Directed by: K Vishwanath
Music: IlaiyarajaStarring: Kamalahasan, Jayaprada, Sarath Babu, SP Shailaja
This is a film that I loved when I first watched it in the theatre as a kid. It is also a film that I have revisited many times in the intervening years. With a strong story as its base, and characters you can identify with, and sympathise, Sagara Sangamam is one of those rare movies where everything miraculously came together – story, script, music actors, direction – to give us a near-classic. (The reason for that caveat is given below the synopsis.)
Upcoming and popular danseuse Shylaja (SP Shylaja) has just given a very well-received performance. However, amidst all the plaudits is a scathing criticism of her knowledge of Bharatanatyam. Shylaja is furious, and her fiance, who knows the publisher of the magazine in which the negative review has been published, promises to have the reviewer grovelling at her feet. When the writer of the review is called in to apologise to ‘a great artiste’, neither Shylaja nor her boyfriend can hide their contempt.
Balu (Kamalahasan) is a middle-aged drunk, who can barely function. What does he know of classical dance, demands the fiance. Who is he to write a derogatory article about Shylaja? However, instead of apologising profusely, as the duo expects, Balu demands that she perform the piece again. Contemptuously, she begins, only to be stopped mid-dance. Much to her chagrin, Balu then proceeds to show her exactly where she went wrong, and how it should have been performed. In Bharatanatyam.
Then to rub her nose into it (she had asked him whether he even knew what Bharatanatyam was), he also demonstrates the same verse in Kathak and in Kathakali.
Balu points out that Shylaja’s focus is on her audience, their applause, the next honour that will be bestowed on her. Unless her focus changes to her dance, she will never be a good artiste. Unused to such stringent criticism, Shylaja’s boyfriend causes Balu to be fired. Also fired is Raghu (Sharat Babu), a poet-turned-proof reader who is Balu’s friend.
Raghu is upset – this is not the first time this has happened. And he has reached the end of his tether. After all, what is his relationship to Balu? As he walks away, Balu stops him by reciting a stanza of Raghu’s poem – their relationship is one of friendship, of two souls who had the same dreams. They are bound together until his death, says Balu. Raghu cannot withstand that plea.
(From here, the movie moves effortlessly between past and present and the director uses the flashback motif very effectively – each flashback is triggered by a present event in the life of one of the characters, and by so linking the past and the present, the flashback allows us, the viewers, an insight into cause and effect.)
As he takes a completely drunk Balu home, Raghu remembers taking a much younger Balu to a local Kathak master. Balu is so engrossed in the class that a student almost steps on him; she stops dancing to ask him why he is there – when she doesn’t understand his reply, he dances it out so she can understand – he knows Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali. He wants to learn Kathak from the guru. (This is a wonderful scene, showing not only Balu’s mastery over the different art forms, but also how art cuts across barriers of language.)
Raghu manages to get Balu another job –as a film choreographer’s second assistant. On his first day on the job, Balu gets a chance to show what he can do – when the film director sees his classical dance-based composition, he is aghast – he needs a hit song. The choreographer is furious! When the song is finally composed to the director's satisfaction, a song that celebrates the love of Radha for Krishna is now background for a filmi dance complete with outrageous costumes, pelvic thrusts, and associated vulgarity.
Balu breaks down; later, he dances his frustration out.
Meanwhile, Shylaja has returned home in triumph. As her mother Madhavi (Jayaprada) reads the reviews, she finds Balu’s criticism and takes her daughter to task. Shylaja is still ranting, but Madhavi is taken aback when she reads the by-line. Madhavi sets off to find Balu through the newspaper for which he worked. While waiting for some news of him, she recollects how she first met him.
She is a photojournalist who writes about art, and is shooting at a temple when she comes across Balu. They meet again at a wedding (his mother and uncle are the cooks), and she learns of his passion for dance. Subsequent meetings involve dance (his passion) and photography (hers);
Madhavi does her best to give Balu an exposure she feels he deserves, writing him up for an article on dance, shooting his portfolio, getting him an opportunity to participate in the prestigious classical dance festival in Delhi.
(This sets the scene for one of the best moments in the film – Madhavi brings the festival’s brochure to Balu and tells him that she has managed to inveigle a pass for him. Balu is overjoyed. As he flips through the pages of the brochure, he finds himself featured amongst the renowned dancers slated to perform on the opening day. It’s a scene without much dialogue; Kamalahasan owns this scene – his eyes expressing his shock, disbelief, joy, gratitude… her happiness twinkles in her eyes.)
Unfortunately, the fates weave their usual coils. On the eve of their journey to Delhi, his mother falls seriously ill; in a final irony, he dances in front of his mother as she breathes her last.
Life goes on, and Madhavi and Raghu are Balu’s only support; as he draws closer to Madhavi, he confesses his love for her, and asks her to marry him. Despite herself, Madhavi begins to hope.
This is not to be either, however. Her father has a bitter truth to share.
Even as Madhavi decides to take charge of her own life, her estranged husband shows up – with an unbelievable solution. But of course, marriage is sacrosanct (God help me!). The scene is set for mega-self-sacrifices – first, Madhavi's husband's, then Balu’s, Madhavi’s (well, she is forced to)…
Madhavi has no voice; she leaves and Balu seeks his solace in a bottle.
As Madhavi now makes plans to bring Balu back from the brink, she is faced with rejection on both fronts – her daughter is furious at having to learn from the man who criticised her; Balu is dismissive – he’s turned his back on real art a long time ago. What is he going to teach anyone? He gives in to Raghu’s insistence, even though he is ready to walk out when he sees his student. Madhavi removes all the liquor bottles she can find, but has not accounted for an alcoholic’s desperation.
When she returns to her room, she is confronted by her daughter.
How will Shylaja react to her mother’s past? How long will Madhavi hide the truth from Balu? What will happen when he finds out? Will he ever achieve his dream of training Madhavi’s daughter?
One of the first ‘dance movies’ in Telugu, K Vishwanath’s Sagara Sangamam depended heavily on the dancing prowess of its leads. With Kamalahasan and Jaya Prada, the director got just that. Add that both of them are extremely accomplished actors (talk about understatement!), mix in a wonderful bunch of supporting actors, and a music director who can weave magic with his baton, and you get a critically acclaimed dance and music commercial success on your hands.
Sagara Sangamam was Kamalahasan’s film through and through. This was before he became ‘Dr Kamal Hassan’ and Ulaka Nayakan, and so he didn't feel the need to be in every frame. His Balu is dedicated to classical dance in all its forms. The only son of a widowed mother, his world is a small one – he has his mother, his dance, and a poet-friend, Raghu. He also has ambitions of making it big as a dancer. However, he is a purist, who cannot think of prostituting his art in his quest for success.
As the young, fire-in-his-veins ambitious Balu who is willing to die for his art, he shone. As the alcoholic, good-for-nothing, washed-out dance critic Balu, he brought a pathos to his role that made a lump rise in your throat. You, as the viewer, could see the choices he made, and the suffering that arises from the consequences of those actions; however, you also understand why he made those choices, and how he could not have chosen any other path. When one of the choices in front of you is not a choice at all, then you really have no choice. And Balu has none. This is the only way that his life could have played out.
There is no belying the fact that Kamalahasan is one of the best actors who has ever graced the silver screen, but there’s also no denying that he can sideline his co-stars with amazing ease. Despite that, Jayaprada (before she became Jaya Prada) not only makes her presence felt, but also matches him step for step – not an easy task when faced with a phenomenal dancer such as Kamalahasan. She also looked incredibly beautiful, which is not a surprise, because I have seen her make-up free and just-tumbled-out-of-bed (she had just returned from an outdoor shooting a few hours prior) and she looked gorgeous.
As Madhavi, the young woman who falls into a friendship with a dancer whose talent she is mesmerised by, which later deepens into a very mature love, Jayaprada breathed life into her character. Madhavi is torn between her sham of a marriage and her love for Balu which is crushed as much by social expectations and Balu’s own morality. Later, as a widow, she is still encumbered by the necessity to keep Balu from guessing the truth – not being able to snatch the second chance that life has offered her. Her Madhavi had so many layers, and Jayaprada made her believable (and sympathetic) – despite the seeming lack of will that characterised her character.
The surprise factor was Sarath Babu of whom my cousin once said (after watching him in 'Sattam', a remake of Dostana (1983); he played Shatrughan Sinha’s role) that if someone shot him at point-blank range, he would still have the same expression on his face. Which was none. Not so under K Vishwanath’s able direction. As Raghu, Balu’s friend, who stands by Balu through thick and thin, Sarath Babu brought an honesty and simplicity to his role. He is Balu’s alter ego; his abiding loyalty just makes Balu’s increasing selfishness all the more glaring. It’s a small role, but written well, and fleshed out by the director to the point where we can understand their relationships and their motivations.
The weakest link, for me, at least was SP Shailaja (SP Balasubramaniam’s sister). She was irritatingly wooden on screen, and made me want, more than once, to get up and smack her silly. And her dances, compared to the grace and fluidity of the film’s heroine, were totally mechanical. Thankfully, she isn’t there for too long.
K Vishwanath also used Ilaiyaraja to great effect. The music is so seamlessly integrated into the core of the movie and are more than the required ‘three-songs-and-dances’ that are mandatory in films. Coupled with a great background score, the music underlines the emotions of the characters on screen and envelops us with its many different layers.
Photography links the hero and heroine in different ways at different times; the growing friendship and love between Balu and Madhavi is captured in a series of snapshots that Madhavi takes of Balu dancing; the one photograph she takes of them together with a self-timer, she only gets his back; when she leaves with her husband, Balu keeps their photograph with him as a reminder of ‘what was, but will never be again’.
The film is definitely stricken by the ‘curse of the second half’ (
I forget where I read that phrase – on bollyviewer’s site? Perhaps. If any of my readers know, please tell me, and I shall promptly credit it. It’s too good not to be poached and reused.) (Fellow blogger bollyviewer tells me that the phrase was coined by Aspi of Aspi's Drift, and brought to the blogging world by Beth, as she explains in the comments to this post of bollyviewer's.)
Because when Madhavi sees Balu again, it is at a temple where Balu is praying for her deergh sumangali-hood. And Raghu warns her that that is the only thing that keeps Balu going – the thought of her being happily married.
So now, Madhavi has to disguise the fact that she is, in fact, a widow; a deceit that leads to many scenes where we are hit on the head with the sanctity of the kumkum. (I warn you!)
Things do tend to get a tad bit melodramatic toward the end, and again, it’s to Kamalahasan’s and Jayaprada’s (and even Sarath Babu’s) credit that they reined it in. Leaving aside the melodrama, which, if it had been avoided would have elevated the film to a timeless classic, Sagara Sangamam is a story that is well-told. In its portrayal of friendship between man and woman, of the purity of love between the same two people, of love that puts the other person first, of the friendship between man and man that gives unconditionally, Sagara Sangamam practices a subtle restraint.
Every relationship, whether between Balu and Madhavi, or between Raghu and Balu, is a natural progression; and they are the better for not being emphasised. If nothing else, watch this film for the incredible dance sequences, especially the one filmed in the kitchen (with kitchen utensils as props), or even the one where he dances on the water pipes across a well.They are filmed beautifully, and even the one song which is ‘commercial’ is there as part of the narrative, and leads to one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Releasing as it did in an age not known for its restraint (the over-the-top eighties) Sagara Sangamam had two leads who knew what subtlety meant, and allowed their expressions and their dances to show their emotions.
And because so much is expressed between them without dialogues, this is one film where the viewer does not really need sub-titles to understand the nuances. (The DVD does have sub-titles, though they are pretty awful.) This, in my opinion, is a must-watch.
And because I can’t resist:
Doesn’t she resemble Waheeda in the last shot?