Swaras stem in increasing frequency from his footsteps. The moving silhouette against the aruna morning sky evinces his guilelessness. He descends the bank-steps, soaks his slimy uttaria in the river, washes it on a rock and ties its each end to a pole on the bank, displaying how ragged it has become, displaying how the western music has withered all he had but him. He then goes into the river to bathe his body. Her mind goes into the past to bathe her eyes.
This was how Shankarabharam Shankara Sastry was introduced.
It would be highly unfair that I, someone who is as knowledgeable in Carnatic Music as Alia Bhatt would be in Theory of Relativity, write this piece on a movie which is more a carnatic concert than a story. Many, in the past three and a half decades since the movie’s release, have tried to comprehend what it had to say to us but to no success. And those who knew that converting into words the movie’s essence is not realizable just sat back and immersed themselves in its gana lahari and quenched their thirst from its perennial contents. Nevertheless, with whatever little knowledge I have of carnatic music and whatever little sense I have in appreciating movies, I muster courage to write about one of those movies which have stood to the test of time.
K Vishwanath can never be over-rated. Though how crude he may seem when one hears him speak, there is always in him a passion for art and various art forms. His works are testimony of the notion that actions speak louder than words. The greatness of a scriptwriter lies in how well he can resist the temptation to be superficial in his narration. Most of the movies of Indian Cinema are those, the listening of the story of which, from a friend, is as equivalent to watching it as eating a food dish is to eating it again. Few possess the gift of being able to effortlessly camouflage a story with the scenes in the movie. The story doesn’t seem to be imposed onto the characters; rather, the characters seem to cause the story to move forward. And Vishwanath is, with no doubt, one such gifted writer. However, one thing which everyone must agree on is that his films would not have been what they are today, so very close to the hearts of millions of Telugu people across the globe, had he not been assisted by Jandhyala, the Hasya Bramha, for writing all those numerous memorable dialogues in his films.
Another appealing feature of Vishwanath’s films is his depiction of countryside. Unlike in many of the other films of the time, where the rural setting is more implicative of the poverty and miseries or the intense ignorance in which rural people live, Vishwanath’s finesse in capturing the bucolic aspects of the rustic life in his films is unsurpassable. The intricacies of day to day life which we all can easily relate to, a subtle touch of humor which the actors never fail to deliver, and the exploitation of actors to the zenith are all that make his movies delectable.
Coming to Shankarabharam, what has made it the most celebrated amongst Vishwanath’s movies, in spite of many of the others being as good, if not better, in script and acting, as Shankarabharam, is, in my view, the syzygy in which everything, from music to lyrics to the rest of it, have dawned. One of the examples of this is the song Shankara Nadasairapara. When everyone leaves on noticing that Sastry is being accompanied by Tulasi in his concert at the Temple, he starts to sing, nevertheless, implying that he is there to sing for Siva and not an audience. The lyrics of this song were so well written. At one point, he sings: ‘Vinitarinchara!’ which translates to
And attain bliss,
And at the same time, his hand points at the linga and his expression is as if he is dictating. This is how close his lord is to his heart. He is more than the one who is to be worshipped; he is your friend, and the one whom you can take any liberty with. And that’s Shankarabharam for us.
I was reading MS, A Life in Music, the biography of MS Subbalakshmi, the other day when I came across a reference to Shankarabharam. Thinking that this reference is to the raga with the same name, I continued reading only to realize that it was the film that was being referred to. This serendipitous realization that a Telugu film, with no actors who would appeal to a non-Telugu audience, has been and is being appreciated by people of the other Dravidian tongues amused me. And this appeal it holds is because of the simplicity with which the story was depicted and, of course, the music. When I was watching the movie for the nth time, it came to my notice that there are just 5 scenes in the whole film where Tulasi actually speaks; it is only her acting (without dialogues) that speaks in the rest of the scenes. No wonder, people don’t find language to be a barrier.
Good acting comes when the characters are well developed. And this is one of the crowning achievements of this film. Be it Shankara Sastry or Vanta-attaya (the cook), each and every character was very well developed and equally well played. When Sastry’s lawyer friend’s wife says, after coming to know that Sastry and Tulasi (daughter of a prostitute) are living in the same house, ‘Sastry is known to be a strict follower of tradition. But what he is doing now is not appreciable,’ the friend says, ‘Did he now start drinking rum to roam on roads aimlessly? Tulasi is a music lover. And so is Sastry. That’s why he gave her shelter. It’s as simple as that. Whatever else you hear about them is false.’ His respecting and defending his friend’s views and, at the same time, his concern towards Sastry’s daughter’s marriage, and Shastry’s understanding of his friend’s true heart are indicative of their true friendship.
Sastry is not without his own flaws, however. His conviction on certain things renders him some sort of aggressiveness. When he returns home from an interrupted concert on a horse carriage, he throws a hm-kara at the delay of the servant in opening the carriage door (which needn’t be opened to get down, if you ask me). His idiosyncrasies when it comes to music seem unnecessary (how rejects the groom because he mispronounced a raga’s name!). It’s not until he is confronted by his friend that he realizes how his eccentricities are preventing his daughter from leading a comfortable life. And he punishes himself for it. On seeing this, his daughter thinks that it’s because of her that her father is going through all this. Also, had she not sung the song wrongly, he wouldn’t have had to listen to all this. She then recites the swaras correctly while sobbing at her father’s wounds. And Sastry is all but less proud of his daughter.
Manju Bhargavi’s acting and dances are iconic. The way she portrays a prostitute’s daughter who doesn’t want to lose her innocence is commendable. She comes face to face and accepts the fact that she is not innocent when she sees how, because of her, Sastry’s reputation is taking a downhill. She leaves. At the end, when Sastry sees her and comes to know that Shankara is her son, she blushes. This blush is not of a lover but of a disciple. And that’s hard to execute. Take a bow, Manju Bhargavi.
Kamudu (played by Chndramohan) and his grandmother depict a jovial mother-son relationship with which most of us can relate. She says, ‘Our Kamudu…’ He stops her, ‘Say Kameshwar Rao. What is this Kamudu?’ Then she says, ‘Shut up. Our Kamudu…. eats cheddanam (the previous day’s rice) every morning.’ And his face grows red with anger. After the Samajavaragamana debacle she cynically mocks him and herself for losing a good relation. But there is no bitterness whatsoever.
And there is music. Although I am not an SPB fan, his rendering of songs was really good. And no one can beat Vani Jayram. When the song Brochevarevarura was being recorded, Vishwanath called her aside to ask her to sing with a bit lesser fineness. That’s because she, as disciple in the film, was singing better than the guru (SPB). The success of the album can be attributed to the inclusion of compositions of Tyagaraju, Vasudevachary, Ramadasu, and Sadasiva Bhrmhendra. But, apart from that, the songs penned by Veturi Sundaram Murty are no less. His Dorakuna, Samajavaragamana, Omkaranadanu, Ragam Tanam Pallavi, and Shankara Nadasarirapara are today considered equivalent to songs by composers of yore. One simple example of his skill is the last charanam of Shankara:
Merise merupulu murise pedavula chiru chiru navvulu kabolu,
Vurime vurumulu sari sari natanala siri siri muvvalu kabolu,
Dharaku jaarenaa Shiva ganaga,
Naa gana lahaei nu munuganga,
Ananda vrishti nee thaduvanga.
The lightning is probably the sunny smile of your lips
The thundering may be the tinkling, as you tap your feet, of bells on your anklets.
As you move your head, in ecstasy,
The Ganges slips through your hair and flows down in glee,
All this while you get immersed in my waves of chant,
And I soak in the spilling tempest of transcendent joy.
One doesn’t call Vishwanath Kala-thapaswi for no reason. Whether it is movie which deals with an art form or that which deals with the problem of caste system (Saptapadi), the main theme is always one art form or another.
He is the measure, swaras breathe, wherein;
In all abstractness, he transcends things tangible and in-.
She brings to him a guise in form of, to his measure, cadence.
Then, the abstractness expresses itself to drown the audience.
While he is the traveler, she is the travel;
Their Tandava-Lasya results in the world where we dwell.
Shruti is what Shiva is, the interval of pitch, devoid of bhaava;
To this gives form Shivaa, the laya, his more precious jewel over other trinkets.
That’s Shankarabharana Kalpavriksham by me (IYKWIM :p).