Saraswathi Sabatham is the kind of movie that will make us reminisce about the grand old age of Tamil movies, for a variety of very different reasons. For one, it is based on the Hindu Goddesses, but doesn’t involve a child falling into a ‘hundial’ or an evil wizard trying to overpower God. It is also basically a “message” movie about the elementary qualities of life, but, unlike today’s movies, that message comes about only because of the interesting premise set up by the movie’s story. And most importantly, it features an ensemble of cast of actors and actresses who were probably in the prime of their careers at the time. Since that is something which will never happen in today’s climate, this movie works as a great reminder of a time where our top actors worked together without a hint of ego on display.

The film’s underlying premise is very simple. Which is better: knowledge, wealth or strength? In the opening sequences, we see the mischievous sage Naradha (‘Sivaji’ Ganesan) visit Saraswathi (Savithri, as the Goddess of Knowledge), Lakshmi (Devika, as the Goddess of Wealth) and Parvathi (Padmini, as the Goddess of Strength), and pose each of them with the above question. This sets up the clash between the three to see which quality is more essential. To this effect, Saraswathi provides Vidyapathi (‘Sivaji’ again), who is dumb by birth, with a voice and intelligence making him wise and all-knowing. Lakshmi makes the poorest girl in the country as the next queen to the throne, Naachiya (K.R. Vijaya), providing her with unquestionable wealth and fame. Parvathi transforms one of the biggest cowards into Veeramallar (‘Gemini’ Ganesan), the bravest and strongest man in the land, who also goes on to become Naachiya’s commander-in-chief. As the three come to grips with their new God-given gifts, they also battle each other to prove their superiority (obviously the Goddesses’ hands are involved in this also).

Notwithstanding the interesting set-up and story, the film’s biggest attraction is, of course, the cast. Not only does the movie feature two of Tamil cinema’s acting greats in ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan and ‘Gemini’ Ganesan, but also the most famous actresses of the time in Savithri, Padmini, K.R. Vijaya and Devika. When you think of the last time in recent memory that anything close has been attempted, you would probably go back to 1999’s Suyamvaram, but even that was mainly put together in order to obtain the world record. When combined with the fact that this movie is considered an ensemble for its female leads (with today’s heroines being used only for eye-candy, this is another thing to remember fondly) coming together as much as its male leads, it further drives home the fact that our yesteryear actors had little or no ego clashes coming in the way of sharing screen space.

Even with such a cast, the acting honours would obviously have to go to ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan. Of all the people who have played Naradha on-screen (and there are quite a few), none would probably come close to matching Sivaji. The mischievous glint is obviously visible in his eyes as he plays around with the three goddesses in order to obtain the obvious answer to the question. (Note him especially in the single sequence with the three in tandem.) As Vidyapathi, he also brings the dignity and ego of the knowledgeable character to life. Although K.R. Vijaya and ‘Gemini’ Ganesan are legends in their own right, the pride seen in Sivaji’s face and body language as he talks about the power of knowledge is unmatched by the former two. (In fact, such a comparison will be deemed unfair on all three by many; I just felt it is worth mentioning in the context of the movie.)

The above statement aside, K.R. Vijaya and ‘Gemini’ Ganesan are perfect for their respective roles. The self-importance of the queen, with all her wealth and fame, is skilfully depicted by the former. And since good screen-presence is the main pre-requisite for Veeramallar, the latter fits the bill perfectly. Savithri, Devika and Padmini are essentially in the background, but their sequences with each other and Naradha serve as special highlights. Nagesh and Manorama raise quite a few laughs with their separate comedy track (though it does fit in with the other characters in the movie). The actors playing Lord Shiva and Brahma are largely unknown to me, while a very young Sivakumar appears as Lord Vishnu.

Another major highlight of the film is K.V. Mahadevan’s music combined with Kannadasan’s lyrics. Agara Muthala Ezhuthellam… is the best song with each line starting from each of the Tamil alphabets in sequence, but the other songs don’t lag behind either. Kalviya Selvama Veerama… features great lyrics from Kannadasan underlining the significance of each of these qualities in life. Dheivam Iruppadhu Enge… is sung in praise of the wealth of knowledge and also sets up the straight head-to-head between knowledge and wealth. Thai Thandha Pichaiyile… has become the staple for a variety of beggary-related comedy scenes over the years, while Gomatha Engal Kulamatha… is a perfect song for the “Mattu Pongal” festival. Uruvathai Kaatidum Kannadi… and Rani Maharani… are mostly obscure remaining largely unheard outside the movie. T.M. Sounderarajan and P.Susheela are the only two voices heard in all the songs, and are the main reason why it is considered such a stellar soundtrack to begin with.

Despite all the high-praise accorded to the film, there are a few elements that can be off-putting for some viewers. Some sequences in the film do move quite slowly, but that is essentially a quality shared by all movies released at the time. The set design and costumes will also feel more akin to a stage-play than a movie; again, another aspect that is not unique to this movie alone. However, these are only worth mentioning for what they are: minor nitpicks.

Saraswathi Sabatham has become a staple for TV viewing on Saraswathi Pooja and Vijayadasami days. (In fact, I wrote this review the very next day after Vijayadasami.) And though not as good as director A.P. Nagarajan’s certain other films (Kandan Karunai and Thiruvilaiyadal, for starters), it is still a very entertaining film in its own right and is worth a watch on TV or by finding yourself a VCD.