I keep an eye out for any early Dr Rajkumar films with subtitles, and was lucky enough to find this 1971 classic on DVD. It’s a simple story, but one that’s beautifully told with mesmerising performances from the main leads. The film was written and directed by Dorairaj and Bhagawan, who were also responsible for the excellent CID 999 films, Operation Jackpot Nalli and Operation Diamond Racket, also with Dr Rajkumar. Although quite dissimilar in terms of content, Kasturi Nivasa has the same attention to detail as these movies, with creative cinematography and memorable songs and music from G.K. Venkatesh. The film was re-released in colour in 2014 and is available (but without subtitles) on YouTube in both versions.
Kasturi Nivasa is the ancestral home of Ravi Varma (Rajkumar), an industrialist who runs a successful match factory. Ravi is a widower whose only daughter also died in an accident, which has left him alone in the large house except for his servant Ramaiah (K.S. Ashwath). At the factory, Ravi notices new employee Chandru (Rajashankar) because he doesn’t laugh at Ravi’s jokes. Appreciating his honesty, Ravi makes Chandru the Chief Foreman and decides to send him to America for further training. But Chandru is also a widower and has a young daughter, so he is reluctant to make the trip and leave Rani behind. However, Chandru’s situation is so similar to Ravi’s that he offers to look after Rani until Chandru returns.
The early part of the film sets up the character of Ravi as a rich but philanthropic businessman. He has inherited wealth and knows that his place in society is to function as a role model while also helping others who are less fortunate. Ravi is very aware of his lofty status but attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his workers by telling jokes and by generally treating them well, although he still seems himself as being of a higher class than his workers. In contrast Bhojarajaiah (Balakrishna) is a terrible owner and suffers financial loss due to his poor treatment of his workers. While that sounds potentially revolutionary and egalitarian, Balakrishna forms part of the comedy track, so his loss of money and face is more about his poor attitude rather than any real concern about workers’ rights – although to be fair, at least there is acknowledgement that everyone deserves a living wage.
Bhojarajaiah also tries to set Ravi up with his daughter Prabhu, but she prefers Bhojarajaiah’s brother-in-law Sampath (Narasimharaju) and the various contortions the couple go through to avoid Bhojarajaiah make up the rest of the comedy track. While Balakrishna and Narasimharaju are acknowledged comedic actors, their performances here seem somewhat flat in comparison to other films I’ve seen, while the comedy track doesn’t fit well with the rest of the narrative. I’m guessing that it was added because there ‘has’ to be a comedy track, since otherwise there seems to be added value to the characters of Bhojarajaiah and Sampath.
Ravi looks after Rani and recruits his secretary Neela (Jayanthi) to be a substitute mother for the little girl. (My subtitles say Leela, but Ravi seems to be saying Neela which is the name given on most character lists that I’ve seen.) The child actress here is excellent and very sweet, although she’s a fair way towards being spoiled given that Ravi caters to her every whim. Neela too sets Rani up as the sole purpose for her existence, so it’s hardly surprising that Rani throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wishes. When Chandru comes back, Rani is so used to Neela as her mother that she insists Chandru and Neela sleep with her together in their bed. This leads to Neela and Chandru getting married, which devastates Ravi as he was in love with Neela, but never actually approached her about his feelings.
Things continue to go wrong for Ravi as he loses business when Chandru starts up his own factory using more modern manufacturing methods. As Ravi’s situation deteriorates further, Chandru buys Kasturi Nivasa and to his credit tries to help his former boss. However, Ravi’s pride leads him to refuse all offers of help, which in turn seriously affects Neela who still has feelings for her ‘boss’. Jayanthi looks stunning and she does a fantastic job of portraying Neela’s conflicting emotions and loyalties as she is torn between her former employer and her husband. The situation leads to problems between Chandru and Neela, and eventually Ravi succumbs to a suitably dramatic and tragic end, symbolising the end of an era.
Dr Rajkumar is simply wonderful here and imbues his character with dignity and charm that suits his rather old-fashioned persona. Ravi is wealthy and generous, seeing himself as a benefactor for the poor and as someone who upholds traditional values. Chandru in contrast is more modern and practical, and Rajashankar plays him as intelligent and hard-working but impatient with the old order. Chandru is the one who sees the potential in upgrading the factory and on moving with the times, ending up successful as a result of his own hard work. Both actors excel in their roles and work well together to accentuate these differences which lie at the heart of the story. Ravi is old money and the class system, Chandru is equality and success based on personal achievement. Kasturi Nivasa then is a lament for the old order, for rich landlords who looked after their poor tenants and for an opulent lifestyle that few can continue to afford. It charts the rise of the new order– modern manufacturing techniques, the loss of a class divide as workers rise up to become equal with their former bosses, but with an associated loss of morals, seen here by Chandru’s addiction to alcohol and his violent behaviour.
What I find most interesting here is the large amount of symbolism used throughout to convey the message. The way Ravi and Chandru are contrasted with each other is also cleverly done to enhance the story. Both men run match factories and believe in treating their workers well, but while Ravi sells Dove matches, Chandru has branded his product with an Eagle, presumably to signify his more aggressive nature. As Chandru comes up in the world he starts wearing suits like Ravi, while Ravi wears the same suit for long enough that it starts to develop visible holes. The transfer of power is seen by their appearance as well as by the changes in the living standards of the two men, but it’s also interesting how they are both affected by having money and prestige. Dorairaj and Bhagawan seem to be suggesting that you need to be born with money to know how to use it properly – wealth corrupts those who come into money later in life.
The songs too continue the symbolism, particularly this one about a doll that always gets back up and cannot be knocked down. Sadly for Ravi, although this may have been his philosophy, he appeared to be getting less able to get back up again after each successive set-back
Kasturi Nivasa is deservedly called a classic, with stirring dialogue and the captivating and powerful combination of Rajkumar, Rajashankar and Jayanthi. G.K. Venkatesh’s songs are wonderful and beautifully pictured, while there is a socially important message underlying the excellent screenplay. Although I watched the black and white version, the richness of the house comes thought well, and the contrast between Kasturi Nivasa and Chandru’s house is perfectly set out. Although the concepts addressed here are rather dated and some of the beliefs now seem quaint and old-fashioned, there is still a powerful message here, and regardless of the date, the film has an ageless quality due in part to the spellbinding performance from Dr Rajkumar. Highly recommended, this is one of those films that should be on everyone’s checklist – 5 stars.