effective as his later histrionics and he manages to make his character more than just a typical rich playboy. Balaji too is effective in his role as the elder brother, although I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction between the two brothers.

Vanisri looks gorgeous and wears some stunningly beautiful saris that stand out, even in the opulent surroundings of the palace. She does wear a couple more than once too, which fits nicely with her character needing to work for a living. Her Latha is a determined young woman with plenty of attitude and no tolerance for bad behaviour. I like that even when she is distraught she still fights back and has no hesitation in saying what she thinks, no matter who she is speaking to. She has good chemistry with Sivaji Ganesan too, and the romance between the two works well despite the limited time they have together as a couple.  The support cast are all good too, with Nagesh a good fit as Anand’s upstart servant, although the comedy track between him and the cook (V.K. Ramaswamy) is rather less successful.

The songs by K.V. Mahadevan are beautiful and T.M. Soundararajan provides the voice for Anand, ensuring the songs are just as dramatic as the action.

The film looks gorgeous too – the colours of the fab costumes are vivid and bright, even in my unrestored copy and I love the seriously over the top décor of both palaces. The bar in the palace is as seedy as in any hotel, Anand’s bed is a glorious ornate version of a gondola, and I almost didn’t notice the stuffed animals in the main hallway with the enormous and imposing staircase taking centre stage. This is exactly what I want from my masala films – determined hero, tragic heroine, plenty of melodrama, beautiful costumes and sumptuous settings. Vasantha Maligai delivers on all fronts and is even more readily available now that the film has been digitally restored and re-released. Highly recommended. 4 stars.

Navarathri

Navarathri-Savitri in Navarathri

Savitri starred in both the 1964 Tamil Navrathri (dir. A.P Nagarajan) and the 1966 Telugu remake (dir. Tatineni Ramarao) and she is lovely as ever. What makes it particularly difficult to choose one over the other film is her leading men – Sivaji Ganesan (1964) and Akkineni Nageswara Rao (1966) – who each bring their own style to the proceedings. So I won’t pick.

That is so pretty with the Golu, the girls dancing and their sarees. The Telugu song is a bit more sparkly so I always pick that one.

Savitri is Nalina (Tamil) or Radha (Telugu). I’m going to just refer to her as Savitri throughout. After that lovely happy song, Savitri is told her father has fixed her marriage. She is already in love, and has no idea that her dad has unwittingly accepted a proposal from her boyfriend. Oh the drama. She runs to see the boy, only to be told he has gone to get married. She runs away, unable to face life as another man’s wife. Her character spends 9 nights wandering. She encounters different characters, all played by the leading man, who represent different aspects of human behaviour and emotion. These are named slightly differently in each film so I will just list them by night.

The film is more of an allegory than a realistic portrayal. Despite having lots of detail presented about who these men are, there is not a lot of depth to all the characters. The actors focus on the key emotion of the episode rather than trying to create nuances. Sivaji Ganesan is charismatic and is always instantly recognisable in this tour de force. ANR is generally better suited to low-key roles, but he also plays the various men as types. It is highly entertaining and stylised.

Night 1. A flamboyant widower interrupts Savitri as she contemplates suicide and drags her back to his house. Both ANR and Sivaji played this character as an eccentric, lonely man. The widower is devoted to his dead wife and little daughter (played by Kutty Padmini in both versions, I think). When compared flounce for flounce, there is little to separate the actors in this episode. I kept thinking of Snagglepuss.

Night 2. Tricked by a brothel madam, Savitri has to fend off a drunkard with a sob story. Savitri is determined, fierce and has a good throwing arm. Sivaji played this role as a wild eyed, plaid pants wearing letch with mood swings. ANR did a gorgeous self-parody as a self-pitying Devdas and for that, he wins my vote.

Night 3. Picked up by the police, Savitri is taken to a mental hospital. Both actors play the doctor as gently considerate and interested in why she was faking madness. I enjoyed ANR’s reactions to Savitri’s odd gesticulations and speeches. Sivaji is more of a generic saint in a white wig. Placed in a ward with several other women exhibiting different manias, Savitri joins in the various set pieces each inmate delivers and their song and dance medley. The Telugu patients (including Suryakantam, Chhaya Devi, Jamuna and Jayalalithaa) are funny and energetic, and I recognised most of the songs they used so I enjoyed their section a lot.  Manorama features in the Tamil film where the dancing and singing is more subdued but still fun. I’m usually averse to using the mentally ill as comedy fodder, but there was something good-natured and kind in this episode that helped me put my qualms aside.

Night 4. Frightened that the police had come for her, Savitri runs again. She meets a lurking gunman, out for revenge against the men who tortured and killed his brother. Savitri tries to persuade him to stop but he is killed by his enemies. It’s his character who has the most obvious demons to fight in this Navarathri. Both ANR and Sivaji play him with swagger and bluster. ANR had a little more vulnerability while Sivaji showed more of the wounded pride and ferocity. Both died spectacularly and both had to deal with interesting makeup and costumes. I guess it depends on whether you prefer a stripy t-shirt or a stripy lungi.

Night 5. Savitri contemplates suicide again. She is saved by a kindly villager and his sister who worry that she had been possessed by an evil spirit. A comedy conman arrives to fleece her poor but honest benefactors and Savitri decides to give him a taste of his own medicine. Nagesh originated the role in the Tamil verison while Relangi played in the Telugu film. I prefer Relangi in almost any role to Nagesh in most things! I think ANR does poor man with heart of gold so very well.  For this section, the Telugu film is the winner for me.

Night 6. Savitri sees an old man crawling along a path and goes to help. A formerly rich man, he is now a leper and shunned by all his family and associates. Savitri doesn’t let her revulsion at his physical state stop her from behaving with compassion and integrity. I really like that at around this stage in the movie, Savitri has stopped just passively absorbing help and is not only thinking about how to sort out her own life but is actively supporting other people. The makeup department were a bit more effective in 1966, and ANR does vulnerability so well. The Telugu film gets my points for this episode.

Night 7. A theatrical company is in need for an actress after theirs elopes. Savitri agrees to help them and the play goes on. I don’t think anyone can beat Sivaji Ganesan in Ye Historical Outfits and he looks like he has a ball in this turn as the rural actor/director. ANR is very good and his dancing has a higher comedy value, but the portentous dialogues flow so nicely in the Tamil film. Savitri is lovely in both films as she matches her leading man step for step.

Night 8. Whoever thought either of these men should wear short shorts should be given a severe talking to. Playing a policeman playing a hunter ANR and Sivaji both opt for a braying laugh, military bluff heartiness and those shorts. I think they used the same footage of the tiger in both films. Savitri masquerades as a man. She is not even slightly convincing, but her expressions are funny and her Telugu characterisation is enjoyably pompous. I think Sivaji’s shorts are both more terrifying (baggy, poor camera angles) and hilarious (baggy, poor camera angles). The Tamil film is a little more dramatic and better paced at this stage so I prefer that.

Night 9. In which we discover that intended groom/disappearing boyfriend Anand or Venu (Telugu) is of course Sivaji or ANR. Savitri has nice rapport with both actors and the reconciliation scenes were both funny and heartfelt by turn.  The wedding goes ahead and all the ‘other men’ turn up (except the dead gunman). Happiness prevails!

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I slightly prefer the Telugu soundtrack by Chalapathi Rao T as it is a little more filmi and festive but the songs in the Tamil film are quite soulful so it does depend on my mood. I have the Telugu DVD with subtitles but have only seen the Tamil film without (it’s on Youtube). The stories are identical but of course, the dialogues will differ somewhat. Despite having different directors, there are only differences in a few scenes. It’s interesting to see so little of the second director in the remake – when I first saw the films I assumed AP Nagarajan did both.

I have some minor doubts. How did Savitri keep finding new sarees with impeccably tailored blouses? And she seemed to be wandering in circles yet no one could find her. But nothing detracted from enjoying her journey and her realisation that she could go home and be happy.

I really like both films, and have rewatched them a couple of times. Savitri is brilliant as Nalina/Radha and despite the focus being on the men, her performance is varied and her characterisation develops beautifully. Both Sivaji and ANR are in fine form and make the task of playing nine roles seem effortless. Choose your favourite cast, choose on language, choose the songs you like most, choose your own adventure! 4 stars!