Among the many reasons attributed to the spectacular success of the Baahubali franchise is director SS Rajamouli’s accomplishment in rejuvenating a genre that has been a longstanding favourite of Telugu cinema: the fantasy folklore film.
In the 1950s, a similar successful attempt was made to revamp the genre by Vijaya-Vauhini studios when it was declared that the genre had run out of steam. The production was titled Pathala Bhairavi (1951), and it was directed by Kadiri Venkata Reddy, who was just three films old at the time.
In his book Politics as Performance, A Social History of the Telugu Cinema, SV Srinivas describes the moment: “By the early 1950s, the folklore film, like the mythological, was a discredited genre. Commentators spoke of the genre as a “menace”. Moreover, notwithstanding the commercial success of Balaraju and Keelugurram, the disastrous performance of Tilottama at the box office made the industry nervous about the folklore’s film prospects. An editorial in Roopavani, while pointing this out, also noted: “These days people are becoming smart and trick photography alone is not going to work. Evidently, the time had come for the genre to be scaled up from a serial compilation of attractions and special effects to something else. And at precisely this point, Vijaya made a top-of-the-line folklore film as a part of its attempt to launch a little-known actor as a star.”
Reddy was tasked with bringing this magnum opus on screen. Starring NT Rama Rao, SV Ranga Rao, K Malathi, Chilakalapudi Seetharama Anjaneyulu and Relangi Venkata Ramaiah, Pathala Bhairavi not only successfully revived the adventure fantasy genre but created history for being the first Telugu film to have a 200-day run. Reddy went onto make Mayabazar (1957), an equally renowned adventure fantasy that merges a fictional story with episodes from the Mahabharata epic.
Reddy, a physics graduate, began his career in films as a production executive at Vauhini Studios. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema describe Reddy as a key participant in BN Reddi’s melodramas in the ’40s. Reddy’s first two films, Bhakta Pothana and Yogi Vemana, contributed to “Chittor V Nagaiah’s image as south Indian cinema’s most famous actor in the saint film genre”.
It was a small step from the mythological to the fantasy adventure. In 1949, Reddy made Gunasundari Katha, a blend of fantasy and mythology based on William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. It was deemed a success, even though the Tamil version did not fare well.
Reddy’s fourth film proved to be the breakthrough. Pathala Bhairavi draws from Alladin and the Arabian Nights. The film follows the efforts of Thota Ramudu (NT Rama Rao), a gardener, whose love for princess Indumathi (Malathi) is laden with obstacles. With the help of sorcery and the titular wish-granting goddess from the netherworld, Ramudu is finally able to marry his princess.
Vijaya-Vauhini Studios was set up by Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani, who began their career as authors and publishers of the popular children’s magazine Chandamama, writes Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai in Madras Studios – Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema. “Two years after the instant success of Chandamama in Telugu and Ambulimama in Tamil, in 1949, Nagi Reddy took over the Vauhini Studios and launched Vijaya productions with Chakrapani...” Pillai writes. Pathala Bhairavi was their second project after Shavukaru (1950), which was directed by LV Prasad.
Reddy, along with Madhavapeddi Gokhale’s fabulous sets, Kaladhar’s costumes and Marcus Bartley’s cinematography, matched the wonderment in the studio’s script with equally compelling visuals. Take the scene in which Ramudu enters Pathala Bhairavi’s abode for the first time. At the entrance to the cave is a large tree stump that is half-human and half-animal. Ramudu has to overcome numerous obstacles before entering the sealed underground cave, each of which is astonishingly depicted.
The situations Ramudu finds himself in are similar to Alladin and Alibaba, but Reddy reimagines them in an Indian idiom. He takes elements from popular fables and gives them an Indian form – a gana-shaped secret entry, for instance, or the traditional practice of being garlanded on completing a task.
These familiar elements and situations are fused into a coherent whole in order to present a distinct story that bears the stamp of a Telugu folktale. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen write that Reddy recognised his strength quite clearly: “He (Reddy) attributed his success in the early 1950s to his ability to get the sequence of ‘introduction, commentarial exposition, conflicts, resolution, sub-climax, climax and message in the correct order.’”
Reddy repeated the feat in his other magnum opus Mayabazar (1957). The story is about a promise made by Balarama to his sister Subhadra that he will marry his daughter Sasirekha to her son Abhimanyu. When this pledged alliance is threatened, it is magic again that comes to the rescue, courtesy Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son.
Preparations for the lavishly produced movie took nearly a year. The final production, starring NT Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageswara Rao, Savithri and SV Ranga Rao, was a bigger spectacle than Pathala Bhairavi.
Nearly everything gets an upgrade in Mayabazar. True to the title, there is magic in abundance: Krishna gives Sasirekha a device resembling a laptop to help her communicate with Abhimanyu. The map of Mayabazar comes alive when Ghatotkacha’s aide merely says “hmm aha.” Buildings, shops and dancers are created by Ghatotkacha’s commands. Towering above Dwarka, Ghatotkacha shrinks his body to enter the city, performs tricks on the guards by waving his hand, and flies through the skies with a bed that carries a sleeping Sasirekha. When Sasirekha is eventually forced to marry Duryodhana’s son, Ghatotkacha in the form of Sasirekha plays tricks on the bridegroom by making him believe that he is actually marrying a monkey and then a tiger.
In both Pathala Bhairavi and Mayabazar, Reddy’s endeavour is to project NT Rama Rao as the star. Pathala Bhairavi cast Rao as the hero, while the future Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister plays Krishna in Mayabazar. The similarities with Rajamouli’s casting of Telugu actor Prabhas are hard to miss. In fact, veteran Malayalam filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan even accused Baahubali: The Conclusion of being a parody of Pathala Bhairavi.
Reddy’s filmography includes such titles as Donga Ramudu (1955), Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961) and Sri Krishna Satya (1972) among others. But Pathala Bhairavi and Mayabazar continue to be the hot favourites of Telugu cinema’s favourite genre. Understandably so.