Sankarabharanam. Oh, what a movie. A bold and flamboyant movie at its time, it was a gigantic risk that the director K. Vishwanath took, and one that paid off beautifully. Everyone has heard of that one band whose first gig was almost empty and then the five guys that were drunk enough to walk in would be amazed out of their inebriation to hear the band, and they’d text all of their friends and the next hour would be jam packed: well, according to the internet, this movie was one of those. It released to a near-empty theater in a remote place on a contract with the theater that was supposed to last for a week. A week later, people were fighting outside the Royal Theater in Hyderabad for tickets as the film was screened to packed hall after packed hall. Vishwanath had broken the formula, and it had come out in flying colours (literally. Technicolor still continues to annoy me, with the specks of color moving about on the screen). More importantly, a million people got a slap in their face when they saw the scene with a photo of Sankara Sastry and his accompanyists becoming smaller and smaller and fading out and a cutout of Bay City Rollers fading in and enlarging—a rudimentary, no doubt, but extremely effective way of getting the point through.
The rest—the sequel, Sagarasangamam or Salangai Oli; and SPB’s newfound way of rendering songs; and music directors including classical songs even in movies that didn’t seem to require them for the next thirty five years—is, as they say, history.
When I was in the seventh grade, I was coaxed into watching this movie. Moser Baer DVD’s were trending, and dad saw this movie on display in the little shop. He pounced at the two-VCD pack viciously. Fifty bucks poorer and with a smile on his face that could only be childhood memories revived, he took us back home with me giving longing looks at “Azhagiya Tamizh Magan” as I was whisked out. (yes, I was a bit of a Vijay fan then. I was young, don’t judge me. Argh)
We went home and turned on our computer and slid the disc into the CD drive. Our large-for-its-timeline 17” screen lit up with telugu words. To be honest, I was a little disappointed, and more than a little sleepy. The movie progressed, and the longer it ran, the lesser I understood. I could barely understand the concept of a prostitute when mentioned directly, and since it was all a metaphor here, I had absolutely no idea why everyone were giving Sastry scandalous looks as he took the horse-driven-open-air-carriage ride home with Tulasi opposite him. I gave my parents quizzical looks, but like any responsible Indian parent confronted with a conversation about sex, they shushed me. After the first CD, I told mother I was sleepy. Dad shot me a look. I quailed. The second CD was on. During the long-drawn romance scene in the temple, I literally fell asleep and had to be woken up.
Six years later, when I was bored one day before a Chemistry exam, and my head was filled with righteous(?) anger about people who boycotted a series of concerts in my college, I decided to watch this film again. I downloaded the movie—god bless the internet and god bless BitTorrent—why not, right? And I literally fell asleep again during the romance scene.
You realize your childhood is lost when you understand the movie completely.
I understood most of the metaphors this time round, though some still confound me. But the second time round, some scenes stood out simply because of the brilliant portrayal of the characters by the respective actors.
The first of the scenes that impressed me immensely was the scene where Sankara Sastry (Sastry from here on) returns home after his singing was rudely interrupted. Our egoistic protagonist was hitting a beauitiful high note when somebody in the audience drags a steel chair on the concrete floor. SS shoots one scandalized look at the person; scandalized turns into enraged in the blink of an eye, and he walks out in anger, leaving the audience gaping. On a funny side note here, I found some of the reactions to him walking out, hilarious. This is the percussionist performing beside him.
And this is the guy who interrupted him.
The movie then cuts to Sastry’s home, where the maidservant who cooks in the home and the percussionist are talking about how angry SS is going to be, and wondering what in the world could pacify him. Sastry’s daughter Sarada overhears this. SS storms out of his carriage, and walks in to hear a Tambura strike a note. Slightly bewildered, he goes on into his house to see his daughter playing it, and humming the sa-pa-sa, with a smile of perfect serenity. And in one instant, Sastry’s annoyed frown turns into a smile that mirrored his daughter’s. And that, in my opinion, was the most beautiful scene in the movie.
Vishwanath also dabbles with women empowerment a little here: even though he isn’t brave enough to add some sensibility and sensitivity to the role of the veteran prostitute, Tulasi’s mother, he is brave enough to make the daughter—who shunned the mother’s profession and dreaded the day she had to step into her mother’s shoes—a powerful character. The depth that has been lent to the character is something every director of Today’s Telugu movie, with the female character who does nothing but let the action hero fondle her, should learn. And this character breaks all the stereotypes that there were about women in general and female characters in movies in particular. Her love goes transcends the huge barrier beyond materialistic love, physical love and romantic love, and breaks into the region of unconditional respect to the man she accepted as her teacher even though the teacher hadn’t accepted her as a student: an Ekalavya of sorts, though in this case the teacher didn’t know of her existence. And more importantly, she is independant. Now this, needs godlike proportions of bravery and guts to portray in 1979 India, and man, she does it well. But most importantly, she has flaws. Her respect is so chaste and naive that she never realizes that her presence would be interpreted as a dirty indulgence of Sastry’s—not until it was too late to save his reputation.
Another wonderful thing about this film is the little things in between. You’d always think that the lawyer—the comic relief—was bluffing about the age when Sastry used to cower before him, but then there comes the scene where the lawyer goes “I’m real tired of your bullshit, man” when Sastry rejects marriage proposal after marriage proposal for his daughter, and the only scene where the lawyer gets actually angry pans out to a Sastry who is, for the only time in the movie, afraid of the lawyer’s anger: which proves beyond doubt that there indeed existed such a time. And then comes the scene where Sastry comes to the lawyer to ask him to argue Tulasi’s case, and the lawyer’s wife brings in two glasses of buttermilk. The lawyer asks her which glass has lesser salt, and hands that glass to Sastry, which is a brilliant touch, because I interpret it this way: In south Indian households, salt in food is usually supposed to be associated with dignity and respect. “I do add salt to my food, you know,” is a common response by a person who thinks his respect is being compromised. And in this scene, even though the lawyer agrees to take up the case, and even shouts at his wife for reprimanding him for working for a prostitute, he is a little disappointed, and his respect for Sastry becomes a tad bit reduced when he learns the mess that Sastry had gotten himself into. Another one of the little things
Undoubtedly the most badass of the scenes was the one where Sastry bashes the neighbours for their ignorance, disrespect and mindless worshipping of pop music. The little pseudo-band’s lead becomes very indignant and says that pop music is something Sastry could never figure out, and that his carnatic singing talent would be of no use in reproducing the “complex” art of yodeling. And this, dear boys, is why you don’t mess with a carnatic singer.
The film does have its flaws that were born out of the fact that there were some tried-and-tested formulas that the audiences of the age lapped up, and the formulas were so lucrative that even a visionary like Vishwanath found them hard to resist. One of those formulas was “the” romance scene. I think the reason that some brilliant Indian films didn’t fare well in international forums is the existence of needless, drawn-out, boring, and pointless romance scenes. And oh, they make you sleep. Two of the most brilliant movies I’ve seen are Karnan and Sankarabharanam; and if the fifteen minutes of stupid screen time occupied by running-around-trees style scenes were removed, they would have been award worthy. I have seen good movies, I have seen bad movies and I have seen Vijay movies, but none of them exceed the pointlessness of the scene in the temple where Kameswara Rao meets Sarada and falls in—oh look, here’s a predictable story—love at first sight with Tulasi. And this love scene led to the point where the film stops making logical sense—the marriage proposal. I’m not even going to say anything about how illogical it was for a guy who can do raaga aalapanas singlehandedly and perfectly, to mispronounce Kaapi as Coffee, no matter what sort of pressure he is in. And worse, the scene basically proved that Vishwanath’s knowledge was extremely half-baked and his research was incomplete: of all the music-related disastrously humorous scenes he could think of, he invents one in which a guy trained in carantic music mispronounces raaga names. Brilliant.
My hypothesis is that any scene that does not involve Tulasi directly is a scene wasted, and it is verified by the half hour that was the creation, downfall and subsequent success of love between Sarada and the Rao fellow, which was an incredible drag and did nothing to add to the story of the movie.
Apart from that, it is my father’s opinion that the movie absolutely and irrevocably ruined “Dorakuna”. I am not knowledgeable enough to accept or reject it, but even if it was acceptable, I can’t imagine a single reason why somebody would mess with a song that is two and a half centuries old. The original version of the song, rendered by masters like MDR, was a beautiful piece of music, and while I can’t pass judgment on this film’s version, I can safely say that modification was needless.
Beyond its flaws, though, the film was an eye-opener to millions. While many people swear by the brilliance of the film for difference reasons, the film itself, though, had me impressed in the first forty seconds. Before the movie starts, the director goes on about music being universal and all that, and before he ends his rant, he says one thing: “Entaro mahanu bhavalu, antariki vandanamu.”
That quote, my late grandfather’s favorite, and also the first line of a Thyagaraja pancharatna kriti, translates roughly to “There are many mahaans (great people) in this world. I humbly bow down to all of them.”
It is my opinion that nobody should grow up without watching this movie, and nobody should grow old without understanding it.