In today's information era, discussing sex is no longer taboo in India. Nor is speaking about menstrual issues of women. But way back in the 70s the prolific filmmaker K Balachander had the audacity to show a 20-year old woman in an impoverished Tamil Brahmin family chiding her mother for not adopting family planning measures. It not only shocked the middle-class Tamil Brahmins in South India but also drew a lot of flak. Any publicity helps a film – we saw that in the recent times when Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie Padmavat triggered nationwide protests. So, Balachander’s Arangetram (1974) benefited from all the criticism heaped on it and became a super duper hit at the box office. It is another matter that K Balachander’s style of filmmaking and sensationalism became obsolete in the 90’s prompting the director to switch to television.
Southern film world in the 90s was more about exploring the lives of the rural population in South and heroes with Dravidian looks became more popular. Chocolate heroes like Madhavan and Arvind Swamy did not stand a chance against this trend though they had their temporal moments of fame.
Arangetram had an ensemble cast – most of them achieved greater success later in their career. Jayasudha, Jayachitra and Kamal Haasan played supporting roles as the lead protagonist Lalitha’s siblings. MN Rajam and S V Subbaiah immortalized the characters of Lalitha’s parents. Sivakumar did display moments of brilliance as Lalitha’s silent lover.
Now, what was “Arangetram” all about? Arangetram is a Tamil word that denotes the maiden performance of a Bharat Natyam dancer. Balachander had the gall to compare this with the first sexual encounter of the female protagonist Lalitha – which sadly occurs when she gets raped by a con man.
Lalitha is the eldest of eight siblings in a poor Tamil Brahmin family. The head of the family is a priest who performs religious functions in people’s homes. The paltry income that he earns from his vocation is not enough to feed all the eight mouths in the home. Balachander also showed the changing trend in the 70s when office goers had no patience to perform religious functions like “shrarth” with devotion.
The family’s next door neighbour is a noble elderly gentleman whose son (Sivakumar) is in love with the ebullient Lalitha. Lalitha bursts into peals of laughter at the slightest provocation, much to her father’s consternation. Lalitha is often blunt but her earnestness is what earns her respect among her siblings. So, when Lalitha innocently accepts a saree as a gift from Siva, her enraged father asks her to give it to the beggar woman who roams the neighbourhood street at nights in a mentally deranged condition. When Lalitha’s school going younger sister complains that boys laugh at her because she cannot afford a half-saree despite attaining puberty, incensed Lalitha tears off her saree and drapes it on her sister.
Lalitha’s younger brother tops his PUC exams and wants to become a doctor. Lalitha has to get a recommendation letter from an influential person in the city. With great reluctance, her parents permit her to travel alone as there is a shortage of funds to have someone accompany her. Lalitha stays with a family friend whose daughter’s first dance performance is scheduled that same evening. The con woman whom Lalitha meets lures her and soon Lalitha is asked to meet a man who would help fix things for her. Lalitha dreams of seeing her brother as a successful doctor. Instead, Lalitha gets raped by the con man. The narrative switches between the first dance performance of the girl and the rape of Lalitha.
Thoroughly shaken, Lalitha is forced to take a decision that would change her life forever. Having lost her virginity and unable to find a decent job, Lalitha becomes a prostitute and relocates to Hyderabad. She tells her family that she has got a decent job and regularly sends them money. The financial condition of the family improves and her brother gets a seat in a medical college. Her parents arrange for the marriage of Lalitha’s younger sister conveniently forgetting that even Lalitha is ready for marriage.
When Lalitha returns home for her sister’s marriage, she is shocked to note that the groom is none other than one of her clients. She confronts him and requests him to forget the past. When the man had visited her to satiate his lust, he had slapped her on knowing that Lalitha was a Bramhin girl. Not the one to keep quiet, Lalitha too slaps him back. Balachander’s argument? If it is wrong for a Brahmin girl to indulge in prostitution, it is equally wrong for a Brahmin boy to enlist the services of a whore.
To make matters worse, Lalitha’s father inadvertently tells his wife to instruct Lalitha to coach her sister who is all set to enter the nuptial bed on the first night. He then realises his folly. Soon enough trouble arrives for Lalitha in the form of her aunt and her dumb daughter who are avid cinema buffs. The wily aunt and her acerbic tongue won’t spare anyone. So when the music teacher who comes to teach Lalitha’s younger sister is ogling at Lalitha’s breasts and Lalitha remarks that she has become inured to everything, the aunt realises that something is amiss. She decides to investigate the matter and soon the cat is out of the bag.
Soon the entire house (which is all set to witness the wedding of their doctor son) with his sweetheart becomes a battleground. Lalitha’s pleas fall on deaf ears. Her brother hurts her with his sharp tongue conveniently forgetting that it was Lalitha’s money that was used to pay the fees in his medical college. As the ungrateful siblings spew venom on Lalitha one after the other, the dazed Lalitha is left speechless.
Sivakumar who has returned from his army job and knows Lalitha’s predicament is willing to forget everything and when his father exhorts him to behave like a man, he ties the mangalsutra on Lalitha. This was indeed revolutionary in the 70's. But Balachander is known for sensationalism and tragic endings. So, Lalitha who is wounded by her ungrateful siblings and their harsh words cannot digest the fact that Sivakumar has married her. It sounds too good to be true. She picks up an empty Dalda tin and laughing uproariously, runs towards the beach. It is clear to the audience that Lalitha has lost her sanity. The film ends on that note.
“Arangetram” clearly belongs to Pramila who essayed the titular role of Lalitha. No actress was willing to do the role considering the skin show and the morally debased character. Pramila had acted in Malayalam movies and had done a movie called “Paruvakalam” in 1973 where she had played the role of a call girl. Like Rehana Sultan in Bollywood, Pramila was flooded with the roles of vamp with a number of vulgar bedroom scenes thrown for effect. Maybe she needed the money, but in the next four years, Pramila did all kinds of roles never flinching to accept brazen and bold roles. Eventually, by the year 1979, Pramila had become a vamp with a never-ending lust. A leading role opposite Rajinikanth in “Chaturangam” did not help matters as even in this movie, her role had negative shades.
1984 saw the release of “Raja thanthiram” and “Iravvu pookal” – Pramila played a wily woman who uses her sex appeal in the former; in the latter movie, she played the Madame of a brothel. In between all this, Pramila made more than a dozen “A-rated” Malayalam movies that bordered on soft porn.
She vanished from the scene in the late-80’s and as per reports, she is now settled in the US. A talented actress who ended up limiting her career by accepting similar roles in film after film – nothing else is known about Pramila or her past. Her fluency in Tamil is surprising considering reports that she is from Kerala. Strangely, after Arangetram, Balachander never worked with Pramila again.
Lalitha’s aunt was played by Sundari Bai (the evil Lalitha Pawar of Kollywood) and her cousin was played by an actress whose real name was Lalitha. This actress committed suicide soon after the movie. Sasi Kumar who played the Brahmin boy who gets married to Lalitha’s sister succumbed to a stove accident a few years after the movie released.
Arangetram’s inflammatory content did spark protest among Brahmins. However, in a predominantly Dravidian state, Brahmins were/are meek and their voice has never been heard. Protests, if any, were subdued and only added to the film’s publicity.
Buoyed by its success, Balachander attempted to remake the movie in Hindi. Aaina (1974) starring Mumtaz and Rajesh Khanna flopped at the box office. The Tamilian milieu could not be replicated in Hindi and despite a happy ending, the film bit the dust.
Arangetram may have been a great success at the box office, but Balachander lost the respect of Tamil Brahmins – despite the fact that he was a Brahmin himself. The million dollar question is – why did he not have the guts to project any other community in a similar light? Any answers?
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagyalakshmi had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)