Sabita Bhamidipati's Dances and the film Saptapadi (1981, Telugu)

Sunday, January 29, 2012
Just like Malavika featured in my previous post about the the film Ananda Bhairavi, Sabita Bhamidipati was also a film-classical-dance-one-hit-wonder.  Her only film was K. Vishwanath's 1981 feature, Saptapadi, which TeluguOne has uploaded in full on their YouTube channel (starting with Part 1 here)- yay!  Do note that they have also inexplicably uploaded the whole thing in better video quality BUT the video is stretched so everyone looks short and fat!

About the Film

Saptapadi won the 1982 Indian National Award for “Best Feature Film on National Integration” for “focusing on the problems of society whose orthodoxy inflicts grave injustice on the underprivileged, for the dilemma faced by a brahmin disciplinarian in confronting his grand-daughter’s love for a Harijan, [and] for resolving the problem in a rational manner, worthy of the country’s best secular traditions."  It sounds like quite a serious film from that description! But it’s actually what I would consider a sweet film with a serious message.

Saptapadi essentially tells the story of a Kuchipudi dancer Hema (Sabitha Bhamidipathi) who is the granddaughter of the feared and orthodox Brahmin priest Yajulu (JV Somayajulu) of the local Hindu temple. Impressed by Hema’s dancing, the priest fixes her marriage with a man named Gowrinath (Ravikanth). But Hema is in love with another man, Hari (Girish), who is the flute player accompanying her performances and whom she soon is astonished to learn is a “Harijan” low-caste untouchable! Since intercaste marriage is unacceptable, she dutifully enters into marriage with Gowrinath. On the wedding night her husband envisions (hallucinates?) that she is a Hindu goddess and he worships her instead of consummating the marriage. This continues for some time, much to the disappointment of Hema. She often fondly recalls her romance with Hari, and her pent up frustrations find expression in a thrilling tandav dance! Yajulu comes to know of Gowrinath's visions and Hema's true love (a plot point which I'm not clear on due to, once again, the lack of English subtitles). It appears the visions are seen as an "act of God" that spurs Yajulu to reconsider his orthodox positions.  Near the end of the film, the priest and Hema’s husband have a change of heart and actually bring Hema and her true love Hari together to be wed--of course not until after Yajulu gives some long speeches (presumably scriptural/spiritual discussions about caste) to the shocked local community  Some commenters over at Idlebrain and Telugufilms have said that the film essentially examines the orthodoxy and true purpose of the caste system and shows through Yajulu’s character the transformation of a person transitioning from judging someone based on caste to learning to see the true nature of the person’s heart.

Compared to Ananda Bhairavi, this film has a more cohesive artistic vision with lots of beautiful filming touches and higher production values. I found it a truly enjoyable watch despite not having subtitles because there is lots to gaze at and be interested in: the many scenes of Brahmin temple life, the dances, the interesting dream/goddess plot devices, the way emotions are artistically expressed, and a very earthy naturalness that makes me feel like I’m gazing into the lives of real people. There are large sections of the film which are quiet and reflective; Hema and Hari's relationship is depicted in this way as Hema often hears Hari's flute playing, remembers him solemnly as she goes about her daily life, or meets up with him occasionally.  Such a sweet, charming touch.

Since this film is an art film, it cleverly portrays certain actions or emotions of the characters.  The title of the film, Saptapadi, normally refers to the "seven steps" that a couple takes around the fire at a Hindu marriage ceremony.  Steps are a recurring theme in the film, from the beginning where we first see Hema and Hari together as Hema tries nervously to step off of a small boat onto the shore, to the scene right before Hema's marriage to Gowrinath when Hema and Hari's love is alluded to by their walking around the center of the boat in unison, and to the end when they are united happily and both take seven steps as they walk up the ramp to the boat.  The film confused me by showing Hema dreaming on the boat and then not bringing us back to her "return to reality" on the boat until after a large section of the film had taken place (the entire romance section and Hari's revelation that he is a Harijan).  Was it all a dream?  The film does have a few classic Telugu "comedy track" scenes featuring Allu Ramalingayya, but they are very toned down and in the latter part of the film Ramalingayya's character serves a critical function in his dialogues with Yajulu. Overall, a beautifully-made film perfect for those times when you want to watch a quiet and reflective piece of art. 

The Cast

Sabita Bhamidipati as Hema - Such "girl next door" charm and beauty!

Girish as Hari - Isn't he an adorable cutie?! Perfect casting for a 
gentle man with a good heart and character.

Ravikanth as Gowrinath, and his "vision" of his wife Hema as a goddess

The late J.V. Somayajulu as Yajulu - This man played this kind of a role in many films, 
most notably (and famously) in Shankarabharanam

The late Allu Ramalingayya as Raju - Yep, Allu Arjun's grandpa! :)

The Dancer: Sabita Bhamidipati

I was so excited to come across this excellent retrospective article about Saptapadi over at Telugucinema.com because it features remembrances of a whole bunch of folks associated with the film: Sabitha, the little boy who mediates between Hema and Hari, the associate director, the producer, and K Vishwanath. Some of their stories and factoids are really entertaining and interesting (and snarky, like the tales of cameraman Kastoori and his demand for special treatment)!

Most interesting of all was reading about how Sabita came to be involved with the production.  According to the article, Sabita was found in a dance school by film scouts looking for the Saptapadi heroine. Sabita’s family didn’t want a film career for her but reluctantly agreed because of the success of Sankaraabharanam. K Vishwanath even came personally to her family and requested a screen test! Sabita “trained in Madras for a month for all dances” with Seshu, a well known Kuchipudi dancer and film choreographer (more on Seshu in an upcoming post!). Sabita relates that Seshu showed her how “filmy classical dance differed from the actual classical dance.” Unfortunately, Saptapadi was her first and last film since she “was more interested in classical dance than movies.” After Saptapadi she went on to earn a Masters in Economics and dance and now works as a database administrator in India.

According to a Narthaki article, Sabitha trained under Uma Rama Rao, a well-known Kuchipudi dancer.  She clearly had a good dance foundation which aided her performance in the film.  How sad that she did not dance or perform in any other films!  But she did what made her happy, so good for her!

The Dances!

Tandav Dance (29:50) - This is my absolute favorite dance from the film. Right after a disappointing dialogue with her husband, Hema sees the object hanging from the tree that she and Hari had tied together long before. Overcome with frustration and torn by tradition vs. her heart, she performs a night-time tandav dance that powerfully expresses her frustrations and is ingeniously choreographed. The varied rhythms are perfectly echoed in her beautiful movements which get progressively more awesome as the song nears the end.  When her dance causes nature to fill the sky with lightning, her love Hari's flute playing reaches Hema as she beautifully slowly ends her performance.  A choreographic gem and an exciting musical composition! Wonderful!


"Om Jaatavedhase" (32:58) - I love this dance in the temple because it's setting and chanting is rare to see on film!  The song begins with Yajulu blessing Hema's ghungroos and then motioning for her to put them on her ankles.  After she does, he starts chanting and she immediately begins dancing and mimicing each line.  It almost seems to be a "test" of sorts by Yajulu for Hema to prove her abilities.  It's a mesmerizing and powerful song. Apparently the producer had a difficult time finding a veda pandit who would agree to perform the vedic chants in this song! 


"Akhilaandeswari Chamundeswari" (18:36) - This is Sabita's first dance performance in the film and not a great opener because she dances with such a lack of energy.  Lovely costumes (with three changes) but not much else to recommend, in my opinion.  If I was Yajulu I wouldn't be so impressed! (Or maybe the iffy performance is why he beckoned her to dance in the temple above?)


"Nemaliki Nerpina Nadakalive" (39:38) - In this very cute song about peacocks, Sabita performs a charming dance with some beautiful movements that is, unfortunately, quite boring!  Sabita does looks gorgeous though, doesn't she!


"Vrepalliya Eda Jhalluna Pongina Ravali" (54:26) - Finally we get some nice groovy 80s electronica touches in this romantic song depicting Hema and Hari's love for each other.  Hema dances a little bit throughout in her lovely cotton/silk sarees. I have a feeling given the way this song is shot and the beautiful melody that those of us who don't know Telugu are greatly missing out...


"Bhaamane Satyabhaamane" (19:48) - Sabita's ugly fugly costume (so 80s!) and awkward dancing make this my least favorite dance in the film.  Sabita really struggles with some of the footwork!  I think this was the first dance song I saw from this film and I immediately wrote the film off as having tacky, pseudo-classical dancing in it.  Good thing I eventually saw the other dances and gave it a second chance!

24 comments:

  1. Minai,
    These fils are getting closer to home. It seems that K.Viswanath is from Pedapulivarru. I was born two miles from there on an inland in the river Krishna.pedapulivaaru is on one of the banks and I did my ninth grade there. Famous film lyricist Samudrala Sr is from that village and Ghantasala married in that village. I saw him there around 1951.
    Coming back to the film, it seems that Yajulu was very learned man, also rigid and short tempered and alienated from his daughter because she married a dance teacher. It was all in the past and he is old at the beginning of the film. His friend saw an orotundity to for reconciliation by arranging a dance program by his granddaughter hoping that it may also result in the marriage with Yajulu's son's son. Yajulu quickly melts and more or less orders the marriage and his standing in the family was such, and all others are (except the girl) agreeable to the idea. So things moved too fast for the girl to even indicate her inclinations. The reverie on the boat was about her past experiences
    with the flutist.
    I enjoyed the movie. I missed many of these movies when they came out thinking that they were trying to eulogize traditional culture and moreover I was abroad. But it seems a nice movie without too much heavy weight dances with some improvisation in the dances and music and easy for somebody like me to appreciate. The arguments about caste are nicely done I think. I like the Sanskrit accent. I think that Vedic Sanskrit adopted some sounds from indigenous languages which were not in earlier Sanskrit which again disappeared in classical Sanskrit. But they are preserved in the South and Maharashtra, and the current Sanskrit pronunciation is closer to the Vedic one in the south than north, I think. It is surprising thing to happen in a language where the exact pronunciation is supposed to be important. I am not too sure about the Telugu pronunciation. The story is supposed to be happening on the banks of Krishna but Allu Ramalinhaiah speaks with East Godavari ( ?) accent. Some of the pele seem too good to be true.
    In any case, I enjoyed the movie, particularly listening to
    Telugu conversations and stanzas. Thanks.
    P.s. I am using iPad and am still not sure how to use it. Possibly several typos.

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  2. Gaddeswarup- You have all sorts of interesting connections to these recent topics don't you! :) Your insights into the film are very helpful- I was a bit lost at the beginning and didn't quite understand the family tensions with Yajulu and his daughter/granddaughter. I see, so the "boat reverie" was a flashback. I was so invested in watching their romance that I thought it was happening in that part of the movie, though it makes sense it would have been before given the point she starts dreaming she has just been engaged. I agree with your view of the movie not being too "heavy" and easy for those of us not so "in the know" to appreciate. I'm afraid your comments on language and accents are quite over my head! :) Thanks as always for your insights. (and sorry the comment font is so small... will have to do some tweaking to my blog to fix this!)

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  3. Om JAtavedase is part of the durga sooktam that they chant to the godess in temples.

    here's the lyrics and meaning, even if it scrolls past very quick.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJTJlAy0O_w&feature=player_embedded#!

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Hi Minai,

    I am totally impressed with your analysis of the films and this one in particular is pretty close to my heart. The movie was shot one lane down from my aunt's place in Amaravathi and on my subsequent visits to the place, it was always about what song was shot where in that place. I have been to the Amaralingeswara temple where the Tandava has been picturized and it is indeed a breathtaking temple... Yet another personal element to this was the fact that my grandma happened to travel in the same train coach with Sabitha and I think it was a treasured moment for her to share the space with an actress and a talented dancer. We heard a lot from on how beautiful sabitha is :)

    How do you manage to gather so much info...beats me :) But, am very glad that you are taking the trouble of sharing with everyone. Please visit this blog I have for Kuchipudi artists - http://kuchipudikalakar.blogspot.com/

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  6. rameshram - thank you for that info and the link! I had no idea it was a codified song. Lovely to see the English translation, which makes Sabita's dancing make much more sense. :)

    vedasri - Wow! Someone else with a close connection to this film! Thank you for the information, it's wonderful to know the name of the town and temple seen in the film. Such lovely comments I'm getting these days. :) I will have to take a look at the recent Kuchipudi artists listed on your blog- I don't know much about the "who's who" in Kuchipudi dance so it will be interesting to look at videos of folks I haven't heard of before. Thanks again! :)

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  7. It's kind of odd that you're still using "tandav" when you're talking about South Indian films. Generally, with Sanskrit-based words, Southie languages add an "-am". So, it would be "tandavam" in Telugu/Tamil/Malayalam. For Sanskrit, it would be "tandava". "Tandav" I've never hear before, but it sounds like Hindi.

    This happens with most Sanskrit-origin words: sangeet (Hindi) = sangeetha (Sanskrit) = sangeetham (south); and nach/nautch (Hindi) = natya (Sanskrit) = natyam (South).

    Also, this one isn't Sanskrit, but I should point it out anyway: gunghroo (Hindi) = salangai (Tamil) = gajjalu (Telugu).

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  8. yeah! like maa in hindi is mom in english ...and naa in hindi is nom in english....wait thats not right...

    Rameshram

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  9. @ C:

    Well, it doesn't happen with every word, obviously. It's only for words stemming from Sanskrit, and only ones that end in "a".

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  10. anon - thanks for the info. I've picked up on those distinctions in general but not really seen a comprehensive explanation until your comment. The hard part for us nonIndians is determining what to call something when referring to things in general (or knowing if a term we come across is a general term or a language-specific term). I'm surprised you haven't heard of the term tandav- that's all I ever see in the sites and research I haunt. :)

    Rameshram - I think someone is just hungry for noms!

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  11. I am not able to paste the YouTube link here, but recently a tv channel tracked down Sabitha. Looks like she is living in hyderabad with her scientist husband, 2 daughters & a son. Search for saptapadi Sabitha anveshana by tv9 , uploaded by @tv9telugu account.

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    1. THANK YOU!! Amazing! A video interview of Sabitha today starting at 13:50 to the end! I wish I understood Telugu! I'm curious if she discusses acting in any other films. And look how much she has aged! The video production itself is a hoot with the dramatic editing and sound effects as if they are investigating a murder or something. :)

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  12. I'd love to go to the place where the film was shot.but,what exactly is that place?

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  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amaravati,_Andhra_Pradesh

    The place is Amaravathi near Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. Worth visiting. It is on the banks of River Krishna. The Amamralingeswara temple is amazing and so is the Buddhist Stupa.

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  14. Hi, could you please let me know if I can buy or download this movie with English subtitle? Thank you.

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    Replies
    1. I'm not aware of any sources with English subtitles, sorry. :(

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  15. My friend's mother grew up in East Godavari district and says that a major part of Sankarabharanam and Saptapadi were shot there. I was so fond of the Bhama Kalapam piece in the movie and as a three-year-old, I saw my aunt (a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi teacher) train her students in this particular piece and I decided to learn classical dance. Saptapadi influenced my thinking at a philosophical level as well and made me inquire more into the philosophies of Adi Shankara.

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    1. Hello Arjun--Ah, so Sankarabharanam was shot in that area too! Seems to be a popular filming location. I really wish I could find an English subtitled copy of this film so I (and others) could understand the philosophy that you're referring to.

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  16. The retrospective article mentioned does not seem to be available now. It seems that there is a Hindi remake http://translate.google.com.au/translate?hl=en&sl=pl&u=http%3A%2F%2Fciumma.blogspot.com%2F2012%2F03%2Fsaptapadi-1981-vs-jaag-utha-insan-1984.html&prev=search

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  17. Luckily the Wayback Machine archived the retrospective page--you can see it here.How embarrassing that I just now see I misspelled retrospective (now fixed). :) Yes, I had posted about Sridevi's tandav dance in Jaag Utha Insan. Definitely a Hindified remake of the film. :)

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  18. Sapthapadhi 30 yrs completed but still in people's heart

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  19. This is one of the best films & rightly won the award for its rational approach depicting an intercaste marriage born of love rather than marrying within the caste & pining for another! However my question is -why did the Hindi remake of Saptapadi have to end differently ? That is with both hero & heroine dying Romeo-Juliet style?

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