Salangai Oli was one of those movies that characterized the best of its era in South Indian cinema: individualistic, dramatic and comprising a clutch of bravura moments. It also happens to feature one of Kamal Hassan’s greatest performances, as a classical dancer whose love for his art, and for one woman, are pretty much the only things that hold him together. Not surprisingly, the two most powerful scenes in the movie focus on these two aspects.
The opening scenes introduce Kamal as Balu, a dance critic and an alcoholic – he staggers into an auditorium where a young woman named Sailaja is giving a Bharatanatyam performance. Most people around him seem quite impressed with her performance; he, however, begs to differ and writes a column that suggests that the lady in question is inspired more by the primates she evolved from than the art itself. Infuriated by the solitary negative review, she and her boyfriend storm into the newspaper office to demand a retraction. And Kamal silences her by an impromptu performance of how she should have danced, in a number of classical dance forms. Sure, this sort of scene has been done before and since, and it will be done again a million times, but to me, Kamal’s performance in that scene is the gold standard. The anger, the contempt of people who cannot understand or appreciate his art… I must have watched this movie a million times, but even today, that scene makes me want to stand up and cheer.
The other scene is comes in the final third of the movie, right at the end of the song Thakita Thadhimi. Yeah, the one where he gets drunk and dances on the parapet of a well. Jayapradha, the love of his life who he sent away with her now-dead husband, has tried to hide from him so far in the proceedings, but realizes that her appearance might be the only thing that stops him from killing himself. But since she wants her widowhood to remain a secret from him, she goes up, puts on some sindoor, and goes up to him to persuade him to step down from the wall. He sees her, steps down, realizes that the rain is washing away her sindoor, and puts a hand up to protect it. Nothing about that moment is anything less than obvious, but I find it quite affecting.