Manichitrathazhu

I love this film! It was probably the very first SI film I ever bought back in the days before I had any idea about the industry. I watched Bhool Bhulaiyaa in the cinema and then read that the dancing was better in the original movie, so immediately hunted down a copy. And really, it’s not only the dancing that is better! Manichitrathazhu was released in 1993 and has since been remade in a number of different versions but of the three I have seen, the original is definitely the best.

In contrast to the more comedy orientated Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Manichitrathazhu actually works well as a ghost story with some genuinely eerie scenes and unexplained happenings to set up the story. Nakulan (Suresh Gopi) and his wife Ganga(Shobana) move in to his ancestral home, Madampilli house to live for a few months while Nakulan works in the area.

The house is reputedly haunted by the vengeful ghost of a Tamil dancer Nagavalli and that of her murderer, the rich nobleman Sankaran Thampi. Their spirits are said to be held in a room of the mansion and the door is locked shut with the ‘ornate lock’ of the title. Ganga and Nakulan both disbelieve totally in such fanciful ideas, but Ganga is fascinated by the story of the doomed dancer and with the help of Nakulan’s cousin Alli (Rudra) she contrives to open the room. To my disappointment, and possibly hers as well, no vengeful spirits rush out, and she only finds the dust of ages and a box of Nagavalli’s jewellery.

Once the door is opened however there are a number of strange happenings around the mansion. Various articles catch fire and the sound of ghungroos and music are heard at night.  The head of the family Thampi (Nedumudi Venu) and his bumbling brother Unnithan (Innocent) move their families into the house to try to protect the couple as well as attempt to confine the spirits back to their room.

This part of the film is captivating with the juxtaposition between science and superstition and the various ways the family deals with the apparent ghostly manifestations. On the one hand Thampi and his family tie charms to ward off evil spirits, employ priests to hold ceremonies and engage a tantric expert to pacify the spirits, while Nakulan steadfastly refuses to believe in any supernatural entity and calls in his friend and renowned psychiatrist Dr Sunny Joseph (Mohanlal). Although from Dr Joseph’s introduction it’s hard to know which of the two methods is the better choice.

Nakulan suspects his ex-fiancée, Thampi’s eldest daughter Sreedevi, of causing all the incidents around the house. Sreedevi is a quiet and withdrawn girl who apparently has an unfortunate horoscope and who also seems to turn up at the wrong place every time something strange happens. With the arrival of Dr Joseph the story shifts from the supernatural into more of a psychological thriller as the psychiatrist does not believe in the existence of a supernatural entity either and decides that there is a mentally disturbed human agency behind the disruptions. Dr Joseph goes about tracking down the culprit with his unique methods, and then has to deal with the consequences of his discovery.

The only thing I don’t like about this film is the character of Dr Joseph despite Mohanlal’s best efforts and terrible shirts. I find that the over-the-top comedy aspect detracts from the more serious side of the story when it starts to delve into the issues of mental illness, and a lot of the antics Dr Joseph engages in are just irritating. However it’s not supposed to be an exploration of mental illness and I don’t find the attitudes of the other characters annoying in the same way. The patronising and condescending manner of Dr Joseph in his ‘comedy moments’ is horrible though and I don’t like way his character sleazily tries to woo Sreedevi at the same time as’ accusing’ her of mental illness. And yet, when the action takes over and the jokes stop, Dr Joseph is much more likeable and I wish that Mohanlal had played him as a straighter character for the whole film.

Shobana on the other hand is amazing as Ganga. She plays the character so well and thoroughly deserved the awards she won for her performance. Vinaya Prasad as Sreedevi doesn’t get as much screen time but she plays the quiet and unassuming character with the appropriate dignity and reserve. The two uncles Thampi and Unnithan together form a ‘comedy-light’ track and it’s generally well done and fits into the story without detracting from the main action. However the comedy track involving the tantric expert Brahmadattan Nampoothirippadu (Thilakan) is a little too slapstick for my taste and just isn’t very funny. Suresh Gopi is fine as the rather utilitarian husband dealing with the unexplained happenings in his ancestral home, but he is frequently overshadowed by Shobana and Mohanlal. The other minor characters are all good in their roles and I really like the actress who plays Unnithan’s wife. She had some great comedy moments and was very natural in her role.

I haven’t said much about the dancing which was the whole point of watching this film initially, but the highlight is the final climax song. It does give away the identity of Nagavalli though so skip it if you don’t want to know. Otherwise click here for the best depiction of Nagavalli I’ve seen.  The whole sound track by M. G. Radhakrishnan is lovely too and this is another beautiful and moving song from the film.

As seems to be the case with most Malayalam films, no matter what the subject matter, the film looks beautiful. The house used for the shoot appears to be a labyrinth and the various characters often have to run up and down stairs, along corridors and through innumerable doors to get to the scene of the action. Nothing ever seems to be shot against a blank wall, but instead is filmed against doorways, windows or beautiful shots of the country side. While no actual ghost is seen, there are shadows and suggestions all made more chilling by the use of claustrophobic corridors and shapes glimpsed through far doorways. The décor of the house is also well thought out with the couple’s room having the feel of one where the occupants are only there for a short time. And of course I also noticed the clocks.

I love the music and the whole feel of the film. It’s a great story by Madhu Muttam and Fazil has done an excellent job with his direction to bring it to life. My only complaint is with Mohanlal’s overly jocular psychiatrist and I can manage to live with that since the rest of the film is so well presented. No matter how many times I watch it I still get totally involved in the story again and eagerly wait for that wonderful dance. 4 ½ stars

Temple says:

I really like ghost stories, and Indian cinema has some good examples of spooky, understated and haunting (ha!) films. I like a lot about Manichitrathazhu, and totally agree with Heather on the beauty of the house and location that add so much to the atmosphere, and the excellent dancing in the denouement. Shobana is a compelling and beautiful heroine, and gives Ganga a great deal of emotional depth and energy. There is much more to Ganga than the dutiful wife who mutely follows her husband’s lead, and Shobana brings her to life. But Mohanlal really spoils it for me. I disliked his characteriation of Sunny Joseph on first sight and thought he failed miserably to balance the unconventional prankster with the more serious practitioner and friend. Watching it again, and knowing how it ends, there is no suspense left to distract from the shortcomings of how things happen. This may be considered sacrilege but if I could play mix’n’match, I would replace Mohanlal with Rajnikanth (in the Tamil version, Chandramukhi) who at least has enough charisma to overcome a fairly silly character. And I would probably want Vidya Balan (Bhool Bulaiyaa) or Anushka Shetty (Nagavalli, the Telugu sequel to Chandramukhi) in the supporting cast with Vinaya Prasad as long as they left the dancing to Shobana! I initially watched the film on the strength of one dance sequence and that is still the most memorable element for me. The songs from the Tamil and Hindi versions are also worth a look even if you don’t fancy the whole film, especially the final classical styled songs that feature Vineeth.

Manichitrathazhu is a pretty looking film, has some excellent atmospheric scenes (although it never caused me the slightest goosebump), and the soundtrack is pleasant. I recommend watching it, but unlike Heather I don’t think it stands repeat viewings unless you have a serious interior design fetish, a very poor memory or a very high tolerance for Dr Sunny.  3 1/2 stars.

Rudraveena

Rudraveena is a quiet contemplative film, written and directed by K Balachander, about the responsibility of the individual in matters of caste and society. Chiranjeevi must have felt strongly about making this film as he produced it. I only wish someone would release a decent quality DVD with subtitles as it is just beautiful, and I know I must have missed a lot by not understanding the dialogues. Having said that, the things I don’t fully understand are more the cultural and social aspects, and that is usually not spelt out anyway. I am torn between wanting to write about every little detail and not saying anything about the story so you can discover it for yourself. I really do love Rudraveena and think it is one of Chiranjeevi’s best performances in an engaging and intelligent story.

A man throws a banana towards a blind woman begging, and she accidentally knocks it away. A young Brahmin boy watches her struggle to find the fruit, but does nothing as he cannot touch her or the food that she has touched. He is troubled by her situation, but doesn’t act. Eventually someone does come to her aid, and he also gives the boy a lecture on the futility of mouthing a mantra if you do not act in accordance with the values contained in the prayers. This incident infuses the story, told in an extended flashback as Suryam (Chiranjeevi) shows a visiting minister around the apparently perfect village.

Suryam is that boy all grown up – the son of famed musician Bilahari Sastry (Gemini Ganesan). Suryam is a gregarious fellow, interested in what people do and how they live. He loves music and expresses his feelings through song, seeing it as a way of sharing and giving happiness.

Music in the Sastry home is ceremonial, devotional and not for fun or for the people. The father is very traditional and conservative, living in strict adherence to caste rules. Bilahari Sastry raises his voice in song to drown out the pleas of someone needing help, and would rather be on time for a concert than help a dying commoner. And he pulls this face a lot:

He is a difficult man, but not a total monster. It’s obvious he has done the best he could after his wife died, and he misses her guidance or support.  There is already tension in the family purely because of the different personality types and this is heightened when Suryam meets Lalita (Shobana).

He sees her dancing on a hillside opposite a temple, ogled by men from their sacred vantage point. I think Lalita makes a point about men worshipping goddesses when women are excluded, and whatever she said it makes an impression. Suryam has a statue placed on the hilltop and is surprised to see the villagers lined up for pooja within shouting distance of a temple that didn’t include them.

Shobana has good chemistry with Chiranjeevi and although I know there is an age difference, it isn’t obvious and they look great.  Lalita isn’t a pushover to be impressed by the Brahmin boy and he doesn’t act entitled. Having the lower castes represented by the beautiful Lalita could have easily fallen more into the fairytale romance but thanks to some good writing and the excellent performance by Shobhana, Lalita is strong and individual.

Their shared love of music is another form of communication and bonding that helps this seem like a potential life partnership rather than a fluffy instant romance. Illaiyaraja’s songs are set into the narrative so they are part of the story, and the minimal dancing is in character for Lalita and Suryam so it all flows beautifully. The music is a real highlight of Rudraveena.

Their flirtation is fun as Lalita keeps Suryam guessing, which he kind of  enjoys,  and they do all those little things that are only really funny for people in the giddy stage of love. She’s not all cool and calm though, as she changes her sari five times before he arrives to visit. Lalita refuses to be cowed by Sastry’s disapproval and is clearly confident in her relationship with Suryam.

Lalita’s family are the opposite of the Sastrys. When Suryam arrives he is greeted with hugs and an extemporaneous welcome song introducing each family member and what they were doing. It’s an attractive environment for a boy who feels stifled at home.

Not that home life is all grim. Suryam confides a little in his sister-in-law about his love and she mocks him gently even as she is pleased to think he might soon marry. Prasad Babu gives an appealing performance as Suryam’s mute brother.

He is an observer of the tension in the house, and he uses music to force communication or at least momentary harmony. He is also a kind of moral compass, miming to his father that donning the trappings of religion doesn’t make you close to god if you don’t also do the right thing.

Bilahari will not tolerate what he sees as Suryam’s rebelliousness. As punishment, he takes on another student and promotes him to favoured disciple status. This guy is a fraud who pretends to be pious and dedicated but really he just wants to marry daughter Sandhya (the beautiful Devilalita). That relationship is quite nice, but the character is there more to be a contrast with Suryam who is outwardly not the ideal son but is a good and honourable man. Of course, Bilahari learns of his error eventually but he is a proud man and the damage has been done.

After yet another disagreement Suryam leaves the family home, but he doesn’t just marry Lalita and live happily ever after. Their wedding is interrupted by drunken louts out to cause him trouble, including an uncharacteristically nasty and dramatic Brahmi.

Suryam stops the ceremony rather than allow Lalita to be insulted further. He takes on a challenge to reform the village before he can marry and Lalita supports him despite her heartache. I think she is sympathetic partly because she wants to be certain that Suryam is sorted before they start a life together.

I liked that Lalita was active in the reforms, showing that a young low caste woman could be a leader too. Suryam sees that people don’t always have the motivation or resources they need, and he can help. It’s not as preachy as it sounds as he is a doer not just a talker, and is as likely to be driving a tractor as making a speech. It’s clear that he feels his position requires him to do something to raise people up rather than keeping them down. And I think there’s also a bit of wanting to show his father who was right.

Yes it is a little heavy handed at times but the romance and more fun elements provide the necessary balance.  The ending made me a little angry at Sastry jumping on the bandwagon, but you cannot get a clearer message than this:

Rudraveena says people can create change by doing something in their own community, and it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale to achieve a great result. I like that philosophy and it is as fresh and pertinent today as it was in 1988. All that thought provoking material, and a sweet love story to boot. And really, if you can resist Chiranjeevi in this role I just don’t know what’s wrong with you. 5 stars!

Thalapathi

Thalapathi was one of the first Tamil films I saw. It was before my ‘Southern Film Industry Addiction’, I barely knew who Rajnikanth was and had absolutely no idea about Mammootty. In fact I’d totally forgotten he was in this film until I rewatched it recently – thankfully I know much better now.

Written and directed by Mani Ratnam, Thalapathi is at heart much more of a masala film than his usual fare. It features most of the necessary ingredients: an abandoned child, perpetually teary mother, romance, brothers who don’t know they are related, the essential Amrish Puri as the villain and a significant article of clothing. Add to that plenty of action and fight scenes, great songs, and beautiful cinematography, plenty of classical references and it all adds up to a very full 2 and a half hours of cinema.

The film starts in black and white with a young unmarried girl giving birth during the festival of Bogi. The opening scenes of Kalyani’s rejection by an older woman and shots of the rural countryside serve to explain that her child has no future in such a traditional community. She puts the baby into a train in the hope that somehow someone else will give him a better life. These opening shots are some of the best in the film and it’s a shame that my copy of the DVD seems to have lost the original quality.

The colour kicks in with the year of 1987 when the baby has grown up to be Surya (Rajnikanth). He is a man with a firm belief in justice who is determined to help others in his community in any way he can. This often seems to be by beating senseless an offender and in the course of such action he ends up fatally injuring Ramana, one of Devaraj’s men. Enter Mammootty in a very well played role as the head of the local gang of rowdies, who initially threatens Surya with dire consequences if his man dies.

However when Devaraj finds out Ramana’s crimes, he arranges for Surya’s release from jail and tells him that his actions were right and just. I can’t say that I agree with his assessment but it makes Surya become his loyal Thalapathi and the two become inseparable. Lots of drama here, so time for a song break.

Surya’s charitable reputation helps to legitimise Devaraj’s rather more shady one and they soon rule the entire area, much to the displeasure of Devaraj’s rival Kalivardhan (a dubbed Amrish Puri). There is bad blood between these two and it’s inevitable that there will be a clash. However most of the story concerns Surya’s relationship with Devaraj and sadly Kalivardhan is only seen occasionally throughout the film. Amrish Puri in a really terrible pair of glasses isn’t as menacing as usual but manages to be evil enough just when it really counts.

In the course of his good works, Surya meets Subbu (Shobana), a Brahmin girl who falls in love with him. Perhaps it was the wolverine hair-style or the commanding way in which he demands her jewellery but she’s obviously quite smitten.

Her father wants nothing to do with a thug who has no idea who his parents were and rejects the match. In the middle of all this, Surya’s real mother ends up moving to the area when her legitimate son Arjun (Arvind Swamy) is appointed as a Collector. Kalyani has married a very understanding man who knows all about her first baby, although Arjun doesn’t know that he has an elder half-brother. The two brothers have a common sense of justice but in every other way are complete opposites. Arjun is a good and law-abiding man who is committed to cleaning up the town, although perhaps he should have started with the police corruption rather than take on the town rowdies. There are inevitable clashes between Surya, Devaraj and the police as Arjun tries to stop their version of law and justice in the town. And Kalivardhan is luring in the background adding in his malicious attempts to get rid of the pair as well. Finally the significant cloth comes to light but Surya refuses to give up his friendship with Devaraj despite discovering his brother.

Although there is plenty of action in the film, the main focus is on the relationship between Surya and Devaraj. Mani Ratnam has based it on the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana from the Mahabharata and there are a number of references to this story throughout the film. It starts out with Devaraj as the leader and Surya as the faithful follower, but as their friendship develops they each begin to change the other and the dynamic between the two has altered by the final scenes. Both Rajnikanth and Mammootty are both excellent and work well together to bring their friendship to life. It’s mainly in the little touches, such as the way they only have to look at each other to acknowledge their next venture.

Surya’s relationships with his mother, Subbu and others are important to the overall story but his character is defined by his strong sense of justice and unwavering support of Devaraj, no matter what. Even when Devaraj persuades him to marry Ramana’s widow Padma, Surya is unable to say no. Rajni has plenty of action scenes and is exuberant in these, but he also makes the most of his more dramatic moments. So much is conveyed in one particularly memorable scene in the temple, where both Suyra and Kalyani both look yearningly towards a train as they hear the distant whistle. They are both standing close together but neither have any idea who the other is and their obvious sadness is all the more poignant as a result.

Mammootty is more restrained in his role as Devaraj relies more on fear and his entourage rather than actual physical violence. He has Surya for all of that after all. His portrayal of the more corrupt and devious Devaraj is excellent and he brings a real sense of authority to the character. The other members of the cast are all very good in their supporting roles, especially Srividya who is convincing as the mother who can never forget the child she lost. I was surprised that she had told her husband about her first baby, but Jai Sankar brought a lot of compassion to his role as Arjun’s father and was very credible as a supportive husband and father.

The other standout feature of the film is the music by Ilaiyaraja. The sad Chinna Thayaval is beautiful and recurs as background music throughout the film. The other songs are all upbeat with some great dancing and I wasn’t surprised to see that Prabhu Deva was one of the choreographers.  The rather different Sundari Kannal is interspersed with some Samurai action and seems to be a tribute to director Akira Kurosawa. I haven’t included it here as it is very long and I’m a little concerned about the horses in some of the fight sequences but Rajni in a top knot is definitely worth a look.

The only issue I have with this film is that it is very violent in parts. The first fight scene with Ramana and the episodes of police torture are quite graphic and go on just a bit too long for me. But to counter that, the two leads are fantastic and really at their best, the music is beautiful and memorable, and it’s a very well told story. 4 stars.

Temple says: I like watching earlier Rajni films (and this is the 90s) as it reminds me just how good an actor he is, legend status aside. I have recently watched Darna Veera Suura Karna, so the story was fresh in my mind and I think this translation to modern gang empires was very effective. Deva and Surya are full of certainty and righteous power, and stride through the landscape looking larger than life. Mammootty and Rajni are brilliant and play off each other so well, and that’s a good thing as other elements of the story are underdone. Deva’s gang members were just a vague presence, and I don’t think I recall any of their names. They were just there for contrast and to portray Deva’s court of followers. The female characters are strong in concept but weak in presence apart from a couple of key scenes. Shobana was lovely as Subbu, which is all that was required of her,  and Bhanupriya gave an excellent and near silent performance as Padma. Srividya was good but her character was quite static and she didn’t do much more than weep so I was left wanting to see more from a woman who clearly had a complex situation to navigate. I admired Santosh Sivan’s artistry as he used light and camera angles to create a feeling that these men were almost forces of nature, and the landscapes were stunning. The fight scenes in the rain were lovingly filmed to capture the beauty of the splashing water and the bodies were more of a method of breaking the trajectory of the showers than the object of the scene. I don’t think it’s an overly violent film as many of the gory scenes are shown as aftermath rather than explicit or graphic scenes of how people got into that state. What was explicit was also shown to have consequences so it isn’t mindless violence either. It all fit into the relationship of Deva and his general with their warlike mentality. I don’t love the soundtrack, but I do like it well enough and thought most of the slower songs were excellent. I was ready to stick a fork in my ear at the umpteenth reprise of Chinna Thayaval but I blame Mani Ratnam for that as it was just relentless and overused. It’s a great action infused tale of loyalty and conflict, it looks stunning, and it features two of the best actors working in Indian cinema. 4 stars from me!