In the movie Indian, Kamal Hassan, fixing a rendezvous with his sweetheart Manisha Koirala says: "We'll go to the theatre where they're showing Schindler's List -- a wonderful movie, so no one will be there..." Films that win awards usually carry such an impression and the tag 'Award Film', as though they were struck by viewer's plague, or some such thing.
Golden Square Films Private Limited's Sringaram -- Dance of Love, amazingly has managed to evade the fate of Steven Spielberg's classic, with its taut screenplay, classy music, accurately choreographed classical dance, and charming visuals.
Half the burden of making a story with a historical background work is in projecting the right atmosphere -- and that, sadly is something only a handful of filmmakers excel in. Bringing about a 1920s rural village in front of your eyes, complete with sprawling temples, clusters of trees, properly attired villagers with their kondais and kadukkans intact, puffy blouses and grandfather's sonorous wall-clock is no easy task. But it has been accomplished brilliantly with the aid of art director Thottatharani.
A perfect setting has been provided to sink into the story that begins with a young girl searching for her roots -- in her long-forgotten mother, and the startlingly haunting life she led.
Madhura (Aditi Rao Hydari) is proclaimed the principal Devadasi, the Temple dancer connected to the Siva Temple of Mahadevapuram, in an elaborately performed ritual, and the requisite Sivathaali. The Dasi system, with its attendant rules and regulations, its ethics and dress-codes, and unwritten rules is spread before you in all its splendour. Beautiful women adorn themselves in all the antique finery of those days (kudos to the research), dance in the temple, and finally submit themselves to the lord of the earth.
But this is done once they paid obeisance to those of the heavens -- in this case, Mahadevapuram's principal landlord and arbiter of society, the Mirasu (Manoj K Jayan). Also part of her life are Kasi (Shashikumar) the temple watchman who peers over the temple walls to gaze at the divinely beautiful Madhura, Kamavalli (Hamsa Moili) who trains along with Madhura but can never be her equal, and Ponnammaal Nachiyar (Manju Bhargavi) who was once a beauty. Now, she is the willing and clever governor of Madhura's life and fortunes.
Madhura's talent and beauty are unequalled, and the Mirasu is not exempt from her guileless charms: but he is not as enamoured of just her art as she would like to believe. Educated in London he might be, but he is just as subject to local customs, authority, avarice and greed.
The temple priest (Y Gee Mahendra) and the Kangani (Kalaimamani Vaigai Chandrasekar) are aware of Madhura's turmoil, but social custom prevents them from proclaiming their aid for all to see. The only exception is the younger priest Manisundaram (Bharat Kalyan) who comes to Madhura's aid -- but in a manner she cannot accept.
Madhura plunges on, sure that underneath all the pressure to be the subservient Dasi must exist a fearless woman with self-esteem, capable of practicing her art for herself alone. And it's a journey which she alone can undertake.
Despite the central characters, the secondary ones manage to steal the show whenever they appear: Dasi Saroja (Sindhu), who tries to capture the Mirasu herself, the Mirasu's wife (Aishwarya), beautiful and serene, yet heartsick of her husband's lust for the Dasi -- and others who provide completion to the cast as a whole.
Not forgotten, either, is the political situation; the momentum-gathering freedom struggle which forms an able backdrop to the proceedings.
Well aware that a film based on the ancient Devadasi system must have music and dance as its epicenter, debutante director Sharadha Ramanathan has chosen veterans in both fields to add immeasurable class to the work.
For music, its Padma Bhushan Lalgudi G Jayaraman, whose work fits the situations to a T, particularly excelling in the classically correct keerthanais and songs, which combine aesthetic pleasure while conforming to musical standards. Most pleasing to the ear, perhaps, is the folk song with its simple tones, sung in the rich voice of O S Arun.
Choreographer Saroj Khan (for whom this film is the first in its genre), has obviously done a great deal of homework: the footwork and expressions of the dancers are a perfect blend of tradition and symmetry.
And then there's Madhu Ambat, the cinematographer, who offers Mahadevapuram at its scenic best, the frames showcasing a collage of emotions and events like an expressive dancer.
The dialogues are crisp and fit the situations, while costumes, tastefully done reflect the times, taking you right back through the decades.
Sringaram is truly a feast for the senses.