That K Balachander was a filmmaker way ahead of his times was never in doubt. Right from the mid-70s, most of Balachander’s movies were women-centric. Most of them also had a tragic ending. Even when he made a love story Ek Duje Ke Liye, Balachander showed the lovers committing suicide in the end after incessant opposition from their respective parents.
Kalyana Agathigal (refugees of Marital) released in 1985 was a modest success at the box office. 33 years ago Balachander spoke about women empowerment in a subtle way. That itself is praiseworthy. The film is full of the famed “KB” touch. Readers will recall the scene in Ek Duje Ke Liye where Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri hammer the clothes on the washing stone in their respective houses only to tatter them in the end. Lovers professing their love by writing “I love you” in their eyelashes is one such example.
Seven women who suffered after marriage live together calling themselves refugees. Each of them works during the day as a typist, nurse, teacher, and telephone operator. During their spare time, they conduct music shows and earn money. They have a male cook who also doubles up as a servant (comedian Charlie in a brief role).
The leader of the all-women’s gang is Thangam (Y Vijaya) whose drunkard husband (Nasser, looking wily) tries to earn money by forcing her to sleep with other men. Thangam rebels and files for divorce. Saira (Nisha) is a Muslim girl whose husband divorces her by uttering “talaq” thrice when he finds another woman who is wealthy. Then there is another woman (Vanitha Krishnachander) who is raped by her boyfriend’s father resulting in her boyfriend’s suicide. Sumangali (J Lalitha) gets married through deceit to a man on his deathbed and she is widowed. Sisters Hema and Prema are also part of this gang. Prema, the elder sister, works as a cabaret dancer to support her younger sister Hema (Kuili) in pursuit of earning a degree.
Enter Ammulu, the girl from Vizhuppuram, with a double plait. The fiery Ammulu ends up slapping the woman who demands dowry from her father. When her father decides to cheat his employer to swindle money to pay for her marriage expenses, Ammulu runs away from home and eventually lands with the all-women gang. She learns to sing and also begins working as a sales girl. Ammulu is a devout Hindu girl who longs for a man to fall in love with her. Balachander shows the fetish men have for fair complexioned girls. Eventually, Ammulu (played by the immensely talented Saritha) comes to terms with her looks and falls for a TV newsreader Robert (played by one-film wonder Ashok). The girls know a lawyer Valliyammai (Malayalam actress Seema, in a powerful cameo) who is fighting the divorce case on behalf of Thangam.
Since we are watching a KB film, the men are predictable. Hema falls in love with a dancer (Ravinder) who eventually (as expected) ditches her. Thangam loses the divorce case and when her husband shackles the lawyer who is driving her back home and blocks her way, she ends up running the car over him. The lawyer then surrenders to the police.
Ammulu’s boyfriend decides to marry her and his parents are overtly supportive. But they have a condition. Robert’s parents want Ammulu to become Emily and convert to Christianity. Stifled by this condition and enraged with Robert’s tone that he and his parents are doing a favour to her, Ammulu decides to walk out on her lover and returns back to the home of refugees. KB has presented an interesting twist here - is religion more important than love? KB’s answer is – love must be unconditional; if it is conditional, then it is not love. A very bold depiction indeed – 33 years ago. The devout Hindu woman that she is, Ammulu cannot come to terms with the fact that she has to live all her life as a Christian after marriage. She decides to end her life but changes her mind at the last minute.
Music by Narasimhan has some simple but peppy numbers. The welcome song is a treat to watch and reminds you that KB had a knack for unique picturisation of songs. It is indeed sad that such movies are never shown on television. The film channels continue to repeat the same old movies of MGR and Sivaji again and again. There are scores of films lie Kalyana Agathikal that deserve a telecast in the era of the Internet. Mercifully, such movies are now available on YouTube. The vignettes of Chennai as it was in 1985 are a treat to watch. The narrative is absorbing and credit must go to the director for extracting best performances from all the actresses.
Saritha is known for her acting prowess. She debuted in the 1978 Telugu release Maro Charitra along with Kamal Haasan. This was later remade by L V Prasad as Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981). After her marriage to Malayalam actor Mukesh, Saritha chose to stay away from the limelight, only occasionally accepting a stellar role. After her divorce, Saritha chose to move to the US along with her two sons. For many years now, Saritha has been fighting obesity. She is the only actress from the 80s who could stand up to a thespian like Sivaji Ganesan in movies like Keezvanam Sivakkum and Thunai.
Vanitha, a popular starlet then, married Malayalam playback singer Krishnachander and is settled in Kerala now. She is a character artist on television now. Kuili who made her debut in Poo Vilangu (1984) could not continue her stint in Kollywood as a leading heroine. After sizzling as a dancer in Mani Ratham’s Nayakan (1989) she was flooded with vampish roles. But she chose television instead.
Y Vijaya has done complete justice to the role of Thangam – a drastic change from the regular vampish roles that she is generally known for. Nisha who played the Muslim girl Saira was from Nagur in Tamil Nadu. A beautiful actress who had her moments of fame, Nisha soon vanished from Kollywood without a trace only to be discovered many years later on a pavement – she had been sexually exploited by many producers and then discarded on the footpath after she was afflicted with AIDS.
Malayalam actress Seema as the lawyer had an extended cameo and her performance is noteworthy. Seema became (in) famous as the leading lady in the Malayalam soft-porn movie Her Nights (Avaludaya Raavugal). But you will be surprised to note how effortlessly she slips into the role of a lawyer who is engaged in fighting for women’s rights.
Being a woman-centric film, the male characters appear only on the fringe. However, despite some flaws in the flow of the film, there is no boredom at all and the movie makes for absorbing viewing. KB was not called as Iyakkunar Chigaram (a director with Himalayan/ monumental talent) for nothing.
(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, Bhagya 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.)