The film was released in 1975, so it’s part of what I consider his greatest phase – roughly the period between Arangetram in 1973 and Sindhu Bhairavi in 1985. Why was this phase so great? Or at least, why do I consider this phase so great? Just listen to this line from the gorgeous MS Viswanathan song that opens Apoorva Raagangal.
The line says: How many questions lie in the chambers of heart? And that’s what the films of this period are about. Now to the story. Srividya plays a classical singer, who, one day, sees the much younger Kamal Haasan lying on the pavement, bleeding. She brings him home, cares for him, and gradually, he falls for her.
In a parallel storyline, Major Sundararajan plays a widower, who takes under his care a young girl played by Jayasudha, and she falls for him. The twist is that the characters from both these storylines are already related to one another. So yes, these contrivances are part and parcel of every Balachander film. And there are other things too, that some people don’t care for.
Dialogues that are sometimes provocative just for heck of it – Yen whiskey neram pathu manikku. (I take my drinks at 10.) Naan unnai rape panniduven-nu bayamaa? (Are you afraid I will rape you?)
Sometimes, despite the fact that this director gave such major roles to so many actresses, they don’t seem to have much agency of their own — see how for instance, what Srividya says to the man who abandoned her when she got pregnant and has now returned after decades: Kaiyila maali oda vandhirukkeengala? Appo yen kaathitturukkeenga? Kaalam kadandhaalum en kazhuthu innum kaathittu dhaan irukku. (You’ve come with a garland? Then why are you hesitating? Even if time has passed, this neck is still waiting for that garland.)
Of course, you know who this man is. He was introduced in this film.
Then, there are these things that came to be called the Balachander touch, which seen today seem somewhat overdone. Like when Kamal, who plays a firebrand Communist, first sees a nude statue in Srividya’s house, he covers it. But when he falls in love with Srividya, he removes the cover.
But I love this filmmaker, warts and all, because he wanted to keep trying out things. Some of them would work. Some of them would not. But in his peak period, his motto was: “How can I make this scene more interesting?” And that sheer energy is fantastic and fascinating to see.
Because this film is about a classical singer, Balachander divides the narrative into chapters based on Carnatic music terms. The first chapter is called Sarali Varisai — these are the beginner lessons that any Carnatic music student learns, and the title fits the beginning of the film. The film ends with Mangalam, which is the closing part of a kacheri. And in between, the terms sometimes refer to ragas: The Srividya and Jayasudha characters are called Bairavi and Ranjani, And when Kamal falls in love, the chapter is Mohanam, which means enchantment or infatuation.
Two songs in this film are ragamalikas, ie. based on multiple ragas — and that goes with the multiplicity of these relationships. There’s the song already mentioned above, and there’s this one:
But I don’t want to make this film sound like something you’ll enjoy only if you know Carnatic music. I love the writing in many scenes, which have a beautiful, open-ended quality. Like when Srividya brings Kamal home, you think, “Why didn’t she just take him to a hospital?”
Above all, look at how Balachander changes the grammar of the action scene, which is not something you associate with him, right? So Kamal is walking by, and a passing car splashes water on him. He swears. the men in the car hear this, they reverse, and reach Kamal. They ask him what he said. He says the same swear word. We expect a fight. But what Balachander does is fantastic. The camera pans across the four guys. And… that’s all.
The next scene, Srividya’s car comes along and she sees a battered Kamal by the roadside. One look at Kamal is all we need to imagine what happened during the fight. We didn’t have to see the actual fight.
Old movies really take you on a journey — it’s not about just that one film, but many films and memories that came before and after. The one thing about older films is that some aspects of their style may seem quaint today, and some things may make us laugh. But at least in my case, I laugh with affection.