Singapore (1960)

Singapore

Singapore may not be one of Shakti Samanta’s best films, given the gaping plot holes and rather slow start, but his first film with Shammi Kapoor still entertains with plenty of good songs and a competent support cast. Like many of Samanta’s early films, Singapore is a mystery thriller with the usual assortment of criminals willing to kidnap and murder to get away with their loot. Where it falls down is in trying to spin together too many threads with the underlying story rather lost beneath the extra flourishes. The additions also defuse much of the tension, which isn’t helped by a distinct lack of chemistry between Shammi and his co-star, with the result that the film initially feels rather flat. However Shammi’s uncharacteristic restraint doesn’t last for too long and there is plenty of his trademark craziness to liven up the final scenes.  Add in a dash of Helen, Shashikala and Padmini, the gorgeous Maria Menada and the exotic locale, and Singapore is worth at least a one-time watch.

The film opens with Ramesh (Gautam Mukherjee) and his girlfriend Shoba (Shashikala) meeting in a club in Singapore. As Shoba happily learns that Ramesh plans to stay in Singapore, their conversation is being closely followed by local gangsters Chang (Madan Puri) and Kapoor (Rajan Kapoor) at a nearby table. Also listening in, by way of a hidden microphone in the lamp is Shoba’s uncle Shivadas (K.N. Singh), but despite all this effort the only information Ramesh gives out is that he has found a treasure map and as a result won’t go ahead with the sale of his boss’s rubber plantation. That boss is Shyam (Shammi Kapoor) and later that night Ramesh finally manages to contact him by phone. However his conversation is interrupted by two shady characters that kidnap Ramesh, although they don’t manage to get their hands on the treasure map. Left to wonder what has happened to his friend, Shyam boards the next plane to Singapore, and the hunt is on!

Samanta does seem to delight in giving his characters rather ridiculous names, and Shyam is met at the airport by his company secretary Cha Choo (Agha) and in the office by the typist Chin Chin Choo (Lilian), which at least does invoke memories of Howrah Bridge. Shyam also meets Lata (Padmini) and initially confuses her with Shoba since he has been told that Ramesh’s girlfriend dances at the New India Club and naturally assumes that the dancer she sees is Shoba.  I’m not sure what the point of the confusion is, other than as an introduction to the family and as a way to ensure Padmini gets to dance. However it’s worth the convoluted storyline as Padmini does look absolutely gorgeous here and really shines when she is dancing.

While in Singapore, Shyam is also pursued by the beautiful Maria (Maria Menada) who met him on the flight from India. Maria seems overly interested in Shyam’s affairs, and since it’s revealed almost from the start that she is involved in the plot to steal the treasure I expected a little more from their relationship. However mostly this is just another complicating plot thread that has a lot of potential that is never fully realised, although Maria Menada is excellent as a villainess.

There has to be a love story of course, and Shyam and Lata fall for each other on their first meeting. There isn’t great chemistry between Padmini and Shammi, but they do have a couple of good songs together where there seems more empathy and at least they seem to be enjoying themselves. I love this one where they dance through a number of shops before Padmini pushes the dancers into the pool at the end, seeming totally delighted as each one drops into the water while Shammi prances along behind her. Oh My indeed!

Meanwhile, Shyam is still trying to find Ramesh and uses the tape recording of their last phone conversation to track down a musical cigarette case which may have the answer. This part of the plot is perfect – naturally Ramesh records all his phone calls, and why wouldn’t a cigarette case in the shape of a Vat 69 bottle also be musical – but once Shyam finds the map things start to get unnecessarily complicated. This slows down the action and the film starts to drag while various embellishments are added to the plot.

Shyam uses the map as bait to try to lure out the kidnappers, and in the ensuing chase has to hide out from some of the gang in a village. Obviously he has to escape their notice and what better way to remain inconspicuous than to dance and sing with Helen? Naturally this is the best way to escape detection!

Shoba is kidnapped too and there is a convoluted thread involving Shivadas who may or may not be dead, although it doesn’t really seem to matter in the end.  Eventually Shyam infiltrates the gang as an assassin from Kabul, which gives Shammi licence to unleash the crazy and the pace of the film finally picks up. I wish the energy in the last scenes could have been present for the whole film, but at least  the film ends on a suitably chaotic note with the inconsistencies in the plot swiftly swept aside to concentrate on the final action sequences.

The main reason to watch Singapore is of course Shammi, who looks fantastic throughout whether he’s romancing Lata, cavorting around the dance floor in disguise or fighting off numerous villains as required. His Shyam is suave and sophisticated, romancing the ladies while out and about in Singapore and easily charming Lata on one hand while elegantly turning down Maria on the other. At least until his disguise kicks in, when he becomes totally OTT Shammi and revels in his persona as a gun for hire. My favourite kind of Shammi!

The support cast are all solid, despite the erratic storyline and gaping plot holes, and Agha is impressively competent as Shyam’s sidekick.  I can’t remember noticing him much in other films of the era, but here he provides some gentle comedy without disrupting the flow or resorting to slapstick. Padmini looks gorgeous and at least has a couple of good dance numbers even though disappointingly her character has very little to do in the second half. Although Singapore isn’t a film I will watch over and over again like Chinatown, I do like the songs from Shankar-Jaikishan, particularly those included here along with Tum Lakh Chhoopana Chahoge, Tu Kahan Kho Gaya and Dhoka Khayegi Na Yaron Ki Nazar for some classic Shammi dance-floor magic. As I said at the start, not one of Samanta or Shammi’s best films, but there is still enough to enjoy to make Singapore worth a watch. 3 stars.

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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.

Thillana Mohanambal

Padmini is Mohanambal, a beautiful and exceptionally talented bharatanatyam dancer. Sivaji Ganesan is the less beautiful but equally talented musician, nadaswaram player Sikkal Shanmughan. Crossing paths at a temple festival sparks fly between them but within minutes they go from this:

To this:

They challenge each other to a contest of dance versus music at some later date. So the stage is set for a fiery romance, riddled with misunderstanding, thwarted by pride and a meddling mother (Vadivambal, played by C.K. Saraswathi).

Mohana believes that dance is for everyone and for all occasions, inspired by the world around the dancer as well as a gift of god. Sikkal is more of a princess, demanding that his audience give him full attention and due reverence as he displays his gift. He believes art exists for god and for the artist. He refuses Mohana’s invitation to stay and watch her dance, but sneaks back later to see this.

There are some interesting observations on women in the performing arts and Mohana is certainly subject to some assumptions by men who desire her beauty and talent. Her mother seeks to ensure a wealthy man as her daughter’s protector or husband, but Mohana rejects all offers even before her feelings for Shanmughan are an issue. Nagalingam (K Balaji) is one thwarted suitor and a kidnapping attempt results in a comedy fight scene that I could have done without. I don’t quite get the undersized guy with stupid hair as instant hilarity, and there are two of them (double the fun?). This diversion means Mohana and her group catch the same train as Sikkal who has been waiting in the hopes they might turn up.

Padmini is gorgeous and her dance training is evident in her deportment and expressions as she uses all of her skill in conveying Mohana’s emotions. She also does an exceptionally good eyelash flutter. Sivaji is more old school theatrical, and lays it on almost as thick as his makeup. But his somewhat rubbery face is wonderfully expressive, especially his eyes, and he does have palpable chemistry with Padmini. There is a delightful scene of wordless communication and voiceover on the train journey that is funny, romantic and beautiful.

There is lots of sparring between the two and she is not the heroine to fall in love and lose her sense of self. I liked seeing a young lady who was a bit of a brat, very self-confident, and who felt no need to be apologetic. I don’t think I would enjoy her half as much in real life, but she did keep my attention in the film. And there was no suggestion that she should give up dancing to be a servant of Sikkal’s muse. She was a dancer and was valued for her gift.

There are abundant comedy elements. Manorama is Jil Jil Ramamani, a folk dancer and girl of suspect virtue. Her ‘comic’ dances are strange, and perhaps the subtitle team decided to make sure we knew this was a modern film:

In addition to being the butt of many jokes, she does play a significant role at several points in the story. Manorama made her character both a caricature and quite sympathetic. I was left thinking Jil Jil understood herself and how others saw her, and she retained some dignity despite the silliness. Nagesh as Vaithy had a role that just irritated me. He is a Jerry Lewis kind of character, so if you like the style, you may have warmer feelings towards him than I do.

His presence extends the story with pranks and frauds, and a longwinded and obtuse approach to being a go-between. The supporting characters are pretty broadly drawn and usually played for comedic effect or buffoonery. There is some excellent face throughout.

There are pointed references to the issues of art versus money, the dedication of great artists and who owns art.  Sikkal storms out of a private party rather than be ‘owned’ by the landlord and plays an impromptu concert to the locals gathered outside. I particularly enjoy this face off where the classical versus modern question is settled judging by the smug expression on Sivaji’s face (wait for the white couple to turn up at about 4 min):

Mohana is pursued with increasing vigour by the landlord and the ensuing scenes are quite farcical. I was quite annoyed that Sikkal immediately assumed Mohana was playing him, without speaking to her or investigating. He just did the heroic leap to the conclusion that she was duplicitous and decided to feel sorry for himself. I might have been more tolerant of manly brooding in a more attractive character, but really I just wanted to slap him. He then departs to sulk with Jil Jil, now calling herself Rosarani, who owns a drama company. Word of this gets back to Mohana who knows about his misunderstanding but had hoped he might still be interested. Rather than giving up, judging or moping, she decides to confront him.

Jil Jil and Mohana show themselves to be more decisive and action oriented than many a filmi heroine. I have doubts over the subtitle translation of some of the relationships as people refer to the landlord wanting Mohana to live with him, but he is also referred to as a groom, there is mention of dowry and so on and he has a wife already. In one scene, Padmini begs him not to spoil both their lives and mentions women being enslaved by money. So I am guessing she would have been his mistress but perhaps the subtitle team decided to sanitise the arrangements. Regardless, her modesty and chastity helps to persuade the landlord to be a brother rather than a suitor.

Mohana knew that the only way to keep Sikkal from leaving India with Jil Jil was to appeal to his artistic pride. The Thillana contest goes ahead. Nagalingam returns for skulduggery resulting in Sikkal taking a knife to the arm. Sivaji really milks the scene, thrashing around like a fish out of water for what seems like minutes. This injury prompts a further outbreak of overacting, and Sikkal gets another opportunity to feel sorry for himself again. Thanks to yet another smart competent woman (his nurse Mary) he begins to see that perhaps he has been a little narrow minded.

The finale is predictable but unravels over yet another complex scheme to sell Mohana, this time to a King. She defends herself, verbally and physically, and finds an ally in the very peculiarly accented Queen. Her chastity proves transformative once again, and the King decides to be a good husband.

Sikkal jumps to conclusions (yes, again!) and flings himself around chewing the scenery. This time Mohana has had enough and decides to resolve things. The climax is very filmi and over the top but the duelling diva personalities of the leads made it less unbelievable than it might have been.

This is such a pretty film. The ladies wear beautiful jewellery and costumes, there are lots of sparkly things, the temple locations and houses are lovely. It also has quite a timeless feel, with only a couple of scenes overtly placing the story in the late 1960s. The story is an overblown romantic melodrama but the theme of art and excellence gives the characters much more substance than I expected.  The female characters stand on their own feet, and have their own plans and desires. Padmini and Sivaji are exceptional and really made me care about their relationship even as their characters annoyed me sometimes. And of course, Padmini’s dancing alone makes this worth a look. Who won the contest you ask?  Art was the winner! 4 stars.