Navarathiri, a spectacle by Venkateswaran Ganesan

Navarathiri, the film, begins with an AP Nagarajan (APN) voiceover that talks about how our ancestors have categorized human emotions (rasAs) into 9 aesthetics and goes on to name them. We are also explicitly made aware of the rasAs as the heroine Nalina (Savithri Ganesh) meets each of the 9 rasAs played by the hero Sivaji Ganesan, either through his name or the dialogues from Sivaji/Savithri themselves making it obvious. Now one has to factor that the film is 51 years old when we notice this cliché and that it was servicing its time. But I say Nalina meets the 9 rasAs and not characters because that is precisely the purpose of the film. The plot is done away with in the first 10 minutes and the film exhibits a very deliberate aversion in delineating the plot thoroughly. Nalina’s engagement being fixed to ‘Anandan’ (unknown to her) who she happens to love serendipitous-ly solves the only knot in the film. As she rushes to end her life as Anandan threatens to end his towards the climax but opens the door in the nick of time for Nalina to rush in with Anandan’s face barely masking his delight, sitting at odds with his near suicidal demeanor moments before, the tonal inconsistency is deliberate and the film has an enjoyable disdain towards expending its energies in plot movement.

Its core concerns are in delineating the 9 rasAs and in being a vehicle for Sivaji the super-actor to expressly bring forth all the human emotions in all their highs in a single film. The film’s thematic consistency is noteworthy. It begins with a song on Navarathiri, Nalina escapes home on the first night of the festival and her chief interactions with the 9 Sivajis (including her lover at the end) are in the 9 nights, with each episode opening in the day and unfolding and culminating in the night.

Why Should I Talk?

Now, why should anyone talk? Nalina wants to end her life but is saved by ‘Arputha’raj (wonder, curiosity). He is forever curious to know about her (so are some of the other rasAs to lesser degrees) but she, who seems a gregarious girl till she had that big tiff with her dad, doesn’t open up. He is, for all practical purposes, a stranger in the dark of the night who appears domineering. Why would she talk, leave alone get into character elaborations and confessions? (this is something Kamal Haasan handled with excellent dexterity in Virumandi when he refuses to open up to Angela and makes her understand his point of view for her to open up on her life leading to him seeing her point of view and opening up on his). And it is very important to service the flow of the film (Navarathiri i.e.) that Nalina doesn’t open up immediately.

It leads to Arputharaj opening up on his life and it is only after she is overwhelmed in wonder by his sudden yet unpredictable affection that she gives in through hints in an excellently written (Kannadasan) Sollava Kadhai Sollava? Quite ironic, considering that the film is low on story and high on emotions. But this is great storytelling already! And what a character Arputharaj is; his weirdly accented Nalina (the way he pronounces it is very Anglo-Saxon), his shoulder juggle making him almost a caricature initially. But as Nalina goes into her room with Arputharaj’s daughter, he switches on the radio and pauses and ruminates on a song line, peNNendru boomidhanil pirandhu vittAl, with a film of tears in his eyes and repeats the juggle which hitherto comical is suddenly heavy. He hands it back to us right there increasing our curiosity in him. There is an unsaid backstory to all of us. Now why should he talk? Sivaji was playing a quirky man. But a real man alright!

The scene with the drunk coward (unnamed Iravinil Attam guy) in the brothel. Has such a moment ever been created in Tamil cinema? Here, it is Nalina who is forced to ask him “yaar nee?!” (“who’re you?!”) and he doesn’t open up immediately. Again, why would he? He does, however, when pressed on by her about the women in his family. It’s time for him to open up about his woman. The angle to this shot is interesting. He crouches the entire time narrating his tale while the camera tilts up from the floor to catch him in close up for the entire few minutes he speaks. Superhuman acting! The tone of his narration is at odds with the sorrow in his tale. His tone is aloof. He does not share any empathy for his wife and tries hiding the sorrow at his failed marriage. He bites an apple while speaking and his pause at unga madilaye uyira vitturren-…-nga (narrating his wife telling him she’d leave her life in his lap) alone conveys his distance from the emotion of what he’s narrating. With a fricking apple chew pause! Sivaji was clearly having a lot of fun packing these moments into the film.

Again, Nalina is not willing to open up to the kind Doctor ‘Karuna’karan but he is not curious like Arputharaj was. In all his grace and kindness, he does not press her but is willing to adopt her. You do see that what Kamal did in Virumandi was apt for that character at that stage in the film. But Sivaji’s portrayal is much more nuanced, for it understands each emotion, and services neither the plot nor the character (nor our understanding of what constitutes subtle acting and overacting) but *that* rasA every time with unerring precision. The dramatist Singaram is more curious than the Doctor to know about her but is forced to shut up because of the gratitude he owes her. Clearly, the film packs a lot of punch into each emotion Sivaji services.

Detailing and Nuances

As in all great films, the detailing in this film is brilliant. The clutch of 9 mirrors in a brothel is wickedly appropriate.


The dialogues are of an extraordinary caliber, in their Tamil, and in how each actor delivers it. Even in a stretch meant for comedy in the asylum, a mentally disabled Manorama speaks with impeccable மோனை நயம் (mOnai nayam, where the first letters of the first word and the object in a sentence are the same; a literary device in Tamil): “thamburAkkAraukku thalaila katti; violinkArarukku vayathula vali; indha mridangakArar ippa dhAn pudhusA mAvu pOttAr, srudhi sErala. Also, Nalina’s character progression is lovely. She meets a Good Samaritan stranger first up who she is hesitant to trust and a manipulative madame who feigns to be a Good Samaritan next who she ends up trusting. What would she do next? Of course, she feigns to be mentally imbalanced. On that note, we see APN flogging a verbose Tamil cinema up to speed. As the madame tricks her into the brothel, we cut from the pimp saving her momentarily from the ire of a vegetable vendor to the scene inside a yet-to-be-disclosed brothel and the pimp already addresses her by name and mock berates if she wants to commit suicide again. All that is left for the audience to assume to have transpired between the two as the madame gains her trust by helping her. Now Nalina possibly opens up thinking all strangers are Good Samaritans till she learns her lesson.

She plays Savithri (levels of meta there) in Sathyavan Savithri with Singaram and carries on in that new found fervor for acting to one Mr. ‘Veera’ppan, disguised as a male CID officer. Nalina pauses curiously for a moment at the Rajapart Dress Potti in Singaram’s change room as that phase ends and APN does not waste his time in explaining that is where she got her costumes for the CID officer’s façade. This is not worth mentioning for a film in 2015. But for 1964, it is.

And if Sivaji’s highs were glorious in Arputharaj, the coward and Karunakaran, he is no less playing the angry man who gets killed. He doesn’t blink his eye while angry and as we see him mellow down while speaking of his brother’s death, his eyes begin to blink! Unbridled rage knows no nuance. Similarly, the angry man tells Nalina she is his enemy too if she asks him not to kill because she’d be batting for his enemies to live! As much as it is brain-dead logic, that is *exactly* how a guy with only rage would think (or rather, not think at all). Every character displays varying degrees of different rasAs. The coward, Arputharaj and the angry man show different levels of sadness. Singaram is quick to get angry; Veerappan eventually shows kindness to Nalina and Anandan has a bout of depression before he sees his love, at which point it is key to service his rasA rather than worry about resolving the tonal inconsistency. No character is one dimensional but the high points of each character are whichever rasA they depict, which only the super actor can portray.

The leper Selvaraj for instance is of course disgusted by his own appearance, but more importantly, his disgust is also apparent at the society which has shunned him. As he crawls, one foot is immobile while he uses the other foot to move. Lepers undergo numbness in their limbs! And when Selvaraj thanks Nalina, giving full vent to his emotions, that she has rekindled his faith in humanity, I couldn’t help but go to Rashamon where the priest tells the woodcutter that the latter has given him reason to believe in humanity again. Or I’m just a sucker for supremely well enacted melodrama.

As a post script to detailing, Arputharaj’s little daughter Lalli even stands behind her athai in Nalina’s wedding eventually!

Nalina and the ‘Place of a Woman’

Nalina’s character arc in my opinion is one of the greatest a Tamil film heroine takes. She reflects her life in each of the 8 incidents she faces. Lalli says enakkengappannA romba ishtam athai, Karunakaran says he speaks to her like a father, the angry man questions her if it is right for a young couple to elope, Saanthappan, Singaram and Arputharaj see her like their sister, Selvaraj the leper lets her know peththa manasu piththu pilla manasu kallu (parents are simple hearted; children are stone hearted) and at every turn, she ruminates and reflects on how she has behaved with her father and repents. The characters, in addition to carrying the emotions, also serve for Nalina to relate with her own life.

Also, an important part of the film’s tone is a woman’s place in the society. Nalina’s father asks with entitlement, when she says she let him have his word with regards to her education which was stopped, if she won’t heed his word now. Arputharaj tells Nalina kalyanam Agadha ponnu; adhuvum kanni thanmaiyoda irukkara ponnu veettu vaasappadiya thANda koodAdhu. Karunakaran, as much as he saves her from the police since she is a woman, tells her that happiness for a woman is a good husband and a happy life with him. Singaram tells her a woman is not to be going out alone in life. Why, even in the meta therukoothu (streetplay), Sathyavan emphasizes that Savithri has let go of her achcham madam nANam payirppu (in a patriarchal world, which holds for Nalina too is my point)! Even Nalina herself eventually comes to agree that a woman would struggle on her own with no support (albeit from her experiences, she is justified). It is pointless judging the film since it is a reflection of its times (APN would come out with an equally nuanced take on a woman’s place in the society in a period film in Thillana Mohanambal 4 years later). But it is also worth noting that Nalina is a rebel through and through. She runs away from her home and as each character tells her her place, she keeps moving away from them and even after her ‘realization’, during her marriage, she is told by her to-be husband to behave like a woman and not raise her hands. So much for ‘realization’ and one’s actual nature, which the film is admirably consistent in portraying.

We do see every emotion’s reflection in Nalina. She is our linchpin into reading each rasA. She feels wonder upon experiencing Arputharaj’s good nature, she is afraid of the drunk coward, she even sympathizes and has a Stockholm Syndrome moment with the angry killer, gains an equanimity in seeing through the bluff of a charlatan (in ‘Saantha’ppan’s home), shares Selvaraj’s disgust for the society, partakes in Singaram’s drama performance with sringAram and even finds the bravery to break into Veerappan’s den in disguise.

What a performance from Savithri! Be it the momentary anger looking at the entrance of the brothel after dealing with the drunkard and back to fear and panic; foreshadowing the leper’s final good fortune even as the Doctor introduces himself and it is not yet apparent to the leper, the entire street play being an outstanding achievement and as a male in KV Nathan, she’s a virtual tour-de-force.

Street play

The film essentially had Sivaji playing 10 roles, the Sathyavan stage show included. As an amateur in undergrad who’s tried his hand at streetplay, I can say the emphasis there is on exaggerated body language than on being expressive. If we note, Sivaji’s eyes as Sathyavan are dramatic but utterly non-emotive. It hardly blinks! It is a superb understanding of a streetplay artiste. Same holds for Savithri. Her eyes are not even dramatic and utterly devoid of emotions; a total contrast to the tone of her narration. Knowing Savithri, of course it is not for want of ability but an understanding of Nalina, who is a novice in koothu.

On that note, the final scene of marriage is just as extraordinary. Male drama artistes (holds for Bharatanatyam dancers too) retain an effeminate nature in them because they also do Sripart (role of a woman; and various abhinayAs including sringAram as a dancer) and what we call thaLukku and naLinam in Tamil is a part of who they are. Singaram, made to sit right next to Veerappan (the 2 roles follow one another), shows that naLinam in his body language even as Veerappan is upright and manly. That is not all.

Watch where Singaram enters the hall:

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He even says poNNunga irukka edathukku vandhuttom polrukku. When no other character ever was introduced in the wedding via an alternate entrance (we even don’t know it exists till Singaram enters this way), where is the need to bring in Singaram this way unless it is deliberate? It is to underscore Singaram’s effeminism metaphorically. (as expected, the remakes in Telugu and Hindi completely miss this in translation.) Similarly, ‘Santha’ppan, the character for equanimity goes along to sit with his sister but is guided by Nalina-Anandan’s fathers to sit in the enclosure for men. He responds nAn engakkA kooda kundhikkarEnungaLE. He does not relate with urban prudishness since he is not even aware of malice, leave alone being capable of it. He is at equanimity.

I could keep going on but to me, this is one film where APN and Sivaji tellingly settle the greatest actor debate. It is Sivaji, daylight and the rest and in this case, that is owed in no small measure to APN’s nous in writing/filmmaking.


With Inputs From MS Prabhu Ram.