Seethakaathi

Seethakaathi

Vijay Sethupathi is known for his tendency to choose rather more unconventional roles and for his 25thfilm he takes on the character of an ageing theatre actor in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi. The film is a refreshing mix of theatrical performances, comedy and drama underlying a satirical look at the film industry and despite only appearing for roughly forty minutes of the almost three hour run time, Vijay Sethupathi is the heart and soul of the film. Mouli, Rajkumar and Sunil Reddy play the other major characters, perfectly blending comedy and drama as the story moves through the world of theatre, into the film industry and finally ends up in a court room. It’s a novel tale that’s difficult to discuss without revealing the core idea that makes it such a wonderfully quirky and offbeat film, but it’s well worth investing the time to watch Seethakaathi in the cinema to appreciate the attention to detail and sheer inventiveness of the story.

The film starts with a series of scenes from theatrical performances featuring acclaimed actor Ayya Aadhimoolam (Vijay Sethupathi). These begin with his early career and progress through the decades via various classical scenes before ending with the elderly actor performing the lead role of Aurangzeb. As the actor ages, the setting for the plays changes too, starting with an outdoor performance under the stars, moving to a packed house in a new theatre and finally to a sparsely attended show with the theatre hall shabby and showing its age and lack of funds. Watching from the wings is Ayya’s friend Parasuraman (Mouli), while his fellow actors revere Ayya and provide partisan support for the performances. This opening section is focused firmly on Ayya as the lead actor in each theatrical vignette and Vijay Sethupathi is simply incredible, holding the audience attention though long classical speeches and in truth being the mesmerising and captivating theatre actor he plays. The ageing process is well done too and the prosthetics and make-up ensure Vijay is convincing as an elderly man, although it’s his posture and slow, considered movements that authenticate his portrayal.

Despite his success, Ayya lives simply and uses an auto to get to and from the theatre. He is shown as caring deeply about his grandson and takes care of his extended family of actors and theatre workers too. Early on in his career when he is offered film roles, he declines saying that he prefers to work in front of a live audience, however, with the theatre becoming less popular, Ayya is convinced firstly to advertise his shows in the local paper, and then later to ‘appear’ in films. However, when he fails to show, first in Director Sundar’s (Bagavathi Perumal) film with Saravanan (Rajkumar) and then later for producer/actor Dhanapal (Sunil), Ayya and Parasuraman are drawn into a court case.

Balaji Tharaneetharan adds his quirky brand of comedy to the scenes set within the film industry and there are cameos from film directors Mahendran and Bharathiraja along with some other unexpected faces. In Balaji’s cinematic world, directors are shown as having the short end of the stick; having to pander to their lead actor’s whims while placating their producers and walking a fine line between creativity and farce. The producers on the other hand are more unethical and grasping, with profit being the only interest for most, while fame and fortune quickly corrupt even the most innocent of actors. Adding Ayya into this world produces some wonderful comedy and Sunil in particular is excellent in his début role. His comic timing is superb and with some excellent slap-stick added, he really has some of the funniest moments in the whole film.  The difference between the slowly decaying artform of the theatre and the brash and opportunistic world of cinema is used to good effect, both for comedy and drama.  Even the courtroom scenes have plenty of humour which helps to keep the action moving along, despite the overall length of the film.

The female roles here are more peripheral with Archana having little to do as Ayya’s wife Lakshmi while Ramya Nambeesan, Gayathrie and Parvathy Nair all have one or two important scenes, but then they move into the background for the rest of the film. However, on the plus side there are no unnecessary romances and none of the female roles are there solely for glamour – in fact quite the opposite, despite the setting of the film industry. A few other faces appear briefly including Karunakaran as a lawyer but the action in the second half is mainly focused on Sunil and Mouli.

The story is enhanced by Govind Vasantha’s music which fits well into the general ambience of the film and provides contrast between the worlds of the theatre and the film industry without ever being too intrusive. Cinematographer T.K. Saraskanth provides plenty of warmth and nostalgia in the theatre scenes, well-seasoned with a patina of age, while the film shoots are brighter in keeping with the more brash attitudes and modern outlook. The pace of the film changes too. The early theatrical scenes are allowed to run as they would do in a conventional theatre without any chopping and changing, but as the story moves into the present day and into the film industry the pace picks up and humour is added. Just like in any film, action moves from one location to another instead of the steady and unchanging location of the theatre. It’s another contrast that highlights the differences between the two worlds, despite both being involved with acting and the telling of stories. Another plus point are the subtitles which are grammatically correct and in beautifully visible yellow font. Thanks to Aarti Sivakumar for following in Rekhs footsteps and enhancing the dialogue by making it easily read and totally understandable.

Overall, Seethakaathi is a novel story told in an unconventional way. The early slow-paced drama eases into more commonplace action although the premise behind the plot is still unusual and one that raises further questions about the nature of art. The disappearance of the main lead so early is a bold step that pays off thanks to the good writing and accomplished performances from the rest of the cast, while Vijay Sethupathy’s performance, although short, is so amazing and incredible that the memory infuses the rest of the film. I loved every minute of this film and was surprised to realise the length as I never felt that it was dragging or that anything was unnecessary to the plot. I would have liked more Vijay Sethupathi (of course!) but the rest of the cast are simply excellent and the story works incredibly well as is, while I felt the whole point was to have the impact of the early theatrical scenes overlay the rest of the film. I haven’t seen Balaji Tharaneetharan’s earlier film Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom as I’ve never been able to find a copy with subtitles, but I will definitely be looking out for his next release. Highly recommended for Vijay Sethupathi, the exemplary cast and an offbeat approach to an unconventional story.

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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.

Saraswathi Sabatham (1966)

When I started watching films which dealt with the classical stories involving Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I noticed a number of parallels with the legends I heard as a child growing up in Ireland. There are many books and articles which deal with the similarity between the two cultures, but every time I watch one of these films it strikes me all over again and is probably one of the reasons why I love these mythological films. The lavishness of the sets and the stunning costumes are other reasons to watch and enjoy but I really do appreciate the stories and the opportunity to learn more about the Hindu pantheon of Gods. A. P. Nagarajan made many successful mythological films in the sixties, and I’m hopeful that after the recent success of the restored classic Karnan some of Nagarajan’s films will get the same treatment and become more readily available with subtitles.

Saraswathi Sabatham is a little different from the other Tamil mythological films I’ve seen, as it uses a fictitious plot rather than stories from the Sanskrit epics. It still draws on the personalities and traits of the various Gods and there is a strong message behind the narrative but it’s a simple story which is charmingly told. The film opens with a lovely song featuring the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswathi (Savitri) and her attendants.

Trouble enters into this beautiful and peaceful scene in the form of the sage Naradha (Sivaji Ganesan) who goads Saraswathi by claiming that wealth is more important than knowledge. After successfully riling Saraswathi, Naradha heads off to confront the Goddess Lakshmi (Devika) and again causes trouble by telling her that knowledge is more important than wealth. After successfully starting a rivalry between the two Goddesses, Naradha then adds the Goddess Parvati (Padmini) into the mix by claiming that wealth and knowledge are both more important than bravery. Despite some rather lacklustre protests from their husbands, Brahma, Shiva (Harnath) and Vishnu (Sivakumar), and even though they know that Naradha is a renowned trouble-maker, all three rise to the bait. Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Parvati each vow to make a champion for their cause on Earth and prove that their attribute is the most important while making the other two champions bow down before the winner.

Generally the different aspects of the three Goddesses are well depicted with Savitri appearing regal and dignified as Saraswathi. She conveys a sense of timeless wisdom in her manner, although still storms off in a huff when she gets annoyed with Naradha. Devika’s Lakshmi is playful and charming while Padmini is motherly to her children but feisty enough to challenge Shiva before Naradha intervenes with his teasing. The three Goddesses are also incredibly sparkly and although Lakshmi manages to out-glitter the other two it’s a close run contest.

Saraswathi chooses the mute son of a temple singer to be her champion. She gives Vidyapathi the power of speech and the knowledge to make him an accomplished poet who can sing her praises throughout the kingdom.

Coincidently choosing the same kingdom, Lakshmi uses her power to make a poor beggar girl queen. The ailing king, who has no heir, decides on a method of selecting his successor which will not open him to claims of favouritism. Acting on advice from his chief minister he gives an elephant a garland and decrees that the person garlanded by the elephant will be the next ruler. As he says, this is the perfect plan that no-one can object to – except perhaps the elephant who has to chase around after Selvambikar and then throw the flowers over her head.

Finally Parvati takes a total coward, Veeramallar (Gemini Ganesan) and turns him into a brave and fearless warrior, who quickly rises to be the new army chief as a result of his prowess in saving the queen when her horse bolts.

Vidyapathi, Selvambikai and Veeramallar all squabble amongst themselves as the three Goddesses jostle for power. Each character is full of their own importance and their arrogance is well portrayed by the three actors. Sivaji Ganesan is excellent as Vidyapathi. His transformation completely changes his personality and he is wonderfully condescending and self-righteous as Saraswathi’s champion.

K. R. Vijaya is beautiful, and her change from the poverty stricken beggar girl to haughty queen is just as convincing. Her Selvambikai still has an air of vulnerability despite her arrogance and pride which makes her the most sympathetic of the three and she does also get to wear some lovely sparkly costumes. I almost didn’t recognise Gemini Ganesan here compared to the young romantic in Kalyana Parisu but he has plenty of screen presence as the blustering warrior, although his character doesn’t have quite as much background as the other two.

There are clashes between Vidyapathi and Selvambikai as the poet refuses to sing in praise of the queen. More clashes occur between Veeramallar and Selvambikai as the warrior oversteps his authority, while Vidyapathi and Veeramallar are at odds from the moment they meet. Each embodies the attribute of their patron Goddess and none of them are prepared to back down. Of course it all gets resolved with a suitably moral ending, but it’s the conflicts between the various characters that make the film so entertaining. Plus the chance to see Sivaji Ganesan in a pink outfit with matching pink outfits for his guards.

The sets are fantastic and Lakshmi’s heavenly abode is incredibly golden and extravagant. Naradha walks through the clouds (although the rainbow he stands on isn’t one found in nature), and while there aren’t very many other special effects, they tend to be well used – such as when letters appear as Vidyapathi sings about his new ability to speak.

There is a comedy track featuring Nagesh and Manorama which fits into the story although Nagesh’s character is more successful. Unfortunately subtitles don’t really convey Manorama’s speech patterns which are the basis for the humour in her character.  All the lead actors are excellent but Sivaji Ganesan really stands out as both Naradha and Vidyapathi. He has some wonderful expressions and a real twinkle in his eye while he teases everyone as Naradha, and he keeps the character light and mischievous. He has the same liveliness as Vidyapathi but gives a sense of smugness and conceit rather than the teasing nature of Naradha and his anguish and despair as the mute temple worker praying to Saraswathi is very moving.

The music by K. V. Mahadevan is beautiful and the lyrics by Kannadasan work well even in their English translation. As always I would have liked a little more dancing, although there is a short piece of Bharatanatyam by Padmini to enjoy. It’s probably not a film for everyone’s tastes as the story develops slowly and there is a lot of wordy interplay between the characters to establish the conflict. However for fans of Tamil mythological films, A. P. Nagarajan takes a simple story and aided by excellent performances from his all-star cast makes Saraswathi Sabatham an entertaining and appealing watch.  3 ½ stars.