Sagara Sangamam  – of art, life and death
At once heartbreaking and raw, this almost three hour long Kamal Hassan starrer stands tall and challenges our obsession with glamour and frivolity while real art continues to languish in anonymity.
While living in a society that worships the obscene and wealthy and casts aside all that is meaningful and of substance, how does an artist continue to practice and propagate their art?
Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli in Tamil) addresses – no, poses – many such questions on art, dance, existentialism and the undercurrents of philosophy holding us all together. How does any artist live on through their art, their craft, while also not being relegated to oblivion by the onslaught of cheap commercialism and people bloated up with pride and rage?
This 1983 dance drama by K. Vishwanath revolves around Balakrishna (called Balu, played by a young Kamal Haasan in a performance which only calls for the highest respects for any actor), who is a supremely talented but impoverished classical dancer looking for work and a means to demonstrate his passion before the world.
There is a scene where Balu tries his hand at being a choreographer for a film – and teaches the heroine beautiful, graceful dance movements as the director watches, aghast. The director then cries out in outrage; Balu’s dance would not be received well at all, where was the romance, where was the drama? Why wasn’t he holding the heroine’s hips and romancing her?
This scene simply puts up a mirror for us all: whatever doesn’t conform to what we already know and see has to be question relentlessly and removed from the picture. This is relevant in even today’s scenario where countless children are made to give up their creative endeavors to pursue more “stable” avenues.
Balu then runs into Madhavi, a rich, beautiful girl who lives with her father. Madhavi takes an intense interest in his dance and also dances and sings with him; the two develop a quiet, affectionate bond that is also utterly respectful. Madhavi brings to his life a freshness and hope he was slowly on the brink of giving up in the face of endless rejections and no outlet for showing his love for dance to the world, but as the two develop feelings for each other, it is revealed that she suffers from a secret heartache, too – and Balu, heartbroken but resolute, gives her up and takes leave of her. And so does Madhavi leave him, a dire lesson right after all the dance and happiness and breeze on the top of mountains and in temple courtyards – what seems good and happy must come to an end; happiness has its own limited run time.
Thus embittered and broken down by a world that consistently rejects him and refuses to see his gifts, Balu becomes a depressive alcoholic, and starts working as a journalist and critic as several years pass, and has a run-in with Sailaja, a famous young dancer doing the rounds of the dance circuit and performing in several festivals as well, sparking outrage on her part.
After some unexpected chain of events which included Madhavi coming back in Balu’s life and Balu becoming an angry, reluctant Sailaja’s instructor, the film’s last scenes consist of Balu teaching Sailaja the nuances of the art of dance and making her practice in the hospital where he is undergoing treatment. Sailaja finally gives a beautiful performance at the film’s conclusion, and Balu goes on to live within her, through her, propagating and sharing the myriad forms of dance, music, culture and art for all the world to know.
The performances are stellar, including the supporting actors; Kamal Haasan looks made for this role, and this performance isn’t just any performance, it’s a triumph of sheer, pure human talent, it is a smack in the faces of all the people we call ‘actors’ today. Jaya Prada as Madhavi is quiet, understated and luminous.
Actual Bharatanatyam dancers might notice a few inconsistencies with the dance movements and mudras, but these are all forgiven in the face of the message the film is trying to give.
Tragedy runs uncut, deep and raw throughout the film; not once is there an attempt to make the lingering heaviness in the film any subtle or lighter, and even when Madhavi comes in Balu’s life, we are somehow prepared for something to happen and Balu to lose her. Balu’s back is consistently, relentlessly broken by the mere virtue of living around people who don’t care for his talents and instead prefer to fixate on gyrating hips, money, glamour and action – and aren’t we still like this?