The wise sage of film criticism, Roger Ebert says that a great film is one in which there are three great scenes and no bad ones. The first half of Sagara Sangamam is packed with wall-to-wall great scenes.
Balu (Kamal Hassan) is a washed out dance critic who publishes a blistering critique of a performance by an upcoming danseuse Shylaja (S.P. Shylaja). He is called in by his publisher to apologize for his rudeness (as Shylaja's fiance is connected to the newspaper publisher). Balu makes no apologies, and in fact gives a blow by blow demo to Shylu and her fiance of what all she did wrong and how it should have been done. For this, he gets himself and his friend Raghu fired from the newspaper. (Raghu is an also-washed-out poet, now a proof reader, played by the eternal hero's friend in Tamil/Telegu cinema- Sharathbabu.)
Shylu's mom Madhavi (Jayapradha), catches this sole bad review of her daughter's performance and is intrigued to learn the identity of the reviewer. Madhavi and Balu have a history. In the early days, Madhavi had helped Balu in his dance career, and had grown close to him because of that, leading to an almost-romantic involvement. This is the first half of the movie.
The movie shuttles between the past and the present- with the flashbacks filling most of the first half. This part of the movie is about art - about a man who wants to pursue his art and nothing else, about his frustrations as to how the world receives his efforts, and how his friends help him to get his work out there.
In the flashback, Balu, after learning various other forms of dance like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali etc. goes to learn Kathak from a renowned teacher. He is received by an assistant who doesn't understand his language, and Balu ends up performing the purpose of his visit in dance moves to the assistant. He explains that he wants to learn from the master and has no money to pay him and will pay-back in kind, by serving the master. It is a pearl of a scene - mail me if you were not moved by it, I'll mail you back the part of your soul you might have lost years ago.
Raghu, hoping to help Balu stand on his own feet, finds Balu a job, assisting a choreographer for a Telugu film. Balu gets the job of choreographing for a beautiful song about Lord Krishna and he composes a soulful classical dance and performs it in front of the film director. And gets berated for spoiling the song. He is pushed to perform a dance with lot of "steps" in it and in which, the hero and heroine come tantalizingly close to kissing and the camera tilts to a vigorously shaking bush. The scene makes fun of the perceived "commercial compulsions" in making films, and does so in a barbed yet hilarious way.
Madhavi, who is an arts writer and photographer, comes into Balu's life. And instantly recognizes the talent and potential in him. She incrementally gets him the exposure that he richly deserves, but currently doesn't have or doesn't know how to get or cannot afford. Magazine articles and other odd favors culminate in her securing Balu a slot in the prestigious national dance festival to be held in Delhi. She teases him by bringing up the topic about the festival and mentioning that she has procured him an invitation for this year's festival. Balu lights up on hearing this, and eagerly goes through the year's line-up comprising of the top dancers in India. He flips the page and finds out that he is included as one of the lead performers. A masterfully done scene - with Illayaraja musically setting-up the scene and Kamal literally dissolving in front of us. The scene just melts you away. I have watched the movie over ten times, and this scene gets to me every single time. Watch how Jayapradha beautifully underplays this scene, and sets it up for Kamal to steal it, and Kamal scores an out-of-the-stadium-six.
That brings us to Jayapradha. One of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace Indian cinema (I am not the only one who thinks so, Satyajit Ray also thought so.) It is hard to find an actress who looks like her, has grace and could dance and act as well as she did. Some of the songs with her and Kamal are just an orgy of good looks, talent, dancing and emoting. It is hard to find a leading pair today who could match what Kamal and Jayapradha brought to the table in this film.
Another phenomenon to be mentioned is Ilayaraja. This film and its background score (not to mention the spectacular songs) should be compulsory course material for anybody who wants to do anything in film. Watch each scene and observe how Ilayaraja musically sets up the scene and adds layers to it, and fills in missing details and elevates the movie to an altogether different level. He makes us go through four/five different emotions within a single scene- all through his score. The man understands cinema like few other human beings do. Genius, thy alias is Ilayaraja.
Okay, confession time. I only told you the part-truth. I told you that the film is a gem, which it undoubtedly is. But the full truth is - it is a flawed gem. Seriously flawed at that. The second half is such a mess and loaded with ridiculous sumangali sentiment, kungumam sentiment, I don't know what to say.
The rest of the story is, when Balu and Madhavi realize that they are in love and are about to get-together, her father breaks it to Balu that Madhavi is already married, and as her in-laws demanded unreasonable dowry, she is forced to stay with her dad. And to top it off, the estranged husband shows-up exactly at the nick of time, and mouths some very gentlemanly dialogue (I was a coward then, I am trying to do penance for my sin by marrying off Balu and Madhavi - who the hell are you to marry them off, man). Wait, it gets more ridiculous.
Balu decides that Madhavi would be better off with her estranged husband, and does uncalled-for, unreasonable things like making Madhavi agree to be reunited with her husband. She goes off with her husband, and Balu is left to take refuge in the Bottle. And now through Shylu, Madhavi and Balu are connected again. Madhavi's husband has since passed away, and since Balu can't handle the truth and see Madhavi in peril (because she is minus kungumam, see), a drama is staged, wherein the above mentioned kungumam/sumanglai sentiment is utilized to death.
The melodrama and sentimentality of the second half almost destroys the film - only the memory that we have just seen such a spectacular first-half saves us from abandoning the film and running away. This has been a very hard review to write - how do you review a film that incites such extreme emotions in you. I cannot abandon the film because of it's pure genius first half, neither can I embrace it fully because of the misplaced sentiments. It is hard to invest so much in the characters, and care so much for them, and see them do dumb things. I guess, the answer is in accepting the fact that this is a spectacularly flawed gem of a film; spectacular in its flaws and a little bit more spectacular in its virtues.