The meaning in movement


Where does dance and cinema intersect with histrionics that would put a Balaji Telefilms scriptwriter to shame? Veteran Telugu director and actor Kasinadhuni Vishwanath would know, for his actresses were being slapped thrice in repetitive frames to create an explosive effect long before the triple slap on cheek became a defining motif of soap operas.

Born in 1930, Vishwanath began his career as an audiographer at a Chennai studio, before moving on to assist directors. His first foray into direction was with Aatma Gowravam, a Telugu drama film, in 1965. Beginning with O Seeta Katha, where one of the main characters is a Harikatha performer, many of his films featured classical musicians and dancers as protagonists. The struggle to sustain an art practice was always an underlying theme in some of his most famous works. For instance, in Siri Siri Muvva, Jayaprada plays a mute girl who nurses dancing ambitions. In Sankarabharanam (1979), the protagonist Tulasi, played by Manju Bhargavi, dances on the beach in a spontaneous response to Sankara Sastri’s singing. Manju Bhargavi acts the part of a courtesan’s daughter; while she is drawn towards the spiritual aspect of music and dance, her mother is an opposing force, pressurising her to use her skills to take on clients for money.
Sankarabharanam was very well-received, winning five National Awards, besides triggering a slew of mainstream Telugu films that used classical music and dance. Among them were Vishwanath’s own films, made in the 1980s. Other directors also joined the bandwagon — Dasari Narayana Rao’s story of a poet and a devadasi, Meghasandesam (1983), travelled to the film festivals at Cannes and Moscow.
Vishwanath was partial to panoramic landscapes and themes. Had it not been for him the arid red heat of inland Andhra Pradesh – from Manju Bhargavi in Sankarabharanam to Bhanupriya in Swarna Kamalam, his actresses would often lose themselves in the ecstasy of dance at scenic beachside locations. Fettered by the trying circumstances of their lives, it is on loose, free-flowing sand that his protagonists are at their most liberated. The beach allows them to remain unobserved, but by singling out what is essentially ‘private’, Vishwanath reinforces a mode of voyeurism, using the camera to subvert the private space that the beach constitutes.
In the song sivapoojaku chigurinchina siri siri muvva from Swarna Kamalam, which is incidentally a dream sequence, Bhanupriya dances her way across Orissa, showcasing sculpturesque poses against the backdrop of the temples surrounding the Bindusagar tank in Bhubaneswar and cavorting across the concrete expanse of the Dhauli stupa. Another fascinating aspect of Vishwanath’s movies is the propensity to endow his protagonists with skills in more than one, and often two or three classical dances. In the Swarna Kamalam song, Bhanupriya is seen in successive blink-and-miss scenes where she dons Mohiniattam, Manipuri, Bharatanatyam and Odissi costumes.
Another prodigiously talented dancer-character in Vishwanath’s films was Kamal Haasan, who played Baalu, a poverty-stricken dancer performing Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Kathak in Saagara Sangamam (1983), dubbed as Salangai Oli in Tamil. As years pass by, the older Haasan, talented but unsung, is a dance critic, frustrated and tending to alcoholism. In a captivating scene, he dances Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kathakali versions of the same song in the middle of a newspaper office when a dancer whom he writes a bad review about angrily questions his knowledge of dance. As in Sankarabharanam, where one of the main protagonists, a Carnatic musician, descends into poverty due to the decline of classical music, Baalu of Saagara Sangamam also addresses what is perceived as the commercialisation of dance, where the female dancer’s intentionally flippant must serve to titillate rather than evoke spiritual sentiment.
Sometimes, real-life characters step in to endorse Vishwanath’s tropes in the reel world. Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen makes a significant appearance in Swarna Kamalam, advising Bhanupriya’s character Meenakshi who dedicates herself to dance and making a career of it. In Lowen’s first scene in the film, she is shown watching Meenakshi/Bhanupriya perform, where, upset by the latter’s superficial demeanour, she walks out of the performance in disgust. Later, she eggs Meenakshi along the path of true devotion, encouraging her to bring out the inner meaning of her form.
Dance is not extraneous; it allows for the unfolding of dramatic elements in Vishwanath’s films. Long after the songs in his films have collapsed into a miasma of tunes, Manju Bhargavi’s piteous gaze lingers on, her sensuously lined lips bursting with the radiance of her devotion, and dollops of technicolor magic.

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