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!

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)

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Gundamma Katha

Gundamma Katha is a classic film from 1962 and is considered to be one of the last great films to be produced by B. Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani under the Vijaya Studios banner, which also gave us Mayabazar. It features an all-star cast, lovely production design and  a lyrical score by Ghantasala.  Sadly the Shalimar DVD has really ordinary subtitles which detract from what is supposedly a well written story.

Perhaps they meant thirsty? Who knows.

The story revolves around Gundamma, a wealthy widow who has one spoilt and indulged daughter, one Cinderella like step-daughter from her husband’s first marriage and one largely absent son. Gundamma rules the household with an iron fist and her reputation as a termagant is well known in the village. She wants to make an advantageous match for her daughter Saroja but her wastrel brother Gantayya throws a spanner into the works every time. As Gundamma casts her matrimonial nets wider she contacts wealthy Ram Bhadrayya, a friend of her deceased husband, who has two eligible sons. While Ram Bhadrayya wants to help his former friend’s family, he is concerned about the values and character of the girls and decides to put them to the test.

NTR plays Anjaneya or Anji and it is decided that Laxmi (Savitri) is the best match for him. Since Laxmi is effectively a servant in the household, he poses as a labourer in order to get closer to her, and to appear to Gundamma as an appropriate suitor.  This part of the deception seems very typically filmi and almost justified, since Laxmi does deserve better than the life she has. NTR is charismatic as the exuberant Anji, and Savitri is beautiful as Laxmi. Their relationship develops over conversations and teasing, and they develop a true appreciation for each other. With a jaunty song Anji points out to Laxmi that women can do whatever they want to do in the world, and she should have no fear in letting herself be more than an unpaid servant to her step-mother. Sadly this enlightened attitude turns out to be lip service as the story progresses, but the partnership of Laxmi and Anji does seem to be a happy and balanced one.

Ram Bhadrayya’s second son Raja (ANR) woos the privileged and spoiled Saroja (Jamuna) and finally marries her. Playing out a drama concocted by his father and Anji, Raja tells Saroja that everything was a lie and that he is not even Ram Bhadrayya’s son.  After some more drama Saroja is forced to choose between her home and comforts or leaving to an unknown future with her drunk and possibly criminal husband. This deception is all to ensure that Saroja has a proper wifely attitude and will look after her husband in the manner he feels appropriate. Saroja doesn’t seem to deserve all of the heartache she is put through, as her attitude already appears quite appropriate for the wife of a wealthy man. It doesn’t seem likely that she will have to clean pots and pans, plough fields and cook once she is established in her new household but she is forced to learn as she lives in near poverty with her husband. Why her father-in-law feels this trickery is necessary for her to become a better wife is not apparent to us. She actually seemed to be mellowing and becoming more empathetic as her romance blossomed with Raja. It certainly wasn’t a palatable part of the plot and made the second half of the film much less enjoyable.

Throughout all of the drama, ANR manages to instil the character of Raja with enough charisma that Saroja’s devotion to him is understandable to some degree, although her behaviour is clearly driven as much by wifely duty and the expectations of society as anything else. Jamuna is excellent in her early scenes as the lazy daughter and also as the bewildered wife whose world rapidly falls apart. Despite this couple’s rather dubious story there are some lovely duets which are beautifully depicted and in these scenes the two actors have great  rapport with each other.  The growing closeness is illustrated by the proximity of their sleeping mats – initially on opposite sides of the room, by the time ANR decides to reveal the truth they are happily snuggled up next to each other.

The cinematographer Marcus Bartley has a reputation for creating beautiful moonlit lighting effects, shown to great effect here and in Mayabazar.  The costumes are lovely, and very much serve to illustrate the status of each character. A simple change in clothing is all it takes to make a prince a pauper and back again. Initially Laxmi wears cotton saris and simple blouses while Saroja gleams in silk and jewels. As the sisters’ fortunes change, so do their wardrobes.

The film excels in the story of Gundamma, played by Suryakantham (who apparently made her career out of playing wicked stepmother type characters).  Gundamma’s scenes with the argumentative and shifty Durgamma (Chayadevi) are well written and enough to make anyone duck for cover when the two start fighting. Her clashes with the various members of her family are realistic and energetic.  Her final humiliation, which eventually results in her reconciliation with Laxmi, is a nice twist to the story and a suitably sentimental resolution to the melodrama.

The lead actors were all at their peak when Gundamma Katha was made and they seem to share an easy rapport. In particular the many wordless exchanges between the two brothers are great to watch as they convey so much through their posture and gestures alone. Savithri and Jamuna are beautiful and show distinct personalities without ever falling into caricature. The sisters’ relationship is not as friendly as the boys’, but they exhibit familial love and loyalty regardless of their difference in status. Once again, the comedy track is hit and miss and we have different opinions as to what succeeded.

The film does end in a rushed few scenes of everyone reconciling. We were disappointed by this as it seemed a bit under-written and hasty, and also because there was never any sense of owing the ladies any explanation for what had been done to them. Granted, Gundamma, Laxmi and Saroja were none the worse off in a material sense at the end of the story, but they had been lied to and manipulated and that was hard to swallow. Certainly we expected more anger or argument between the couples. Setting up three strong and intelligent women and having them turn into doormats by the end of the film was a major let down.

We haven’t really mentioned the lovely L Vijayalakshmi who played the boys’ cousin Padma.  She was actually the sensible and sane one who married the man she wanted (Gundamma’s son) and stood up for what she wanted. Apart from looking lovely and putting Gundamma back in her box, she also performed a very pretty classical dance which was a highlight in this largely non-dancing film.

The music is very melodic and the songs seem to suit the characters and the situation. We were amused to recognise the opening titles music, also used in that L Vijayalakshmi dance, as the riff from recent Hindi hit Pe Pe Pepein from Chance Pe Dance!

Temple says: I liked a lot about this film – the cast, the production design, the music and the cinematography. I strongly disliked the story. The message seems to be ‘be strong, intelligent, independent…until your husband tells you to stop’. In addition to my issues with that, the character of Saroja just wasn’t written as someone eligible for Taming of the Shrew type behaviour modification and so the treatment meted out to her seems harsh, unnecessary and not in keeping with her actions in the film. The acting style has really dated, especially that of the male cast members. ANR and NTR do have oodles of charisma, which makes the stomping and scenery chewing much more entertaining than it might have been. But the acting honours go to all the ladies – which is ironic in a film that certainly isn’t about girl power – with Savitri the stand-out performer. She is beautifully expressive without ever being over the top. The minor supporting cast didn’t make much of a contribution other than to add the alleged comedy (regular readers will know I suffer from Comic Sideplot Intolerance). It seemed a waste to have Allu Ramalingaiah as the hotel owner as he had so little to do. I really found Ramana Reddy as Gantayya (Gundamma’s dodgy brother) annoying and hammy and I fast-forwarded through many of his scenes just so I could get through the film.  Actually, I think the fast forward button was essential to me getting through this – I was bored by the over-acting and repelled by the story so this wasn’t the pleasure to watch I had hoped for. Time hasn’t been kind to this classic. I give it 3 and 1/2 stars, just for the stars.

Heather says: This is a film which both looks and sounds very beautiful and from this point of view is an absolute winner. The story of Gundamma and her two daughters had a lot of potential, and it’s a shame that the writer D.V.Narasa Raju decided to turn the two sisters such perfect and therefore perfectly dull wives by the end. Both Laxmi and Saroja had plenty of personality at the start of the film and eradicating this in the quest to make them the ideal wives just made them rather less interesting to watch. The lack of a reaction from Saroja when she discovers the deception was particularly irritating considering she had just been put through absolute misery by the man proclaiming to love her. It was also a little odd that the start of the film featured a song all about women’s rights and then proceeded to firmly walk all over them. I suppose that in 1962 it was more important to adhere to conventional principles rather than allow a strong-minded woman to succeed. However, despite these issues with the storyline, I did enjoy the romance between Anji and Laxmi. Their songs, as well as the duets between Saroja and Raja, were really lovely.

The characters of Gundamma, her perpetually scheming and whining brother and the very shady Durgamma were much more entertaining. The interactions between them all were much more believable and seemed to be better written, although this could just be due to the subtitles. I found the comedy scenes with Ramana Reddy and Allu Ramalingaiah in the restaurant to be really funny, as were his scenes with NTR. What can I say? I’m Irish and it reminded me so much of similar scenes I’ve seen at home! The comedy track here worked well for me, and was much more enjoyable than the unsettling story of Saroja and Raja. ANR and NTR were excellent together and their relationship as brothers was very well portrayed. I also liked the minor characters and the way their individual stories were worked into the plot. The standout performance though was that of Gundamma, and for that alone this film deserves to be a classic. Without the Raja and Saroja storyline it would have been even better, but overall I enjoyed this film and it gets 3 ½ stars from me.