Aapathbandavudu

Aapathbandavudu is a melodrama by K Vishwanath that has a bit of action, a ‘will they won’t they’ romance, ‘medicine’ found only in films and some lovely MM Keeravani songs. The memorable performances by Chiranjeevi and Meenakshi Seshadri make their characters likeable and their predicaments seem meaningful. Even with the tear soaked dialogues, dubious plot devices and inexplicable decision making, it is very entertaining, sometimes funny, and often moving.  I admit my love of Chiru helped me get past the ‘oh no they didn’t!’ moments but there are interesting ideas and dialogues that help balance out the excesses.

Good hearted low caste Madhava (Chiranjeevi) is attached to school teacher/poet (Jandhyala, who also wrote the dialogues) and his family. Apart from cow herding, Madhava is also the preferred Lord Shiva in district theatricals. Do not try and usurp his role – or this could happen to you:

Sigh. Did I mention this is a visually pleasing film?

Camera angles reflect the sense of elevation Madhava feels when he is compared to Lord Shiva, and he glows with pride at embodying the deity. But he is a country boy at heart and when his cow Ganga goes into labour his first thought is to get her off the train and into some privacy so she won’t be stressed. It’s a dynamic role that gives Chiranjeevi ample scope to use his mass hero shtick as well as delivering a nuanced performance. Most of the laughs come from situations and dialogues as well as Chiru’s knockabout physical comedy.

But I didn’t really need Madhava hamming it up in bovine (or ursine) ‘speech’.

People exploit Madhava’s generosity to make him fix their problems, but as Hema (Meenakshi Seshadri) says, it is usually him who pays the consequences. Despite his simplicity, Madhava is not stupid. He can find a loophole in an instruction as well as any lawyer, such as promising not to lay a hand on someone and still managing to rough them up. He takes on a local bigwig and employs a fighting style possibly inspired by Hanuman as well as Shiva, complete with his own vengeful song. In turn, the politician resorts to elaborate and inefficient methods to try and get Madhava out of the picture – including an attack by an enraged bull (mostly a fibreglass prop), and a murder attempt in a rigged performance. Luckily Hema realises what is going on and takes the guise of Shakti to protect Shiva. I love his dancing from around 5 minutes onwards as Shiva’s rage is unleashed.

But seriously – what is it with the rabbits?

Madhava has always called Hema a goddess, and when they dance as Shiva and Parvati he sees her as his goddess. He is very aware of the barriers between them.

Meenakshi gives Hema a distinct character and intelligence, and her emotional development is well portrayed. She is becoming physically as well as emotionally drawn to Madhava, and is both disturbed and excited by these feelings.  Hema tells Madhava she wishes he had the sense to understand what is in people’s minds, but he doesn’t. There is yearning and dreaming on both sides.

The first section is mostly rural romance with a caste barrier and a few dishooming fights, and I really didn’t expect the twist to take the form it did. Have a happy song before things get dark.

Hema’s father dies suddenly in the middle of a ceremony to honour Madhava. Chiru is brilliant as he shows the overwhelming emotions surging through the grief stricken and furious Madhava. He crafts a clay lingam and berates Shiva for his neglect despite all the prayers and offerings.  A kindly priest points out that just as Madhava could destroy what he had made, man is god’s creation and god has a right over our lives too. That seems to comfort him, but Hema is just devastated.

While Madhava is away, Hema visits her sister Lalita (Geetha) and baby niece. She is assaulted by her lecherous brother-in-law and Lalita is killed when she tries to intervene. The police are paid off and that is that. The shock, her grief over her father and sister, fear of a repeat attack – all these things cause Hema to become unstable. She exhibits extreme aggression towards men and is committed to a psychiatric hospital as her family cannot cope. Apparently a punch-up and a food fight is all it takes to fake insanity, so Madhava is soon an inmate and watching over Hema. Most of the inmates act happy and childlike and mental illness is made to seem harmless.

Rape and mental illness should not be used as cheap entertainment fodder, and there are disturbing abuses of power by characters in the film. What I liked was that other characters found these incidents as reprehensible as I did, and tried to get some justice. The mental patients had a right to decent treatment. Hema wasn’t blamed for being attacked or having a breakdown, and her family never abandoned her. There was some empathy shown for the damaged people. Not everything was swept under the carpet, but the powerlessness of the average person in the story was so frustrating.

Meenakshi plays traumatised Hema as intensely angry and determined to fight any perceived threat, which includes all men. When the drugs kick in she becomes empty eyed and withdrawn. She can’t recognise Madhava as her friend but she does eventually recognise she can trust him. When a staff member tries to rape Hema, Madhava defends her and is given shock treatment as the doctors think he is psychotic.  He is further accused of being the rapist, and his suffering is palpable as is his desperation to help her.

Chiranjeevi adds an extra layer of pretence as he switches from Madhava to Madhava (over)acting crazy, and there is a marked deterioration in his appearance once he is an inpatient.  On that note, while the idea of Chiru dressing up and having himself delivered to me in a box has some appeal, this costume may have caused the more fragile patient to have a bit of a setback. But the dancing is great!

Madhava manages to spend some time with Hema and uses a very ugly doll to reignite her memories of home and loved ones, sparked by a favourite lullaby. Compared to some of the other goings on in the asylum that struck me as quite sensible and therapeutic, and indeed she is soon released.

Madhava is left beset by fear and sadness. He has given everything he can, including selling his herd to get money to help the family, and may have ruined his own life. He berates himself for his stupidity in a powerful speech to his reflection, but can’t see any way out of this mess, or the asylum.

The ending is so filmi incredible but I still found myself on the edge of my seat. Just how could it possibly work out? And why on earth were so many people overcome with bad luck and bad judgement all at once?

There are no comedy uncles as such. Brahmanandam is Madhava’s friend and provides some physical comedy but largely this is a straight character role for him and they share a nice rapport. Allu Ramalingaiah as the uncle resents Madhava’s position in the family and has a sharp tongue when voicing his disapproval. Like Brahmi, his role is dramatic, not the comedic turn I expect from him. Sarath Babu as Sripati wants to do what is right, and is the sympathetic ‘other guy’. There is something reassuring about Sarath Babu and having him as a friend does seem to make the good guys that much more resilient. Jandhyala is very fatherly, and suits his role as the unfashionable teacher and poet who refuses to cheapen his art.

The emphasis is more on characters than causes although the film does say something about caste, dowry and other facets of society. It is wildly melodramatic, but the writer and actors invest in the central characters and there is plenty to enjoy along the way.

My DVD cover says this is a ‘must see movie before you die’. I’m not sure about that, but I encourage you to at least look at the song clips. The village scenery is pretty and beautifully filmed, the music is lovely and the dancing is excellent. But really, this is all about the performances by Chiru and Meenakshi and they won me over from the start.

3 ½ stars!

Sorry Chiru.  4 stars?

4 stars!

PS – thanks tolly for the recommendation all those months ago – where are you tolly? It’s been ages!

Sagara Sangamam

I had no luck finding a subtitled version of this film (legal or otherwise), which is a shame as I think that difficulty will stop a lot of people from watching. I’m not sure where Heather got her subtitled copy from. However this is the story of a dancer, often expressed in action rather than speech and many scenes required no further explanation.

The film uses a flashback structure so we actually meet the older Balu (Kamal Haasan) first. He is a disgruntled drunk and newspaper critic who, despite all his issues, demands a high standard for dance. He writes a scathing review of the latest dance sensation Sailaja (SP Sailaja), and rather than apologise when she confronts him, belittles her by showing her how it should be done.

Young Balu is a poor boy, dedicated to dance in many forms – and a purist. He wants to be successful but is held back by his dislike of the shallow sexified version of dance that is in demand (and is perhaps dismayed by the outfits).

Balu’s world is small. He has his mother, dance, and his friend Ragu (Sarath Babu). He also meets Madhavi (Jayaprada) who is wealthy and happy to be his patron. She gives him many opportunities, and becomes more than a sponsor in his eyes.

Each episode reveals something more of Balu’s character and how he came to be in his current situation. It’s a big challenge for a film maker, and in this instance it is handled beautifully by K. Vishwanath. The fragments fall together to make a cohesive story, and it is easy to follow the narrative.

Kamal Haasan is fantastic. Since we more or less know how the story ends before it begins, it really does require a great performance to keep a viewer engaged on the way to the foregone conclusion, and he delivers. Yes, there are some dubious wardrobe moments and bizarre posturing, but they were intentionally ridiculous, being Balu’s commentary on the commercialisation of dance. Balu dances his joy, pain and despair – he dances his heart out and it is hard to look away.

This is one of my all time favourite film dance sequences and I love it for its joyous emotion, simplicity and the brilliant editing. Despite his dedication to dance as a pure art form, Balu isn’t a total stick-in-the-mud. He adds some sweet comedic flourishes dancing with kitchen utensils, and plays up to his mother who dreams of seeing Balu on stage. Madhavi is impressed too!

Life seems set and success is just around the corner so naturally, I expected a tragedy. Because he is such a perfectionist and intolerant of things that don’t fit his vision, Balu is ill equipped to deal with setbacks. He falls into a bottle after losing his mother, missing his big dance debut and then learning that Madhavi is not free to return his love (she is married to a man who looked absolutely miserable in their wedding photos). His character frustrated me greatly. I could empathise with Balu, but I really wanted him to see sense and find a way to bend before he broke.

Sarath Babu’s role was small but he is a constant and reassuring presence and instilled Ragu with an air of integrity and generosity.  I’m not entirely sure why Ragu stuck by his friend as he seemed to give endlessly to an often ungrateful sod. There were lively glimpses of Balu’s character in a couple of scenes that made me believe in the friendship, and perhaps I missed a lot in the dialogues.

Madhavi tracks down her old friend and would be lover through the newspaper and Ragu. Her side of the story is also revealed through flashbacks. This episodic style seems apt as her love for Balu is revealed through her candid and perceptive snapshots of him long before either of them acknowledges any feelings. Jayaprada is lovely and manages to be light and funny as young Madhavi without being shrill or giggly, ably matching Kamal Haasan in the physical comedy.

She gives a sensitive portrayal of a woman who is tempted by a love she cannot act on and manages to be sympathetic despite having been, at best, deceptive by omission.

As it happens, she is Sailaja’s mother, and so Balu’s life turns back on itself as Madhavi secretly engages him as a dance teacher for the stylish but shallow girl.

The photograph motif is used a lot. One of the most moving examples is when Balu and Madhavi try to use the timer thingie to take a picture of themselves together. The photo fails and all that can be seen is a worried Madhavi and ghostlike blur of Balu. They joke that it wasn’t meant to be. Then when Madhavi departs with her husband, Balu takes and keeps a photo of the couple as a reminder to himself of what had to be. It’s one of the few pictures he takes; usually Madhavi was the one to give him beautifully composed portraits showing what he was to her.

Their reunion is full on filmi and yet simple as Madhavi confronts Balu while he is stinking drunk. Balu’s drunken cavorting avoids being a mockery of his dance despite being accessorised with a bottle, perhaps as it comes straight from his heart with no artifice. Madhavi lets Balu see her sadness and fear for him while he seems to give her an earful for not teaching Sailaja to be a better dancer. In so many ways, they haven’t changed a bit. Balu doesn’t know that Madhavi is a widow, and once more she struggles with the pressure of family against her desire to move forward with Balu in her life.

Sailaja is unhappy at this revelation about her mother’s past, but she should be practicing her dancing more than spying, and do a bit of growing up as well. Happily for her, she does come around to seeing the value in Balu’s teaching (which he does from a hospital bed). Her performance was probably the weakest for me in terms of acting, but her dance scenes with Kamal Haasan were much more satisfying. And SP Sailaja can sing, so she was certainly talented.

The structure of the story is solid, and the characters seem believable. The Illaiyaraaja soundtrack is integrated into the drama and the dances reveal so much of the characters’ inner lives they are essential to the film, not just a pleasant addition. The dance practice and performance scenes are filmed beautifully.  I can’t comment on the lyrics by Veturi or the dialogues co-written by K. Vishwanath and Jandhyala (who wrote dialogues for Aaradhana) as I just made up what I thought was happening in some scenes.

The ending is over the top but despite all the silly trappings the leads keep it (mostly) restrained to let their characters’ emotions shine through. If nothing else grabs you, this film captures some exceptional dance performances. I wish I could fully appreciate the characterisations, as I did feel disconnected at times due to my lack of language skills, but it wasn’t a huge issue.

I give Sagara Sangamam 4 ½ stars.

Heather says: This is such a beautiful film and although I keep returning to it time and time again to watch the incredible dance scenes, there is so much more to enjoy in this film. To start with the dancing, there probably isn’t anyone other than Kamal Hassan who could manage to make it all look so effortless. The classical dance scenes are superb, and even the contemporary song (with that truly hideous yellow suit) is well added in to showcase his skills. Jayaprada is beautiful in her dance scenes and S P Sailaja is excellent, but it’s still Kamal Hassan who draws my eye each time. I absolutely love the dance scene in the kitchen which is fresh, spontaneous and makes such good use of the setting.

Leaving aside the amazing dancing, this is a really well told story. An alcoholic ‘hero’ is unusual and, since I work in the field, I like that it’s a useful public health message as well. The romance between Balu and Madhavi develops slowly and naturally considering their joint love of the arts and despite the difference in their social standing. The use of photography to link the story together is cleverly done and every image adds a little more to the story. Sarath Babu is excellent as Balu’s long suffering friend, and his generosity provides a stark contrast to Balu’s increasing selfishness as he beomes dependant on the demon drink. However Raghu is not a perfect saint either since he doesn’t scruple to use Balu’s guilt against him as a way to blackmail his friend into teaching the spoilt brat Sailaja. Of course it’s all for Balu’s own good and the fact that he gets treatment for his sick wife Sumathi is a bonus. All of the supporting cast is excellent here and K. Vishwanath develops their characters in enough detail to make their actions understandable and relevant.

I really like the way each flashback occurs when something which is happening in the present triggers a memory of a past event by one of the characters. It seems very natural and helps to link the past and the present. The film is very much about the arts: Raghu is a writer and poet, Madhavi is a singer and Balu’s dream that they all perform together seems a natural extension of their friendship. It’s also an excuse to have some beautiful songs and once again Illayaraja provides music that I love and I just wish I knew what the lyrics meant.  There are a few things I don’t enjoy quite so much. There are some really ridiculous co-incidences and the last few scenes are overly melodramatic. But then again this is a film from the eighties and we all know that wasn’t a time for restraint! This is a 5 star film for me.