Thiruvarutchelvar is a Tamil devotional movie following a format I’ve seen in a few of these already.  The film basically consists as a series of vignettes that fit into a sacred piece of literature or poem that is being related by one of the characters.  In this particular case, the vignettes get underway when a king (Sivaji Ganesan) embarks on a quest to devote himself to God, beginning this quest with the recitation of a poem about God and a number of his disciples.  (I believe the number was 60-something – quite a few of them.)

But the events leading up to this recitation are quite amusing and probably comprise the best part of the film:  After witnessing a wonderful bharatanatyam dance by a “Queen of the arts” played by Padmini (see above), the king becomes “mad” with desire to the point where he makes very inappropriate advances on her.  The dancer shoots him down rather soundly and brilliantly, and the king, feeling remorse for being turned into “an animal” by his desire for her, asks his court sage/poet to teach him more about how to renounce such sinful ways and serve God.  But the king, still somewhat arrogant, also insists that the poet provide him answers to three questions regarding God:  Where can one find God, in what direction is he facing, and what is he doing now?  The poet is stunned, unable to think of convincing answers, but his pre-teen granddaughter manages to go in his place and teach the king a few lessons to show him facts that he had failed to understand.  

By pointing to a mixed milk drink and asking the king to show her one ingredient separate from the rest in the drink, she shows him that you can’t point to a place where God is because God is mixed into everything.  By showing the king a candle and asking him to tell her which direction the light is shining in, she shows him that you can’t tell someone the direction that God is facing in because he faces everywhere.  And by playing some game through which she gets the king to let her be king for a moment and then threatens to imprison him, she points out how God is constantly determining everyone’s fate, so you can’t say what God is doing right now.  (Yes, that one’s a bit more difficult to explain, but it kind of works as the scene plays out.)  The king, thus humbled even more by the encounter with this child, embarks on his truly holy mission, which begins with the recitation of verses.

The vignettes that result are admittedly not all that interesting plot-wise.  Mostly, they consist of one scene or another in which people are tested and are convinced as a result to follow a path of greater devotion to God.  (Sometimes God is identified as Shiva, though I’m not sure if this variation is due to the original text or just changes in the subtitles.  And these Hindu concepts can get a little complicated for a western agnostic like myself.)   But whether or not the plot of the vignettes remains intriguing (and I don’t think it’s gnerally as intriguing here as it is in a similar film Aathi Parasakthi (1971)), the movie remains impressive because of the performances.

The Padmini dance above, to the song “Mannavan Vanthandi ,” is one of her most famous and could be counted as one of the greatest dance  scenes in classic Tamil cinema.  (Part of the reason for that, by the way, is the great singing performance by P. Susheela, with music by K.V. Mahadevan.)  But Sivaji Ganesan also does a fantastic job all through the film, using different, unique methods to make his acting stand out.

I’ve read that Sivaji was an actor who could distinguish characters very well with a walk.  And in this film, it’s hard not to notice the different Sivaji walks.  At the beginning of the opening dance number with Padmini, Sivaji does this very amusing arrogant king’s walk that is perfectly timed to the music; I would bet it is one of the most memorable walks in Indian cinema.  And much later in the film, Sivaji puts on this very convincing hunched-over kind of walk as he plays a wandering sage/poet who is 80 years old.

The walk is just one of Sivaji’s techniques, of course.  In his gestures, expressions, etc., he really can create compelling characters.  Some people do seem to think that he can be a bit “over the top.”  And I’ve heard/seen some people (well, one, at least) say that MGR was a better actor.  Personally speaking, though, I have to say that I have always enjoyed Sivaji’s performances.  And I’ve seen a few now – first, really, because I was looking for Padmini, but now I’ll gladly watch a film just for Sivaji, too.

While the dance at the beginning might be the best remembered from this movie, there are a few other song-and-dance performances that are also great fun to watch.  There’s one fantastic number, actually at the beginning of the first of the vignettes, that involves a bunch of men and women who are washing and drying clothes or fabrics by the water…  The fabrics are brilliantly colored, and they become an important part of the song and dance, which is extremely colorful, in more ways than one.  (All helped along, once again, by fine music by K.V. Mahadevan.)

The skit that this leads into is a comedy scene that I found a bit difficult to follow.  (It’s something about a reversal of gender roles – a guy is doing all the washing and his wife is ordering him around while she counts clothes and money.  And then there’s some banter with a midget. I think there must have been a bit lost in translation.)  But this is a kind of movie that can be enjoyed for many different reasons, whether or not certain elements work for you.

I think that can be said of most of these devotional films.  Certainly, a viewer like me isn’t going to enjoy it or understand it in the same ways as someone in India who was raised on Hinduism (or is being raised…as I think a lot of these movies were meant to appeal to children at least as much as to adults).  But there’s still plenty to enjoy in many of these, and for performances alone, this was one of the best.

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