The trailer showcased what appeared to be a period piece about devadasis (temple classical dancers) featuring beautiful imagery, dance, dialogue (or rather what I imagined they were saying since I don’t know Tamil), politics, kidnappings, emotions, intrigue, betrayal… all the makings of a stunning, engaging film. Winner of three national awards (Best Cinematography – Madhu Ambat, Best Choreography – Saroj Khan, Best Music Director – Lalgudi G. Jayaraman), two state Tamil Nadu awards, and subject of glowing reviews- it sounded fantastic!
Update: While the promo trailer is no longer available online, this 2007 video feature "India at 60" by NDTV has a full minute of various clips from the film Sringaram starting at 6:07.
With such sky high, kidney-donating expectations, I suppose I was set up to be a little disappointed. I was (bless the stars!) able to get my hands on a screener copy of this film and ended the viewing experience feeling satisfied but a bit let down. Sringaram’s strengths are primarily the gorgeous costumes, period atmosphere and cinematography, the recreation of devadasi life, and some lovely music and dance sequences. Its weaknesses, however, are the rather stagey, unorganic dialogues and actions of the characters and plot and some pedestrian acting.
The film essentially tells the story of Varshini (Aditi Rao Hydari), a young classical dancer, who is being told the story of her mother, Madhura (also Aditi Rao Hydari, in a double role). While the films begins in the 1950s, it then switches back to the 1920s for most of the running time to tell the story of Madhura through flashbacks. Every so often, the viewer is brought back to the present day and reminded that the proceedings are being told to Varshini.
As the flashbacks begin, it is the occasion of the aging official temple dancer Ponnamma (Manju Bhargavi) transferring the title to her daughter Madhura. The Mirasu (Manoj K. Jayan), the appointed landlord who exercises authority on behalf of the king, is then seen being introduced to the village. Next, the stuff that gets Minai all excited truly begins- an extended putting-on-of-the-temple-jewelry-sequence and the “christening” of Madhura as the official temple devadasi. The temple priest tells her that from that day, she will “remove all worldly attachments from [her] mind and surrender to the lord” as a true devadasi for the next 60 years, and that she will bring the temple and the Mirasu’s family good. The sacred thali (necklace) is tied to her neck as the music, instrumentation, and resulting procession signify the importance of the event.
During the procession, a group of bharatanatyam dancers perform and Madhura and another devadasi Kama (Hamsa Moili) are featured front and center. The choreography by Saroj Khan is very punctuated and syncopated to the exact beats of the rhythm, the staccato-ness of which is a recurring theme throughout the movie (even seen in a lovemaking scene!) and loses its freshness as there isn’t much deviation or surprise from it. The remaining dancers in the back distracted me at times as they were not always as crisp in form or on beat as those in the front. Hamsa Moili is obviously a trained and seasoned dancer. Unfortunately, the dancing is often interrupted by shots of an unkempt, low-caste man Kasi (Sashikumar) watching the proceedings as he sits precariously on the edge of a nearby rooftop, and the dance sequence just simply isn’t long enough, a complaint I had throughout all of the dance sequences in the film. As the deities are slowly walked through the procession, the camera movement and angles nicely track the sacred movement of the event and rituals being enacted.
The processional dance also showcases the lovely costumes and jewelry in the film which have been rightly praised in other reviews. Rukmini Krishnan did a lovely job here. I’m no expert in bharatanatyam costumes from the 1920s, but the dance costumes in the film seem to be quite authentic and are of the sari/nine-yard sari style rather than the modern prestitched costume with piecemeal fan attachments and such. Much of the temple jewelry is of the style that can still be seen in the modern day, but some of the necklace styles and such are clearly authentic to the period.
Next, the intimate, home life of the devadasis is introduced. As Madhura and Kama gaze at the night stars through a window, the bars seem to reflect Madhura’s feelings of confinement and confusion with her position. Kama says that Devadasi’s wear the sacred thali necklace to show that they belong to the lord and can fully devote their minds to their art. Madhura asks why if they are meant for dance should she have to be intimate with the Mirasu that night, and the two talk about the “good old days” when devadasis were truly revered and considered auspicious. This scene serves as a perfect introduction to my main beef with the film: the unrealistic, theatrical dialogues and plot points.
The problem is things seem too simplified and soap-opera like, and seem to be a modern-day interpretation of what life as a devadasi was imagined to be like. Kama gives her lines very sing-songy and preachy, as if she is on the theater stage reading lines from a script. The dialogues don’t seem to be natural but rather serve the purpose of introducing the viewer to the “plight” and conflict devadasi’s are presumed to have experienced. The issues were presented as points checked off from a list, but they never felt adequately discussed in any real fashion by the characters. It felt off to me throughout the film and kept me at arms length; I never quite connected with what I was watching, which was my prime expectation for the film. I felt the same irritations in the scenes that follow involving the introduction of the Mirasu’s wife who clearly despises her husband and her lot in life, and later scenes of the village panchayat discussion the sentencing of a man while a character remarks on the hypocrisy.
After Madhura’s confession to her misgivings about the sexuality devadasis are expected to offer, we see the Mirasu entering a room as the camera amateurishly zooms in in stages to Madhura’s coquettish, shy expressions while she sits on the jasmine-adorned bed. Manoj K. Jayan as the Mirasu is presented so unattractively, and it becomes cringeworthy in this scene. As he veers in for a kiss, the screen fades to black. While this seemed to be an indication that the film was shying away from any explicit depictions of the sexuality of devadasi’s, there is a much hotter, tasteful scene that happens later on.
A bit later, a woman is shown being introduced to a prospective groom and his family, and she sings a classical song for them. At first I was incredibly bored by this song, but then Madhura began dancing to it in the temple in a gorgeously lit sequence that remains my absolute favorite dance sequence. The choreography retains its staccato-ness, but the variation in the beats spice things up and most importantly Aditi's emoting in her face and dance is incredible. The choreography is fairly simple classical-fusion, but the lines and flourishes are just lovely. I could feel the joy and enrapturement Madhura felt as she danced to the devotional lyrics, and I experienced the same welling up of emotion she expresses at the end, which again came much, much too quickly. Oh how I wish these dance sequences would last much longer and not be intercut by intruding shots from other parts of the scene! Just let me watch the dance and revel in it! This dance was a beautiful example of what I hoped to see in the film- the showcasing of the way Indian dance makes the dancer feel, the joy, the sacredness, the connection with something greater than oneself.
My second-favorite dance sequence was the one in which Ponnamma sings a lovely, sweet song while she and Madhura perform some lovely abhinaya to slow, languid dance movements. It ends abruptly as the movie moves to another scene, and then it restarts again for another minute or two. Again, why not let the viewer just revel in the stunning sequence without interruption! Unfortunately, the true end of the scene features a very stagey pose as mother and daughter end their performance in an embrace, Madhura’s body and face strategically positioned towards the camera for a nice, photo-op moment.
The critical plot point in the film is reached when Madhura decides to tell the Mirasu what she really thinks about this “I am the owner of your body and mind” business. She slyly remarks about the fact that she is interchangeable, that she is his intoxication and obsession today, but it will be someone else tomorrow. He later tells her that he needs her to seduce the tax collector who will soon be visiting the village for political reasons. The camera focuses on her pained expression as he gazes besottingly and cunningly at her, and it all feels a bit too silly and made for TV.
At this point, a quick scene flashes back to the present to remind us that this is all about guru Kama telling Varshini of her mother’s life experiences. Kama muses some philosophy about how life is a struggle and that Varshini’s mother, Madhura, had immense struggles from this point of storytelling forward.
What follows is a scene of Madhura chucking her ghungroo bells into a pond as she sits furious, the Mirasu’s words about seducing the tax collector being spoken again to reflect her inner turmoil. I thought this effect was, again, a bit too silly. The low-caste man from the beginning who spied on the temple procession (Kasi) suddenly appears and protects Madhura from a snake slithering perilously close to Madhura’s leg. They clearly like each other and share a deep passion for the classical arts, a scene which dramatically changes the course of the film.
A bit later, the scene that cements Madhura’s “standing up” to her lot in life commences. The Mirasu once again pushes the tax-collector-seduction scenario, and Madhura launches into a speech about how turning a dasi into a prostitute is wrong. He tries to counter her by telling her that she is his right and under his control and that her dignified life is due to his generosity. She won't accept it, she tells him, and she gently but firmly tells him he cannot command or control womanhood unless he understand it. He asks her, “is this a revolution?” and she says that no, this is about her self-esteem and leaves the room in a brazen, confident huff. I half expected some dramatic orchestral stirrings and slow-motion shots of Madhura’s feet leaving the building, but all I got was the Mirasu throwing his drinking glass into a mirror (appropriately slow-motioned for effect). Are we sure this is still the 1920s? The whole sequence felt, again, much too simplistic, staged, and modern. I couldn't get into the girl powery aspect of it, though I wanted to.
So with this newly-found confidence of Madhura's, the movie takes quite a turn into plots about dissidents wanting to kill the Mirasu, Kasi getting caught up with the British, Madhura “resigning” as the temple devadasi and leaving into the forest, Kama being dedicated as the devadasi in her place, and then Kama getting a girly feminist prep-talk from the downtrodden Mirasu’s wife and decides to run away to the forest as well to join Madhura. Police chases, kidnappings, the Mirasu's household breaking up and being in disarray ensue, etc. I felt quite disinterested about all of these plot twists as it didn’t quite seem realistic enough or complex enough. The trailer sort of shows you the gist of it. I'm really not giving it a fair shake here- this portion of the film is the entire second half!
The most true Bharatanatyam-like dance sequence happens mid-way in the second half as Kama dances on a stage to honor the coming of the tax collector. It stays mostly in the realm of abhinaya with some tantalizing pure dance thrown in. I was hoping for a full-length hardcore, fast-paced dance sequence! There is also a nice dance sequence when Madhura and Kama reunite in the last part of the film. The stacatto-ness is still present but the choreography bit more modern.
Near the end, the film takes a dramatic and sad turn, and Varshini, filled with the knowledge of the true story of her mother’s life, completes an emotional, beautifully-lit, final scene as she fulfills her mother's last wish.
I ended the film wondering what I was to make of it. Clearly it was a beautiful experience to feel transported back to the time period and gaze at all the lovely jewelry and saris. Even though much of the plot felt unrealistic to me and I never believed in or empathized much with the struggle of the characters, I wondered what I was to make of it. Was it just a presentation of what the life of devadasis might have been like? Was it an examination of the perils of tradition and the call to challenge it? Was it metaphorical? Was Varshini a "delusion"? Was she Madhura? I'll be ruminating on this for some time.
Some remaining screencaps:
The Mirasu (Manoj K. Jayan)
Varshini (Aditi Rao Hydari with blue contact lenses)
Madhura (Aditi Rao Hydari)
Kama (Hamsa Moili)
The Mirasu's wife (Aishwarya)
The temple priests's shaven head has some bad makeup-moments at times
Funny-looking white people