Found: Rangam (Malayalam, 1985) and Shobana/Mohanlal's Bharatanatyam and Kathakali Dances!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rangam, one of the holdouts from my "holy grail" wish list, has finally been uploaded to YouTube! (Update: New source relinked in 2019). Thanks to cram for informing me of this lucky discovery! As I had hoped, classical dance (Kathakali and Bharatanatyam) serves as the backdrop to Rangam's plot, and no more than 15 minutes go by before dance is seen again either in the background or as a centerpiece. Most exciting of all, there are lots of my beloved dance practice sequences scattered throughout the film!

Rangam is part of the rash of classical arts films that swept South India in the late 70s to 90s starting largely with the success of Sankarabharanam (Telugu, 1979). Rangam seems to be one of the earliest Malayalam films to follow the trend, and it was followed by other similar classical dance/arts films in Malayalam like Swathi Thirunal (1987), Kamaladalam (1992), Swathi Kiranam (1992), Rajasilpi (1992), Devasuram (1993), Manichitrathazhu (1993), Parinayam (1994), and Kaliyattam (1997).

Now on to the dances! I made a comment on the video at YouTube that lists all the dances in the film by category, so if you go there you can click on any timestamp of interest and it will whisk you away to that timestamp on the player. Here are my favorite dances from the film...

Bharatanatyam/Mohiniattam Dances

Practice Dance #1 - What a beautiful 4-minute-plus practice dance! This fits among my favorites of Shobana's film dances. The "heart" of the number and the way it's choreographed and presented seems in the right place, and the dance has a much different "feel" than faux filmi classical dances (such as "Swaathi Hridaya" below). Shobana's long limbs carve beautiful spaces as she leads a group of young women before dancing solo and then shifting to a solo stage performance. Her dance talent shines through here and elevates the number. And those 80s practice sarees with the big blocks of color—love!

Starts 26:21

Practice Scene #2 - Only one minute long, this indoor practice scene features Shobana rising to give a solo demonstration for a group of young women. Those sweeping upward arm movements and the circular torso movements of the students seem to be a sped-up film version of Mohiniattam.

Starts 1:00:01

"Swaathi Hridaya" - The rare male classical dancer on screen! Here it's Ravindran (aka Raveendran), the popular actor/dancer in 1980s Malayalam and Tamil films who did some entertaining numbers like this disco dance with Silk Smitha [video no longer available]. "Swaathi Hridaya" starts out sweetly enough with Ravindran and Shobana practice dancing on the spot and a Shobana stage dance, but it shifts into a "filmi classical" number with Shobana frolicking outdoors and showcasing what I have come to love calling "prettified-quick-choreography." Shame neither Ravindran or Mohanlal join Shobana in the fun!  

Starts 47:53

Dance Competition - Yay, more Ravindran practice dancing! We only get a few seconds though, and then Shobana recites some tough solkattu (syllables) and rhythms on the tattukazhi (wooden block) and Mahalakshmi tries her best to match it with her dance which doesn't seem to adhere to a particular style. I wish Shobana would've gotten up and showed her skills with that same deathly expression. This whole scene reminds me of Salangai Oli/Sagara Sangamam not only because of Ravindran's Kamal Hassanesque look and dance but also in the competitive practice dance setting which is reminiscent of the one in Salangai Oli. The homages are made explicit when we see Ravindran and Mahalakshmi watch a clip on their TV of Kamal's famous "Nada Vinodangal" dance in Salangai Oli, a film that obviously had a huge impact after its release in 1983.

Starts 1:29:24

Kathakali Dance-Drama

Rangam shows that Mohanlal's performance as a Kathakali artist in the coproduction Vanaprastham (1999) was not his first. Why then has Mohanlal given a clear impression to the contrary in interviews like this one? However, when I watched the Kathakali performances in Rangam carefully (which is easy to do since there is less than 5 minutes total footage), it looked like my assumption that he is always on stage was wrong. In the first Kathakali performance, the dancer seen on stage has different face makeup and adornments than Mohanlal did when shown in closeup in the shot immediately previous (though the casual observer might think they are the same):

In the final performance at the end, I think I see evidence that a double or another artist performed for Mohanlal save a couple brief shots. Compare the details of the forehead makeup from Mohanlal's preparatory scene compared to the two shots from the performance:

But even if Mohanlal didn't perform the difficult choreography/abhinaya on stage, there are other scenes of him teaching rudimentary Kathakali moves and thus "performing" Kathakali in a film.

Looking at the Kathakali in the film as a whole, the footage at the very start of the film of the Kathakali artists preparing for their performance goes beyond the usual makeup and cutti (white jaw border) application shots and shows the pieces of the costume and jewelry being placed and tied on which I found very interesting. Kathakali practice scenes are scattered throughout the film, but they are brief and edited poorly so don't make much of an impact. According to Malayalasangeetham, the Kathakali artists Kalamandalam Hyderali, Jagannatha Varma, Guru Chemancheri Kunjiraman Nair, and Kalamandalam Kesavan (who was also in Vanaprastham), were part of the film's cast. Jagannatha Varma (who was also in Parinayam and Devasuram) can be seen in some of the practice scenes (a screencap below) and for Mahalakshmis' Kathakali practice, and I think the latter two can be seen in the last two screencaps below, on the right and middle respectively:

Mahalakshmi, the westernized temptress in the film, has an interesting Kathakali practice scene where she learns from Mohanlal, and later she dreams of herself in female costume.

Starts 1:37:20

The Film

Judging the film purely on what I observed visually (and not understanding a whit of Malayalam), the plot seems to revolve entirely around romance and infidelity among the four stars, the pious Mohanlal and Shobana and the tempted Ravindran and Mahalakshmi. Two "evils" are focused on: sexual temptation/immorality and the corrupting influence of the "West" and its values. Mahalakshmi's character embodies and catalyzes both of these things in the film. In contrast to Shobana's demure sarees and demeanor, Mahalakshmi wears western clothes and hair and welcomes Ravindran's sexual advances with no shame.

Besides not being a virtuous ideal of Indian womanhood, Mahalakshmi also introduces technology into the film when she arrives and videotapes and photographs the Kathakali artists who are seen preening and posing for her (similar to Bhanupriya's camera posing faux pas mid-performance in Swarna Kamalam). Whereas a tape recorder can be seen in the background unused while Shobana is teaching with live musicians, the director often makes sure the tape recorder is clearly visible and in use when Ravindran and Mahalakshmi perform their dances because, you know, they're corrupted and degrading the purity of the art.

Comparing Rangam to later Malayalam films that focused on classical dance, it seems more focused on the romantic quandrangle and coming up with yet another way to fade discretely to presumed lovemaking, and the dance content feels more like a background item that happens to be there rather than something that is artistically and lovingly captured by the camera. Strange and abrupt editing feels jarring, and the locations in the film seem unidentifiable. Kamaladalam, the Malayalam film perhaps closest to Rangam, is a superior production. But, perhaps I missed something not understanding the dialogues—if anyone would like to translate the gist of the film I'd be grateful! Apparently Rangam was a commercial flop, so maybe my impression is spot on. Anywho, what a glorious day that this film is finally available for all to see!


  1. Minai, Did you miss Jagannadha Varma's practice sessions? He was a trained Kathakali artist.

    1. Oh! He must be this guy! I was wondering who that was! Will do a quick bit of research and edit the post. :)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks! Post has been edited. Didn't realize he was in Parinayam and Devasuram too! Hope you're doing well! :)

  3. Hi Minai, have you seen this?

  4. Or this Telugu version: ?

    1. Hi Cram! Ah yes, I had posted about that dance of Kamala's before. Thanks for sharing--keep 'em coming!! :D


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