Friday, September 3, 2010

SRIDEVIPALOOZA: Star-Crossed Lovers, Green Kumkumum and a Bat Grove: Devaragam (1996)

When I first watched the Tamil-dubbed version of this movie back in the late 90s, I was completely entranced. I watched it over and over again, got my best friend addicted to it too, then got our mothers into it as well. It brought about a lot of deep conversations and debates about brahmin culture, feminism, family-bond, tradition, etc. Devaragam was a Malayalam-language film directed by Bharathan, starring Sridevi, Arvind Swamy and Nedimudi Venu. There's some question via online sources whether it released in 1996 or 1999, but the one consensus is that it was a huge flop.

I'm not sure why people disliked this movie. I seriously loved it. The acting was superb, the music gorgeous and the storyline typical of Malayalam films - a tearjerker. The brightest spot of the entire film was definitely Sridevi, as the beautiful Lakshmi.

Though a little Arvind Swamy never hurt anyone either:

The film opens with a young child climbing into a bullock cart and insisting that he also go with the cart to pick up the 'Shavundi' - a person who performs funeral rites and lives amongst the cremation grounds. Though essential to the funeral ceremonies, he is often considered frightening or unlucky. He certainly looks that way too - covered in ash and grime, sleeping in a bat-infested grove and given ominous background music. The 'Shavundi' and child begin talking in the cart ride to the funeral, and then a flashback takes us to meet Lakshmi.

Life for Lakshmi turns head over heels when Vishnu (Arvind Swamy), the new priest's son and priest-in-training, shows up in her village. Lakshmi is instantly intrigued by the new young man in town, as you can see towards the end of this beautiful (albeit not very devotional in nature with all the thumkas) dance, Tham Thanananam(LOVE her expressions at the end, starting at 3:53):

Lakshmi uses all her charm and nakhra to try and attract Vishnu, but he rebuffs her over and over. These scenes are some of the most memorable in the whole movie, and Sridevi is simply perfect in them. She captures the innocence and playful flirtation of a young girl PERFECTLY when she was well-past that age by the time this film was made. The scenes still play in my head as some of the most romantic I can remember in Indian films, I don't know if it's due to the soundtrack which is one of the most hummable tunes ever, or if it's the chemistry between the lead pair, or what. The dhaavani flying through the air, Lakshmi's expression as she offers milk to Vishnu, the amazing display of emotions that cross her face when she finds him watching her create Rangoli patterns, the especially notable "green kumkumum" scene, the way she relentlessly pursues him in such a bold way ... it all comes together in such a natural, appealing way. They tease each other much like the boys and girls in first grade do, pretending to be annoyed with each other when they really like one another. Usually these kind of antics are overdone in Indian movies, and yet somehow, I am totally charmed by these two.

Lakshmi catches Vishnu watching her creating a Rangoli pattern
Pachchai Kumkumum Scene - her acting is INCREDIBLE!
At one point she traps him and tries to force him to tell her what he said about her to a friend, and he launches into this beautiful description of a goddess-woman in Karivari Vandugal ... she is completely caught up in the romance and is literally lifted off the ground with pride ... until she comes crashing back to reality when he says he was singing about the Goddess Mother and not about her. This scene is a MUST watch:

Their love is solidified when Vishnu saves Lakshmi from near-death by tree. Or rather, tries to save her. See, she climbs up a tree to toss flowers down to her chattery group of friends below, when she glimpses Vishnu painting by the river (what a soft, sensitive soul he is!). In trying to get a better view, she slips and knocks herself out but is still stuck in the tree. The friends cry for help, and Vishnu comes a-running. He climbs up to save her, but the branches break and they both fall into the river ... and he lifts her up and carries her out in the cheesiest romance scene style possible, but I'm still all a-flutter because of the gorgeous soundtrack.

Vishnu saves Lakshmi from Death by Tree.
Then they're all dreamy-dreamy about each other, and the song Ya Ya Ya Yadava showcases Sridevi looking absolutely STUNNING (HOW MUCH did I want her lehengas in this, especially the yellow & purple one) - though I must mention my BFF's mom was amused that they turned a Brahmin into a Yadava for this song, but I didn't mind so much, my heart totally melts when he sings the "Oh Radhayai" part ... le sigh!:

Now somewhere the dreams cross into reality, and Vishnu and Lakshmi have completely fallen in love. The problem is, Vishnu is supposed to be a brahmachari. His time and attention has been devoted to Lakshmi, and this does not escape the notice of his father, who punishes him for coming to a puja ceremony late by making him stand outside in the rain at night and repeat sacred chants. However Vishnu and Lakshmi have already passed the point of no return, and their passion for each other is consumated in the BEAUTIFUL song Sisirakaala:

There is SO MUCH going on here. First of all, they don't just hook up out in the woods - they get MARRIED. Yep, they set a fire burning, make some garlands and exchange them. All you need for a bonafide wedding. And once they are married, they go for a LITERAL romp in the hay. But look at all the symbolism! He breaks her belt (chastity?), and she has her fingers all tangled in his poonal thread, but doesn't break it! She leaves his status intact!

Incidentally, the first time we were watching this movie, the local priest in our community happened to stop by for something or the other EXACTLY DURING THE SCENE THAT THEY'RE GETTING IT ON. WITH ALL THE FOCUSING ON HIS POONAL THREAD. Awkward, yes.

This is most definitely the films turning point - it's all downhill from here. Lakshmi's father's elder sister comes to visit, and as she practically raised him he is very indebted to her and falls all over himself to please her. But this time, her request is for Lakshmi to marry her son Parthasarathy. I know, they're cousins, but this is how things were done back in the day to keep money within the family. It's even still done sometimes in villages. When Lakshmi's father shows hesitation, his sister FREAKS OUT and shows how angry and betrayed she would be if Lakshmi married someone else. Finding himself unable to bear his sister's anger, Lakshmi's father agrees to the match.

Lakshmi tries to tell her father
Meanwhile, Vishnu's father insists that Vishnu himself must conduct Lakshmi's wedding with Parthasarathy, as he is unwell. And when Lakshmi tries to tell her father that she cannot go through with the wedding, that she already loves Vishnu, he locks himself in a room and beats himself in the head with a brass lamp, then practically sets the place on fire. When Vishnu comes to break down the door and save him, he begs Vishnu to give Lakshmi up and to follow tradition. The star-crossed lovers can't fight their fate, and Lakshmi is forced to marry Partha.

A gorgeous wedding song, I even used it for my entry during my wedding in 2005, though I was quite a bit happier than she is. But check out the loser Lakshmi has to marry ... and watch her face when she realizes who is conducting her marriage ... just unbelievable acting. Beautiful.

Now the complications have multiplied even further. To marry your own wife to another man is an utter, complete sin. With all the family pressures built on either side for these star-crossed lovers, can Vishnu go forward and conduct Lakshmi's wedding? Who curses Vishnu to become the 'Shavundi'? And can Vishnu and Lakshmi ever be together? And what kind of dude is Partha???

That is one scary dude.
There is no simple, uncomplicated ending for this tale, and though it does get extremely melodramatic and downright depressing, there is still something hauntingly beautiful about the love between Vishnu and Lakshmi. Also at well-beyond the eleventh hour, it is finally the woman who has to decide that she's DONE with putting up with tradition, expectation and everything else that has put her through so much misery. She blasts out at everyone with the strength she has left in her. But is it all too much too late?

This movie may not be the most astoundingly original story out there, or the happiest ending in the world, but the acting gives it some real meat. Particularly Sridevi in her transition from the wide-eyed, flirtatious young maiden to the hard-worn, devastated mother, makes this movie worth watching. Also the film has a rather snarky, funny portrayal of money-grubbing city priests in the second half that rang very true to me. This is perhaps not Arvind Swamy's strongest work, especially considering Roja and Bombay. His role is more subdued, especially compared to Sridevi's powerhouse performance. Then again, she has that way of stealing the show, doesn't she? Still he'd probably charm me into a romp in the hay too -- check him out:

Post-coital Vishnu ... Anantashayana indeed.
Not to mention the super-cool demonic special effects that denote his being cursed to a life of graveyard shift, literally.

But if none of that entices you, let me just say that Sridevi's wardrobe in the first half of this movie is to DIE FOR gorgeous. Lots of beautiful, traditional South Indian paavadai-dhaavanis, long braided hair with rakodi and malligaipoo (jasmine flowers), gorgeous lehengas in the Yadava dream scene, and gorgeous jewelry too.

Well anyway here we are, with Neetu Singh-Along almost upon us, and I'm still going on and on about Sridevi. I do still want to recap a few more Sri movies, and will definitely keep going, but the Neetu posts are starting very soon and I need to get to work on them. So please do keep an eye out for posts about Neetu and more Sridevi, coming soon!

Thanks for reading and I hope that if you've seen Devaragam, or if you end up watching it, you will share your thoughts with me! I know I'm in the minority when it comes to liking this film!


  1. Sridevi is AWESOME in this movie. I didn't watch the movie yet, i am waiting for DVD with English subtitles as i Telugu and can't understand Malayalam. I am a big fan of Sridevi and came across the songs from Malayalam in YouTube and i was spell bound by her beauty and expressions. I am resisting myself from watching the movie on youtube, because i want to enjoy a Sridevi pic on high quality DVD on my 50" LCD LED TV. Sridevi movie deserve that kind of respect.

    1. Did you find this movie DVD with English subtitle? I would really appreciate if you can suggest me where to find one with English subtitle.

  2. This has got to be my all time favorite flick! For the longest time thought it was a Tamil film. I must say they did an awesome job with the dubbing!

    1. Lol, if you ever see a good tamil film, just assume that the script is from a malayalam film. Haha, just kidding.. but weirdly true very often

    2. It's actually true - as proven by films like Manichitratazhu and Dhrishyam!

    3. Yes! totally mesmerized by this movie,the story,the actors,though the songs and the chemistry between the lovers takes the icing on the cake!And what a tasty review you have written. You have covered each aspect of the movie very interestingly and am sure many reading eyes here are now hungry to watch Devaragam ASAP...

  3. what a great review.. also this one of my favourite movie i ever watched

  4. u are doing a good job.. i am a big Sridevi fan.. and i would be reading u more often

  5. Awesome film awesome acting .......... . again and again great Bharathan sir showing depth of love... depth of hart....

  6. anyway this film is nowhere available now.. not in malayalam atleast.. if anyone has any info on how to get it.. please share.

  7. Check youtube. It is there - both in Malayalam and Tamil


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  10. I’m From Tamil Nadu, I like Malayalam Movies very much, in contrast I heard many Malayalam people like VIJAY, AJITH, SURYA, ALLU ARJUN. Tollywood is completely opposite to molly wood, whereas kolly wood is mixture of both the tolly wood and molly wood. Movies Made by Malayalam Industries are heart warming and life oriented, where you can at least learn something for your Life. I wish People from Malayalam film industry release their movies in Tamil with subtitles so that it will reach wider audience. Because artistic work should reach more people in the world. I used to read all the latest Kerala News in Malayalam from this site, check it , would be useful.

  11. I watched this movie growing up in my teens; i guess 96....! I loved it from the beginning to the end!!!superb acting, story and scenes...

  12. I watched this movie in the nineties and thought at the time it was a bit old fashioned. However, great songs, great story. I just saw it again and can see the depth of the film now. It has just got everything, birth, marriage, death, relationship between father and son and so on. I have to say the supporting actors do a great job as well as the lead pair. Great chemistry between the lead pair as you say. I thought the first time I saw the film that it was a South Indian version of Devdas but after seeing it again I think I was mistaken. It is the south indian modern version of the story of Nala and Damayanti. The end where the hero turns into an ugly person following a curse, Nala was bitten by a snake after abandoning Damayanti in despair and turns into an ugly dwarf. He regains his form when she recognises and acknowledges him as her husband. Great movie. I also read somewhere that the director was an artist. Every frame of the film looks like a Raja Ravi Varma painting. Just insanely good. My favourite.

  13. I am a Hindi speaking person and yet i watched this movie for just one reason - SREEDEVI
    I don't understand Malayalam nor do i understand Tamil and Telugu but still i managed to get the storyline correct. That's the power of Sree Garu's eyes. Her eyes portray each and every emotion with sheer perfection that you don't need any words to understand.
    But i would still love to watch it with subtitles if possible. Has anyone found its subtitles yet?

  14. Someone said if one good tamil movie is there then assume its from malayalam...i too an admirer of malayalam cinema but tamil cinema produced / producing great movies as well...tamil cinema has 2 is complete artistic one & complete entertainers....we always have a sivaji ganesan & a MGR...kamal haasan & rajinikanth...this cycle goes on!!

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  16. This one film is just tooooo good. Excellent. That tone of sisirikala keeps playing in the background in many scenes which makes the movie look so sweet. I love it.