Excellent: (Malayalam) Bharatham

Classical arts, particularly Carnatic music, are something I generally value very highly.  So coming across a film which is either based or revolving heavily around classical arts can either be a real gift or an embarrassment, depending on its implementation.  However, considering the esteem with which Bharatham is held, I went into it with great expectation, and was not disappointed in the slightest.  The movie as a whole is of very high caliber in scripting, direction, and acting.  Right from the very opening credits sequence, which superbly provides both a visual and musical prelude to the story while also introducing its characters, it is very clear that this is a film made with care and purpose.  It is ostensibly a mixture of a family and musical drama, with the second half leaning more towards the former, and manages to deliver a familiar idea in an exceptional way with only a few, subjective missteps.

The familiar idea I’m referring to is a rivalry between brothers, a universally identifiable and age-old premise.  The storyline of Bharatham revolves around two brothers in a respected family of musicians: the older brother Ramanathan (Nedumudi Venu), an accomplished Carnatic singer, and the younger brother Gopinathan (Mohanlal), who has been his brother’s pupil since a young age.  The film’s conflict stems from his older brother’s increasing foray into alcohol addiction.  Despite attempts at intervention, the habit ends up severely disrupting one of his concerts, and faced with an angry crowd, Gopi takes over at the mic – and ends up dazzling the audience and unintentionally humiliating his brother.  From here the film explores the results of this single event on both the main characters and their family.

Apart from sibling rivalry, there is another angle on which we can look at the story, and that is the perspective of a Guru and his talented student.  Though on the surface, one might interpret Ramanathan as having caused his own downfall due to weakness to alcohol, what is the source of that weakness?  Perhaps it also subconsciously could have been an underlying jealousy at the recognition of his younger brother’s – and student’s – talent.  Setting aside the family relationship, the idea of a Guru’s mind, and perhaps ego, when faced with student who he perceives as having greater natural talent, or a higher level of ambition, has always been a fascinating one for me.  The ideal reaction to such a situation, of course, is for the Guru to recognize that devotion to art exceeds human ego, and set his priorities accordingly.  Yet reality does not always work in the way that we idealize, and human weaknesses – ego, jealousy – will come into play.

These sorts of perspectives on the film might simply be my interpretations, and Bharatham works equally as well taken as a family drama.  What it does exceptionally well is communicating the tensions and misunderstandings of the characters realistically, while avoiding over-dramatization that often occurs in the genre.  The taut script conveys a great deal of suspense through dialogues alone, and the characterization of the central characters is excellent.  If I was to express any misgivings, they would target the third act of the film, which occurs after a significant revelation and which I felt tended to drag a little too long before reaching its resolution (however, the final resolution and closing shot is excellent).

The film’s soundtrack is also very suitable for such a musically-influenced storyline as this.  The songs are all Carnatic or Carnatic-based, completely situational, and very enjoyable, with my personal favourite being “Gopangane Athmavile”.  The picturization of the Carnatic performances was also well done.  Unlike a fair share of films which feature such scenes, effort was clearly put into making them as realistic as possible.  Sometimes I find that directors seem to think its okay to obviously fake, say, Mridangam playing, because they assume that most of the audience won’t be able to tell the difference.  I’m glad that no shortcuts were taken here.

Highly recommended.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Prasanth,
    There is now a subtitled version available :). What you mentioned about the music aspects of the film is absolutely correct. In fact, it was an attempt at Cinema Playback Renaissance by none other than Mohanlal, who started this effort with His Highness Abdullah. The third one in the trilogy of memorable semi-classical compositions in a pure mainstream commercial production was Kamaladalam, all three produced under his production company, Pranav Arts – I recommend you watch all three, it would be worth it, though I would caution not to dwell more on the story aspect of His Highness Abdullah. 🙂 The contrived storyline I guess was just an excuse for the great soundtrack. And all three were set to music by Raveendran, the Lord of every Malayali’s own RaveendraSangeetham. ..CM

    Reply

  2. Thanks for the comment 🙂 Will put those on my “to-find/watch” list.
    I recall a Mohanlal scene on youtube where he sings the Tyagaraja kriti “Nagumo mu ganalei”. I don’t know what the film was, but it seemed like just a minor scene in the movie. And yet, he clearly put a lot of effort to match all the lyrics and really put a lot of life into the rendition. I was impressed by the dedication.

    Reply

  3. Hi Prasanth,
    The Tyagaraja kriti Nagumo is a full version rendition from Priyadarshan’s greatest Malayalam hit, Chithram ( 1988), which also had another semi-classical composition, Swaminatha.. It aptly brought out Mohanlal’s talent in lip-synching to classical renditions, which will almost leave you awestruck when it comes to the compositions in the previously mentioned his Highness Abdullah. Happy viewing.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Filmbuff on March 21, 2011 at 4:54 am

    Hi Prashant

    Bharatam was indeed a very good movie in terms of story, direction, acting and carnatic music.

    Nagumo mu was also very well picturised in another classical carnatic based malayalam movie called “Soopanam”. All the classical songs in soopanam are excellent. I would strongly recommend this movie to you.

    Reply

  5. Great review- I have yet to watch this one (it sits in my neverending list of dance/music films to watch) but I’m very happy to read your glowing review, especially about the realistic nature of the music scenes. I get frustrated by the “fake” instrument playing too- it seems in South Indian films the most favored instrument to show not played realistically is the veena for which more actors just haphazardly run their fingers up and down without any regard for the rhythm or melody. 🙂

    Reply

  6. Hi Minai.
    Veena playing has indeed been butchered quite poorly on-screen…sometimes these actors appear to be massaging their instruments rather than playing them 🙂

    Reply

  7. It was a shame that the remake of this classic in Tamil ‘Seenu’ was so bad.!

    Reply

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