Nagara Haavu is a classic film from Kannada cinema featuring Vishnuvardhan in his first lead role. Director Puttanna Kanagal based his 1972 screenplay on three novels by T.R. Subba Rao, telling the story of an angry young man, his love affairs and his relationship with his old primary school teacher, who seems to be the only one who has any patience with his outbursts. The film is set in the 1950’s and although many of the social conventions are now outdated, there are some that still apply to-day; while Ramachari’s struggle against conformity continues to be a popular theme in modern cinema. At almost 3 hours Nagara Haavu is a bit of an epic, but it’s an interesting film to watch and essential viewing to anyone interested in the evolution of cinema in Bangalore.
The film begins and ends with the same images of rocks and the sun viewed through a red filter, presumably an indication that despite the tumultuous events portrayed, by the end nothing has actually changed. The young Ramachari of the opening scene is a rude and angry child with terrible hair, who grows into a rude and angry young man, still with a terrible haircut. This time perhaps he has reason for his anger since his teacher instructs him to remove his trousers when he is caught cheating at college. It seems rather extreme, but Ramachari (Vishnuvardhan) has a reputation as being a bad student and his reaction is even more over the top. He decides that if he is considered to be villainous, then he will become villainous, going to his professor’s house and smashing the windows. Not content with this wilful destruction of property, Ramachari then ties Shyamrao (Lokanath) to a lamppost and leaves him there overnight to the horror of Tungamma (Leelavathi), Ramachari’s old schoolteacher’s wife. And me! How he avoids being arrested is baffling!
Ramachari seems to be angry with everyone and everything, but the reason for his apparently all-consuming rage is never fully explained. It may be partly due to frustration with his religious parents who revere God above all else, and seem to have little time for their son. Possibly his anger is a reaction to being forced to study when he clearly has no interest or aptitude, but whatever the reason, Ramachari has a well-deserved reputation for belligerence in his home town.
The only person who seems to have any time for Ramachari is his old schoolteacher Chamiah (K.S. Ashwath) who has practically adopted Ramachari and considers him to be his son. His wife Tungamma also has a soft spot for the troubled youth and between them they act as mentors and advisors whenever Ramachari finds himself (yet again) in trouble. The relationship between Ramachari and Chamiah is well written and excellently portrayed by Vishnuvardhan and K.S. Ashwath through both the good and the bad times. There is real warmth between them, and Vishnuvardhan does an excellent job of capturing the respect and love that Ramachari feels for his mentor. For his part, K.S. Ashwath is compassionate and stern as required while making it clear that he can see beneath the surface anger to the possibility that Ramachari represents. The dialogues between the two are the best parts of the film, as Chamiah tries to instruct Ramachari how he should behave in society, while Ramachari does his best to point out the double standards and hypocrisy that make him rebel against convention.
Ramachari’s best mate is Varadha (Shivaram), a man who knows the value of product, and who happens to have a beautiful sister Alamelu (Aarathi). When Alamelu is harassed by local sleaze Jaleel (Ambareesh) her brother is too much of a wimp to do anything, so he recruits Ramachari to deal with the problem. Ramachari has seen Alamelu, so his price for helping her dissuade her unwelcome suitor is to marry her himself. Neither Varadha nor Alamelu have any problem with this plan but it’s a different story for Alamelu’s parents who have no desire to marry their daughter to the local rowdy.
There is much drama when Alamelu steals away to tell Ramachari of her impending marriage to someone else and it’s up to Chamaiah to persuade Ramachari that Alamelu’s parents should decide her fate. After much emoting, Ramachari is eventually persuaded that sacrificing his love is the noble thing to do although it’s clear that Chamaiah doesn’t believe this at all and is simply bowing to conventional wisdom and the presumed dictates of society.
This has serious consequences for Ramachari’s relationship with Chamaiah when he later discovers that instead of living in luxury, Alamelu has been forced into a life of prostitution. This could have been one of those terribly over-dramatic scenes so common in seventies Bollywood, with Alamelu dying rather than continue to live in shame, but instead Puttanna Kanagal gives her a beautiful song and impassioned speech where she says that she wants to live! OK, she’s not happy, but it’s better than the usual attempt at suicide at least. There is also a lovely moment of symmetry too when this time it’s Alamelu who walks away from Ramachari and sacrifices her love for his sake. It’s all wonderfully melodramatic as Alamelu recites her story to Ramachari beside a red-lit fountain.
After Alamelu is married, Ramachari is pursued by Margaret (Shubha), a girl from his class in college who is determined that he should fall in love with her. She is portrayed as being more modern, chasing after Ramachari shamelessly, wearing Western clothes and declaring her love quite openly. Margaret seems to get away with all this because she is Christian and the daughter of a single mother – which is apparently all we need to know to realise that she is no better than she should be. Once again Chamaiah is recruited to break up the relationship as Margaret’s mother Mary (M.N. Lakshmi Devi) has much bigger plans for her daughter while Ramachari’s parents are mortally offended at the idea that their son would marry a Christian. The question is, will Ramachari listen to his long-time mentor or has he lost faith after what happened to Alamelu?
There is plenty of over-the-top drama in Nagara Haavu and some of the best ‘death stares’ I’ve seen for a long time. Everyone overacts like crazy, Ramachari throws chickens at Margaret after she teases him in class, her mother accuses him of rape, while Chamaiah clambers over rocks trying to find Ramachari to drag him off to apologise to the latest person he has offended. All apparently part of a normal day in downtown Chitradurga!
As well as showing the relationship between a troubled youth and his kindly teacher, the film paints a picture of a dysfunctional society where appearances and prestige matter more than love and happiness. Chamaiah believes that Ramachari just needs time to mature and indeed he becomes a more responsible person when he is allowed to leave college and work for a wage. The rest of the town however brand him a troublemaker and don’t allow him the opportunity to ever become anything else. No matter how much Chamaiah tries to fit Ramachari into the role that society demands, he is never going to conform, particularly when Chamaiah realises just how shallow and self-centred society has become.
Nagara Haavu is deservedly classed as a classic film with good performances, a well-written story and engaging music from Vijaya Bhaskar. Despite the length, the film doesn’t drag and is a fascinating look at times past, society attitudes (and fashions!) and family dynamics of the time. Some thing have changed, but many of these issues are still a concern even now, making the film relevant and not as outdated as it first appears. The dialogues might seem stilted, but the ideas behind them are valid and used to good effect. I enjoyed Nagara Haavu and recommended watching it for Visnuvardhan, Aarathi and K.S. Ashwath, the excellent screenplay plus beautiful shots of Chitradurga and countryside. 4 stars.