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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Mooga Manasulu (1963)

Mooga Manasulu-title

Mooga Manasulu is a reincarnation romance directed by Adurthi Subba Rao and starring Savitri and Akkineni Nageswara Rao. Some time ago I asked around for reincarnation film recommendations, and several people mentioned Milan (Hindi, 1967). While tracking that down, I discovered Mooga Manasulu is the original. I slightly prefer the Telugu original to the Hindi remake although I like both films. The music by K V Mahadevan is just lovely and I think the cast has a small edge over their Hindi counterparts.

I seem to have a higher melodrama tolerance in reincarnation films. Perhaps it is because the core theme allows that the end is not the end so even if tragic events occur, there is still a chance for characters to have the life they deserve or at least get a do over.  When I know the outcome of a story I tend to focus more on the characters and how they get to that resolution. Mooga Manasulu’s strength is in the lead actors and their characterisations, some determined forays into scenery chewing notwithstanding. I do find the acting a little dated and stylised, but that is the same when I watch most films from the 50s and 60s in any language.

The film starts with newlyweds Gopi (ANR) and Radha (Savitri) leaving for their honeymoon. En route Gopi has flashbacks and recognises landmarks. His past comes back in a rush and he narrates the story to Radha, also present in that past life. So in effect, it starts with a happy ending and that helped tide me through. They meet Gauri (Jamuna) who had played such a role in their past, and is now an old woman waiting for death. The story shifts to the past and we relive the love triangle. ANR has a nice rapport with both actresses and it was easy to empathise with the three characters over their circumstance if not their actions.

Mooga Manasulu-Gopi and GowriMooga Manasulu-ANR and Savitri

ANR looks every inch the middle class city boy in his modern life, and is charming if a bit over the top as past life Gopi. The present day frames the core events so Gopi the orphan boatman is the central figure. He is simple, occasionally verging on stupid as is often the case when ‘simplicity’ is being portrayed. But by and large ANR doesn’t overdo the wide eyed naivete too much. There is a clear difference between Gopi playing dumb to irritate Gauri and Gopi being genuinely clueless. He is argumentative and brotherly with Gauri, showing an affectionate but not romantic interest. Gopi is keenly aware of the gulf between himself and Radha but has an innocent idealistic love for her. They sing together and he presents her with a flower every day. He might pine for years after she marries, but he has no genuine expectation of being the groom.

Mooga Manasulu-SavitriMooga Manasulu-Radha and Rambabu

Savitri is Radha. She is a very proper young lady but she has a definite personality and doesn’t take nonsense from swoony college boys.I enjoyed Savitri’s facial expressions when her suitor Rambabu was waxing lyrical about letting her win a singing competition. Her response – do what you like, I’ll win it anyway. Savitri maintains a sweetly neutral facial expression while often her eyes tell a different story. In many ways Radha is the initiator in her largely imaginary relationship with Gopi. She steals his food, she buys him clothes and sits on the floor with him. She knows the rules and decides which ones to break. Her love for him is more romantic where his affection is idealised and a bit abstract.

In song fantasies she imagines Gopi surrounded by balloons – that can only be love! But she does as her family wishes, and marries and moves away (ferried, of course, by Gopi). When she returns she is a widow and Gopi is devastated that her life has taken such a turn.

Mooga Manasulu-marriedMooga Manasulu-leaving home

Mooga Manasulu-double the woe

I tried to be sympathetic but the reactions of Gopi to Radha’s misfortune and her grief at his horror were just a bit too much. But it is a melodrama. Their closeness is the talk of town and that is bad news for all.

Mooga Manasulu-Jamuna as GauriMooga Manasulu-Gauri looks after Gopi

Thank heavens for Jamuna as at least someone could dance a bit to the wonderful songs. (Reincarnation does nothing to improve my low montage and weepy duet tolerance.) Gauri is determined to marry Gopi and had things gone to plan, she would have. Jamuna is occasionally grating as Gauri is so loud and childish but like Gopi, a lot of her acting up is done for effect. She does have a sensitive side and seems more of a young woman and less of a silly girl when Gopi is beaten up and needs care. Gauri is also the object of lust for Radha’s uncle Rajendra (Nagabhushanam) and he is not fussy about whether she consents or not. She had no luck at all with the men in her life, and her decision making was not always helpful. Her impulsiveness inadvertently brings doom upon Gopi and Radha, and she cannot stop the backlash. Gauri is overshadowed by the connection between Gopi and Radha, yet her role is pivotal and Jamuna really holds her own. In fact, she went on to reprise the role in the Hindi version along with Sunil Dutt and Nutan.

While there are lashings of impassioned dialogues, there is also a strong visual language underscoring the events too. There are recurring motifs of lamps, flames and lights that recall the momentary flickering that is a human lifespan.

Mooga Manasulu-sorrowMooga Manasulu-misery

Some things are shown rather than told – when Radha pinches Gopi’s tiffin instead of her own as a means of putting herself closer to him. And it is just so pretty to look at. Whoever was in charge of boats had their hands full as in the background of almost every scene there are sailboats gliding along the Godavari. Gopi tells Radha that the Godavari is his mother and will always carry him safely in her hands. There is a drowning in the film, and while the actual scene is a bit clumsy and not at all convincing or perilous looking, it resonates with the constant presence of the river in the characters’ lives.

Mooga Manasulu-Radhas family

The support cast are minor in terms of characterisation although they do instigate some key incidents. I did enjoy Suryakantham’s turn as the not very wicked stepmother.

Mooga Manasulu-Gopi and RadhaMooga Manasulu-balloons

The soundtrack by K V Mahadevan  is delightful and suits the mood and characters perfectly. I couldn’t locate subtitles for the songs but from all accounts the lyrics are still highly appreciated. The songs amplify what is happening in the drama rather than breaking from the narrative. The picturisations are lyrical and moody often enhancing the feeling of impending disaster.

See this for the excellent lead trio,  if you like your melodrama laid on with a trowel, or the notion of recalling a past life appeals. 3 ½ stars! (Deductions for excessive Nahiin Face)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kandan Karunai

This is one of the few Tamil mythological films by A. P. Nagarajan that I’ve been able to find on DVD with English subtitles, and despite its sometimes pedestrian and almost documentary-like telling of key events in Lord Murugan’s life, it’s still worth a watch mainly due to the great cast and an excellent soundtrack.  The film covers the major incidents which define Lord Murugan and his place in the Hindu pantheon and it gives a good insight into why he is often regarded as the God of Tamils. Despite his more minor role Sivaji Ganesan is the star of the show but Gemini Ganesan, Savitri and various other stars of the time make an appearance, including an incredibly cute 4-year-old Sridevi in her first ever role as the young Murugan.  There are plenty of glittery costumes and even more sparkly jewellery set against some incredibly colourful sets which prove that there are no colours which clash in India. It’s garish but pretty and personally I’d like to see every army adopt the gold boots worn with such aplomb by Sivaji’s Veerabaghu.

The film starts with a devotional song to Lord Murugan by renowned singer and actress K. B. Sundarambal who appears in her characteristic role of Avvaiyyar.  She introduces the story of the demon king Surapadman (Ashokan) who is terrorising the people of heaven but cannot be killed due to a boon he and his people received from Lord Shiva.

When Surapadman’s sister Ajamugi attempts to kidnap the king of the heavenly people’s wife Indrani (S. Varalakshmi) as a present for her brother, subsequent events force Lord Shiva to become involved. Rather than kill the demons directly he creates a son to deal with Sundarambal but gets rather more than he bargained for with Murugan.

Murugan is clever, even as a child and faced with six divine girls as potential nannies, he rather practically splits into six versions of himself so that they each have a child to look after.  Later his mother Parvati reunites all of the children to create the god with six faces while the divine girls are rewarded by being transformed into stars. These first few stories dealing with the young Murugan are mainly told in song, although when there is dialogue Master Sridhar as the young Murugan holds his own in scenes with the older actors Gemini Ganesan as Shiva and Savitri as Parvati.

The adult Murugan is played by Sivakumar who sadly doesn’t give Murugan much personality at all,  and he plays the role rather passively.  However the ‘good man’ Veerabaghu, who comes to help Murugan in his war against the demons, provides plenty of attitude and Sivaj Ganesan brings the film to life in this role.  He acts first of all as a messenger from Lord Murugan to Surapadman, defying the demon’s arrogance by creating his own throne and servant girls when Surapadman denies him a chair.  He is instrumental in instructing Lord Murugan how to fight the various demons and later he gets to strut around in his wonderful gold boots as the army celebrates Murugan victory.

The latter half of the film deals with Murugan’s two marriages.  The first of these is to Indira’s daughter Deivanai (K. R. Vijaya) who manages to stay cool when faced with the riot of colour that accompanies her marriage and subsequent first night with Lord Murugan.

The explanation of marriage and a woman’s place in society sounds incredibly patronising, particularly when Deivanai is told that she has to remain faithful to her husband while Murugan goes off and finds a second wife.  However, since the basic theme of an obedient wife still seems to be expounded as the ideal even in India to-day it probably sounds more reasonable to its intended audience, particularly back in 1967 when the film was made.  Deivanai is still understandably outraged when Murugan comes back with Valli and there are some funny moments as Veerabaghu has to deal with the two angry women, which he does with great charm and lots of sparkle.  K. R. Vijaya looks beautiful but doesn’t have much scope to do anything else as her character is very one-dimensional.  Jayalalitha as Murugan’s second wife Valli has a better role with a little more substance including this lovely introduction.

Valli is the daughter of a tribal chief and her friends include Manorama and Tamil comic actor Nagesh who provide a little relief from all the noble deeds and dramatic pronouncements of the other characters.  Jayalalitha is charming and her Valli is graceful and elegant even in her simple village girl persona which translates well to her rise in station as the consort of Lord Murugan.

The film is very stylish and looks beautiful but lacks the warmth of other Nagarajan films I’ve seen, particularly in the character of the older Lord Murugan.  Perhaps it’s because Murugan has outgrown the mischievousness and arrogance which livened up the early scenes and it’s hard to portray worthiness and knowledge as being anything other than a little dull. Sivakumar is pleasant enough but is eclipsed by Sivaji who has much more presence.  The battle scenes are very stylised and the demons don’t ever look to stand much of a chance against Lord Murugan and his trusty spear, although the internal squabbles in Surapadman’s court are well portrayed.  I really liked the actress who played Ajamugi who got her outrage and vindictive nature across very clearly.

The music by K V Mahadevan won him a National Award and it’s definitely  a highlight of the film with some beautiful vocals by P. Susheela in many of the songs.  This film worked more for me as an explanation of some of the symbolism I’ve seen on my visits to temples in Tamil Nadu, and a synopsis of Lord Murugan’s life, although of course I always enjoy a film with lots of sparkle! Worth watching for the songs, Sivaji and the younger Murugan – 3 stars.