Lights on with Valli
The film `Pravah', the first programme in the "Lights On" series, on the Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli, has Valli's dance telling its own story says LEELA VENKATARAMAN.
IT WAS a film `Pravah' on Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli by film maker Arun Khopkar, to be screened at Satyam Cinemas - the first programme of a series called "Lights On" to be mounted every month at the same venue. Wondering what approach the film would have, this critic's memories went back to the last film by the same filmmaker on a classical dancer, namely Leela Samson - with Bharatanatyam shown in the most unlikely places - the dancer even performing on straw in what looked like a barn. But that was some years ago. With the final sanction for the film on Valli, coming eight years after the proposal was first set in motion, the filmmaker's own perspective on filming Bharatanatyam could well have changed. In a nutshell, to say one was taken aback by the no-nonsense, straightforward treatment with Valli's dance telling its own story with no distractions, would be putting it mildly. Here the camera focus was on the dance per se, rather than in relation to different locations.
But first, "Lights On" conceived by Prasanna Ramaswamy and supported by agencies like Savera and Satyam Cinemas is a metaphor for enlightenment on off-the-beaten track programmes with scope for healthy interaction between `opinion makers' and the creative community of art directors, writers, actors, dancers et al, the laudable scheme registering a lively start with a packed theatre and a post-screening question and answer session with the dancer and filmmaker.
Classical dance screenings on Doordarshan have not earned too many fans for the dance. And filmmakers so hung up on dance in different locations have often ended up dwarfing the art in overwhelming backdrops.
`Pravah' has no dancer in a tribhanga precariously poised on a hill slope, nor abhinaya done on the seashore while coping with a billowing sari in the breeze. The chaste mat finish backdrop for the dances remains unchanged. Only in the briefest of one or two line introductions by the articulate Valli, in a tightly edited half hour film, does one get glimpses of out-door shots. The visual component with Madhu Ambat's camera catching delightful shots of netra and griva movements in the Tillana beginning, soft pictures of Valli's sinuous graceful hand movements, feet executing crystal clear toe/heel Kuditta metta steps in the crisp jati sequence and engaging close ups of involved facial expressions, cannot be faulted. Here the camera highlights in a way no naked eye can absorb in the auditorium performance.
What emerges is a performance narrative with segments from Alaripu to Tillana. Bhakti sringar has its expression in the melodiously sung Pantuvarali statement from the varnam, with the dancer elaborating on the nayika's passion for the Lord. The sensuous element in Valli's dance stems from her Guru Chokkalingam Pillai's own teaching of not denying the dance erotic charm within the bhakti approach. The most evocative segment lay in the Kuruntogai episode where the anguish of love in separation rendered to the tones of a hauntingly sweet Sivaranjani sung by Kavita Narasimhan, caught dark bodily silhouettes, as expressive of emotion as feelings mapped on the face. All in all one cannot fault the cinematography. The profile of movement geometry comes out without any distortion.
The absence of camera gimmicks makes for stark treatment. What remains indeterminate is whether the film is on Valli or on Bharatanatyam, because the margam has been represented, with fleeting references in between to Valli's own dance journey. The archival purpose must have dictated the item-wise treatment. Shanta Gokhale's tight script allows no verbal indulgence even for the articulate Valli. What one really misses are more exchanges between Valli and her Guru Subbaraya Pillai, son of Chokkalingam Pillai.
That sense of space, so much a part of the charm of Valli's dance for those who often see her performing, is missing with the dancer straight jacketed into a small space for the single camera. The filmmaker's restraint in straying from gimmicks is to be admired.
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