Vasantha Maligai (1972)

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It’s been a while since I watched some seventies masala, and what better way to indulge than K.S. Prakash Rao’s wonderfully dramatic Vasantha Maligai. Sivaji Ganesan and Vanisri star in this adaptation of Koduri Kausalya Devi’s novel about a rich prince and his romance with a middle class woman working to support her family. Like all good masala films there is a dash of everything – romance, tragedy, filmi medicine, an evil overlord, oppressed villagers and even a comedy cook, but it’s the performances from the cast along with some beautiful songs that make Vasantha Maligai well worth a watch.

Anand (Sivaji Ganesan) is the alcoholic younger son of a royal family and the film opens with a song detailing his drunken antics on a plane where Latha (Vanisri) is working as an air hostess. The opening scenes focus on Anand with Latha merely a figure in the background concerned about fastening seatbelts when the plane hits turbulence, so it’s a surprise when the next scene shows Latha returning home to her family and attention moves to her situation. I like this way of building anticipation for the next meeting between the two, while providing the back story that establishes Latha’s character.

Latha is the main wage earner in the family as her brother (Sreekanth) is a wastrel and her father (Major Sundarrajan) is crippled from an accident. Her mother (Pandari Bai) is unhappy about Latha’s job and persuades her to look for something safer where she doesn’t have to risk life and limb in an aeroplane every day. However, Latha’s subsequent venture into employment turns out to be much more dangerous than her work as an air hostess and Anand returns to the story when he rescues Latha from her amorous new boss. Anand just happens to be grooving the night away in the same hotel celebrating his birthday party, and our hero is such a style icon that he even takes time during the ensuing fight scene to fix up his hair – such panache!

Despite his drunkenness and playboy appearance, Latha accepts a job as Anand’s personal secretary where her kind heart and overall decency start to have an effect on his behaviour. However Latha is also proud and her self-esteem leads her to appear arrogant, particularly when she clashes with Anand’s servant and drinking buddy Panchavarnam (Nagesh). Nagesh is determined to keep Anand drinking to ensure his own supply of grog, while Latha is equally determined to wean Anand off the demon drink and make him a useful member of society. In the end it’s Latha’s concern for his well being that starts to win Anand over but it’s not until he injures Latha during one of his drinking binges that he finally starts to mend his ways.

While Anand is intent on drinking himself into an early grave, his elder brother Vijay (K. Balaji) terrorises the local villagers who work on the estate. Vijay is a nasty piece of work and Balaji has a great demonic laugh and seems to be thoroughly enjoying his role as a brutal despot. His wife Vimala is equally evil and plots to get rid of Latha before she can redeem Anand, although whether this is to keep her husband in control of the estate or just because she is a horrible person is hard to decide. I’m not sure who the actress is playing Vimala but she has a great sneer and is wonderfully condescending in her attitude to just about everyone else although she does seem to care for her husband and child.

Her concern is valid since Anand secretly builds a wonderful palace for the woman he adores, although he refuses to name her until the building is complete – no surprises for who his secret love is, although he does win marks for the way he finally reveals his love.

I know tastes were different back in the seventies but even then surely this would be considered over the top pastel décor:

There are endless ornate pillars, arches, and latticework with tacky silver statues practically everywhere. The indoor pool has giant lotus flower fountains, and the room where Anand reveals the face of his true love is full of mirrors (expected) and revolving pillars (totally unexpected) that don’t seem to have any purpose whatsoever. And what else will they ever use this room for? Latha however is enraptured by the palace and the discovery that Anand loves her, ending up leaping through the gardens in true masala romance style in the gorgeous song Mayakkam Enna.

However there is still a long way to go before the end and Vimala and Vijay manage to turn Ananad against Latha, ultimately resulting in Anand becoming very ill. According to his doctor his cough and general malaise are caused by his sudden drop in alcohol consumption, and no-one ever mentions his chain smoking habit as a possible issue. Aah – the seventies – life was so much simpler back then – unless you were the heroine in a masala movie of course. Poor Latha has many more trials and setbacks to endure before true love wins out, and she has plenty of opportunity to practice her emoting skills while enduring gallons of fake tears. Although she does have the benefit of industrial strength no-run mascara to ensure her make-up stays perfect despite all the crying.

Sivaji Ganesan is perfect as the hero and makes the most of both his drunkenness and his illness later in the film. He spouts dramatic lines and clutches at his chest, a convenient pillar or a chair while gazing adoringly at his glass of brandy one minute, and then switches to amused indulgence as he watches Latha try to make him work the next. It’s not all just over the top drama either, he does have some moments where the subtle raise of an eyebrow is just as effective as his later histrionics and he manages to make his character more than just a typical rich playboy. Balaji too is effective in his role as the elder brother, although I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction between the two brothers.

Vanisri looks gorgeous and wears some stunningly beautiful saris that stand out, even in the opulent surroundings of the palace. She does wear a couple more than once too, which fits nicely with her character needing to work for a living. Her Latha is a determined young woman with plenty of attitude and no tolerance for bad behaviour. I like that even when she is distraught she still fights back and has no hesitation in saying what she thinks, no matter who she is speaking to. She has good chemistry with Sivaji Ganesan too, and the romance between the two works well despite the limited time they have together as a couple.  The support cast are all good too, with Nagesh a good fit as Anand’s upstart servant, although the comedy track between him and the cook (V.K. Ramaswamy) is rather less successful.

The songs by K.V. Mahadevan are beautiful and T.M. Soundararajan provides the voice for Anand, ensuring the songs are just as dramatic as the action.

The film looks gorgeous too – the colours of the fab costumes are vivid and bright, even in my unrestored copy and I love the seriously over the top décor of both palaces. The bar in the palace is as seedy as in any hotel, Anand’s bed is a glorious ornate version of a gondola, and I almost didn’t notice the stuffed animals in the main hallway with the enormous and imposing staircase taking centre stage. This is exactly what I want from my masala films – determined hero, tragic heroine, plenty of melodrama, beautiful costumes and sumptuous settings. Vasantha Maligai delivers on all fronts and is even more readily available now that the film has been digitally restored and re-released. Highly recommended. 4 stars.

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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!

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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!

Padayappa

Padayappa

Many thanks to regular readers Violet and KB for suggesting Padayappa (1999) when I asked for Ramya Krishnan film recommendations. I believe that director K.S. Ravikumar cast her after seeing Ammoru, and I understand why. Padayappa has an amazing cast, an often incredible story, and all the trappings of a revenge drama custom built for superstar hero Rajinikanth. It also has a strong female antagonist that was perfect for Ramya Krishnan, who won the Tamil Filmfare Best Actress for the role. The support cast includes such talented actors as Sivaji Ganesan and Soundarya, along with Manivannan, Lakshmi, Nasser and even a brief appearance by Prakash Raj.

Padayappa (Rajinikanth) comes home to attend a family wedding. He falls in love with poor but honest Vasundhara (Soundarya) however overseas educated rich girl Nilambari (Ramya Krishnan) decides she must have him for herself. Her branch of the family is riddled with self-serving weaklings and their machinations help hasten the death of Padayappa’s father, played by legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan. Padayappa stays in the village to support his mother and sister, sort out the cheating relatives, and also to try and woo Vasundhara. The conflict between Nilambari and everyone who gets in her way is the main focus, although there are the obligatory comedy tracks and lots of rousing speeches.

Padayappa-SuperstarPadayappa-Padayappa the hero

In Padayappa Rajinikanth is Superstar Rajni the Hero rather than using his considerable acting skills for a fully developed character that required any subtlety. The thing I always find admirable about Rajni is that he commits to the role and to the style of film he is in, and that conviction makes even the most preposterous shenanigans seem somehow right.

Padayappa is moral, righteous and has absolutely no self-doubt. He has all the trademark Rajni mannerisms from the snappy salute with whooshing sound effects, the cigar trick, the ability to force his enemies to attack him one by one and at a pace that allows him to win, the power to make multiple cars explode just by looking at them. There is some light and shade as Padayappa gets all silly and tongue-tied around Vasundhara, or as he grieves for his family’s losses but he is less a character and more a personification of Heroic Values.

Padayappa-against the oddsPadayappa-Flexing

Confession – I am so fond of Rajni that I really don’t care that his fight scenes are implausible or his ‘dancing’ quite terrible. But I could have done without the shirtless flexing.

I rarely take issue with the (usually considerable) age gap between Rajni and his heroines. Maybe it’s because I discovered him comparatively recently so to me he has always been an elder statesman of film. And to some extent his reputation overshadows any character he plays.  He’s Rajinikanth!

Padayappa-NilambariPadayappa-Ramya Krishnan 2

Nilambari is compelling yet totally unlikeable. A spoilt girl who never took no for an answer, Nilambari often does things more likely to be done by the hero – she stalks the hero, she grabs him and kisses him in front of everyone at a wedding then saunters off casually, she torments her rival (the lowly Vasundhara) and threatens anyone who tries to obstruct her.

Padayappa-Ramya Krishnan 3Padayappa-Nilambari and Vasundhara

Ramya Krishnan gave Nilambari a beautiful façade over a twisted and arrogant core. It is great to see an actress capable of such expression and subtlety and who is not afraid to reveal the ugliness of a character’s dark side. She took it up to Rajinikanth and more than held her own in their confrontational scenes.

Padayappa-beauty status and talentPadayappa-contrast

Nilambari’s outfits improved but her attitude never did.

There is a village tradition that couples should only marry when both want to, either through love or mutual agreement. Padayappa rebukes Nilambari saying a good woman should be well-mannered and demure, so it’s not exactly progressive but I liked seeing girls get a voice too.

Padayappa-Soundarya (2)Padayappa-awkward

Vasundhara (Soundarya) is Padayappa’s ideal woman. She is a servant in Nilambari’s household, but her family used to be wealthy. Devout and domesticated as well as very pretty, Vasundhara obviously likes Padayappa too. She and Rajni seem to have nice rapport and the courtship is more about shy conversations and sideways glances. It’s quite cute if predictable. Soundarya does well to build up a character that is only lightly sketched out by the screenplay and dialogue. I did yell at Vasundhara a couple of times to STOP TRUSTING NILAMBARI. Luckily her devotion earns her some snake assisted escapes from near certain death.

Padayappa-Soundarya

Soundarya also does an excellent job of dancing around Rajni in their songs together. She often has a cheeky smile on her face, so Vasundhara might have a colourful fantasy life to balance her dutiful side.

Padayappa-wedding wishesPadayappa-promise

The dynamic between Padayappa and Nilambari was interesting as this is an instance where the hero is quite passive. Padayappa doesn’t do anything to torment or punish Nilambari other than be happily married to the one he loves. She is insignificant to him, and that is what drives her insane.

The song picturisations have all the colour and excitement I expected. AR Rahman’s music is a good fit and his use of recurring motifs helps express the characters inner lives.

Minsara Poove sees Nilambari dancing her feelings for Padayappa as he sings for Vasundhara. It’s very pretty, apart from the bits that are happening in Nilambari’s fantasy. She really needed a better dream wardrobe designer. Suthi Suthi is colourful, with giant puppets and lots of costume changes for Soundarya and Rajni. Kikku Yerudhey is a little out of place in terms of the story and I think it was only there to get Rajni prancing about with lots of young girls (Padayappa’s daughter’s school friends) and drunk uncles. Or maybe just to let the director make his trademark cameo appearance.

Padayappa-carnage

There are fight scenes, cars stunts, a murderous cow (not a euphemisism for Nilambari) and all manner of excitement as well as the revenge and drama.

Padayappa-the dating advice committeePadayappa-advice gone wrong

Padayappa’s friends are largely there to provide comic interruptions but they also do an excellent line in relationship advice and support (and hiding behind trees).

Padayappa-Sivaji Ganesan and Lakshmi

The legendary Sivaji Ganesan had a small but pivotal role as Padayappa’s father and was still quite magnetic. Lakshmi made the most of her big scenes as the surprisingly fierce mother. The always excellent Manivannan made his character despicable and yet pitiful while Nasser was just despicable.

Padayappa-Prakash Raj

And a quite svelte Prakash Raj was a nice bonus as a police officer. The casting budget for this film must have been enormous.

At almost 3 hours Padayappa does drag occasionally but just as I was thinking that surely things must settle down, K.S. Ravikumar would ramp up the action. See it for a classic village family revenge masala style story with a first class cast and loads of colour and movement. 4 stars!