It is often said that the first shot or the first sequence of a film normally betrays its intent. The first sequence in K Viswanath’s Shankarabharanam (1979) sees a small steamer moving crossing a river where the passengers are entertained by the musical antics of Tulasi’s young child. The boy finds music and creates rhythm through brass vessels, key chains, match boxes and a host of other things that he has an immediate access to. The sound track in this sequence is deftly designed through a combination of musically magnified sounds of such a rhythm that is carefully mixed with the sounds of the engine, the hooting of the steamer and water waves. It would seem that the intent of the film is music. It is, in fact, explicitly stated before the film begins – through a narration – that this movie is an effort to bringing classical music to its audience.
The plot of the film sees widower and successful Carnatic singer, Sankara Sastry (JV Somayajulu), staying with his only daughter Sarada (Rajyalakshmi Chendu). Tulasi, the daughter of a devadasi (Manju Bhargavi), reveres Sastry’s art and his dedication to it. She is sold to a rich landlord, who rapes her. In a fit of rage she kills him. Sastry not only helps her get acquitted but also gives her refuge in his house. However, the conservative society does not approve of this platonic relationship. Unable to see Sastry’s personal and professional life getting affected, Tulasi leaves his house for good. After a few years, the growing influence of western music results in the neglect of the classical system reducing Sastry to live a life of poverty. Tulasi is successful in planting her young son, born out of her rape, into Sastry’s household without revealing his identity. She even helps Sastry financially without letting him know about it. On the day of Sarada’s marriage, a grand concert is arranged during which Sastry dies but not before coming to know about Tulasi’s reality. He symbolically transfers his musical legacy onto her son. Tulasi comes to him and dies at his feet.
Despite his reversing fortunes, the main character in the movie, Sankara Sastry is fiercely committed to this cause of classical music. He walks out of a concert when a couple of insensitive people chat in the front row ignoring what’s going on the stage. He incurs the wrath of the traditional society in which he is living when he gives refuge to Tulasi, a woman from a different caste but with strong affiliations to classical music. This, after she is raped and has committed a murder. He slaps Tulasi’s son, who is dancing to the tune of a western musical piece in front of his house. Later, when he has accepted the same repentant child as his disciple; he fondly guides him when the young boy misses a few lines of the lyrics. Sastry gets into and wins a musical duel with his neighbors, who ridicule the Carnatic music system. He chides a music teacher for teaching a young kid a classical tune in a mutated way without understanding the emotions of the lyrics. He is extremely upset when his daughter makes a mistake while singing a song. He accepts his future son-in-law only when he comes to know his serious intent of learning classical music. He never compromises with his music, so much so that he even dies on stage while singing his favorite composition.
Every other character in the film, to varying degrees, is involved with Sastry’s musical heritage. Having learnt from her father from a very young age, daughter Sarada seems to be the natural legacy bearer of Sastry’s heritage. Tulasi, of course, in enamored by his music so much so that her main aim in life is to make her son learn music from Sastry. After initial hiccups, Tulasi’s son, too, gets serious in his musical endeavors and his association with Sastry. The anti-classical, young, western rock band is stunned by Sastry’s knowledge and the ease with which he sings their music. Sastry’s commitment to music at the cost of worldly matters is a cause of concern to his lawyer friend but the lawyer stands firmly behind Sastry even in his worst times. The lawyer’s wife has no love lost for Sastry but she is committed to a man (her husband), who is committed to Sastry. Even a minor character like Sarada’s future mother-in-law wants her son married to Sarada because of Sastry’s musical legacy.
So, the narrative and the character patterns depicted in the film clearly indicates to us that the film is all about a commitment towards classical music. When Sastry accepts Tulasi into her household despite societal objections, the film explicitly states its anti-caste intention. This is further endorsed when, in the end, Sastry symbolically hands over his musical tradition to Tulasi’s son by gifting him his precious anklet that was bestowed upon him for his musical genius. Ironically, it is this very symbolic act that betrays the depiction of a patriarchal system at work. It is a society where power is held by and passed down through the males. Sastry does not have a male issue, but he does have a daughter. The plot of the film does include sequences that show that his daughter, Sarada, is versatile in her musical talent, albeit not to the extent of Sastry himself. Why was she not chosen for the transfer of his musical legacy? Is it because she is going to be married away into another family? The film is not clear on this. Maybe the makers are not interested in it because if they were, the film would have dealt with it.
What about Tulasi? She is as committed too – she sings and even dances well. She learns music much like the character of Ekalavya in the Indian epic Mahabharatha, the archer who practiced archery in front of a statue of a teacher, who has refused to teach him. Without his knowledge, she learns as much when Sastry imparts musical knowledge to his daughter. She even practices in front of a gramophone record that plays the compositions of Sastry. Couldn’t she have taken over Sastry’s legacy? But after an initial foray into Sastry’s house, the filmmaker banishes her into the back ground. What happens to her all those years when she was raising her son as a single parent? This question is never explained simply because the filmmaker is not dealing with the issue of a strong woman standing tall and making choices in her life to be independent. Not to deal with this issue is a choice that he has made. When Tulasi comes back into the picture wanting to plant her son into the Sastry’s household, it would possibly seem to us – in retrospect – that she is working towards a goal that involves her son taking over the musical legacy of Sastry. The final nail in the coffin is nailed when the script literally kills her in the end. From Shakarabharanam to The Dirty Picture (2011), the woman, who dares to revolt, is ultimately killed by the script – a leitmotif in mainstream cinema.
I now wish to come back to what I had mentioned in the beginning of this piece – that the beginning of a film normally betrays its intent. Shankarabharanam starts with a sequence where Tulasi’s son journeys across a river. The sequence is a celebration of his musical inquisitiveness. Celebrate it must for it is he who finally takes over the musical legacy and not the other two probable women in the film, who are equally competent if not more. He is the chosen one.
Overtly, it might seem that the film is based on music but every element used in the story betrays its patriarchal intentions. For example, in a sequence after her mother is taken to jail, Tulasi is confronted by her uncle, wanting her to take her back to his home. As a tussle takes place, the uncle has his hands on Tulasi when he sees someone approaching. It is Sastry coming towards them – the imposing figure that he is. His footwear sound is enhanced. The camera looks up on him, in a low angle shot, as he comes towards it. There are others walking in the background, but no other footstep is heard except that of Sastry. Intimidated by this towering figure, the uncle lets her go. But what stopped Tulasi from resisting and getting violent with her uncle? That would have been logical, for after all a scene earlier or so, the bold woman that she is, she had murdered her brutal rapist. The filmmaker has simply not chosen this path. The sequence ends when Sastry gestures her to come with him and into his patriarchal fold. Tulasi is really relieved to see Sastry save her as she obediently follows him into his patriarchal system (albeit a caste-free one) with extreme gratitude.
The apparent theme of this film – a commitment towards classical music, would thus seem to be subservient to the theme of maintenance of the status quo of the patriarchal power. The former is in the foreground and obvious; the latter is dominant, but is cleverly hidden thanks to the mastery of the film director and his art. If the filmmaker were serious about the film’s commitment towards classical music, it would have shown in the recording of the songs used in the movie. Although most of the songs used in Shankarabharanam have a classical base in the sense that they are Carnatic music compositions, they are not purely classical in the purest form that the movie propagates through its central character, Sastry. There are different layers of instrumentalization in many of the songs used in the movie, which normally are not found in the pure classical mode. Symphony is best seen in Western classical music or maybe in mainstream film songs. In a sequence that I had mentioned earlier, Sastry chides a music teacher for distorting an original composition and thus destroying its purity. Well, the filmmaker seems to be doing exactly the same. We wonder then if the filmmaker is seriously talking about classical music at all. If he were, he would have walked the talk and maintained the purity of the classical form in the songs that he has recorded and used in the film.
Thus, it is only by going through the formal structure used in the film that we can come to the conclusions as to what the movie deals with. How you make it is highly correlated to what you are saying in the movie.
K Viswanath is perceived as master filmmaker. I did talk about his deft sound designing earlier. In an industry and age where delivering long dramatic dialogues was the norm, he makes his protagonist an unconventional, middle-aged person, who is not your typical chocolate hero and keeps his dialogue to a minimum, instead making him use gestures and postures to communicate. He has all major emotions or rasas in the film coming at different points in time – peace, love, joy, wonder, anger, courage, sadness, fear, disgust et al. He also works successfully with a screenplay that seem to be a loose narration of events rather than a tight cause-and-effect dramatic plot that we are all more familiar with. It tends towards the epic structure in the sense that it has a multiplicity of plots – the Sastry plot, the Tulasi and her mother plot, Tulasi’s son’s plot, Sarada and her prospective husband plot, the lawyer and his wife plot, the plot of the rock band etc. In a sense, its idiom is very Indian in nature. That does not take away the fact that in certain areas, the film tends to take a position that can be best called regressive. As they say, it is all in the context.