B.N Reddi’s Malliswari is a film that almost every Telugu film fan praises as a masterpiece and a must see. It is so disappointing to see (and hear) the appalling state of the available copies, and also vexing that it is nigh impossible to buy on DVD. I would have loved subtitles. From the little I could pick out with my miniscule vocabulary, the dialogues seemed sensible and not overly filmi and the songs all seemed to fit in beautifully as an extension of the narrative.
Malliswari and Nagaraju grow up together in their peaceful rustic village. She calls him a monkey and he calls her a cat, but all the casual insults don’t mask their deep affection for each other. As Malliswari matures, her materialistic mother decides to nip the relationship with poorer Nagaraju in the bud. A chance encounter brings Malli to the Maharaja’s notice. In return for considerable payment, her mother hands Malliswari over to the palace as a Rani Vasam.Rani Vasam are forbidden to see or speak to men, and there was a lot of rigmarole for Malli even to see her mother and uncle. Nagaraju loses the plot, Malli mopes, but true love will not be torn asunder. When the king discovers Nagaraju and Malli have broken his rules, the penalty is death.
The female cast is superb and they all play off each other so well. Apart from Bhanumathi in the lead role, there is Kumari as the Maharani, Surabhi Kamalabai as Nagaraju’s mother, Rushyendramani as Malli’s mother and T.G Kamala Devi as Malliswari’s attendant Jalaja.
Based on the (rather thin) plot summary I found, I was expecting the men in the film to drive more of the action. I’m happy to be wrong about that. I wouldn’t describe this as feminist or ahead of its time, but the women are interesting and pursue their own goals and dreams. Malli is recruited into the palace against her will, but she is there because of her art as well as her beauty and is shown respect. Malli’s mother isn’t an evil shrew – just a materialistic woman who may even be motivated by wanting her girl to have an easier life. Jalaja isn’t a brainless servant, and while she and Malli become close she still cautions her against following her heart. And the enigmatic Maharani with a passion for art seems to be the real power inside the palace.
This is Bhanumathi’s film from the moment she steps into view. She gives Malliswari warmth and vivacity and is equally convincing when Malli feels sad and isolated. Her rapport with NTR is evident and I liked that Malli and Nagaraju seemed like friends as well as childhood sweethearts. In addition to her fine acting Bhanumathi also sang for herself (as did T.G Kamala Devi).
Her voice is beautifully expressive, and having the same voice for both dialogue and songs was wonderful as the songs are an integral part of the story and needed that same strong characterisation. When Malli is separated from her loved ones she yearns for happier times and for her bava, and her grief is as immediate and heartfelt as her joy had been. What I really liked was that even when Malliswari felt at her lowest ebb, she never completely gave up. There was always a spark of the vibrant and feisty girl we first met.
While NTR’s Nagaraju is important to Malli, he is often peripheral to the action so doesn’t dominate the screen as he has in other more hero-centric fare. His scenes with Bhanumathi are quite lovely and NTR’s doe-eyed charm is dialled up to the max. During a storm they take shelter in an old building, enjoying the adventure and singing to while away the time. It’s not a doom and gloom first love. When Nagaraju leaves home to make his fortune only to return and find Malli gone, he falls in a heap. Nagaraju ends up in a cave, sculpting Malliswari’s likeness and letting his hair get out of control as his clothes degrade to shreds. I found NTR’s portrayal of grief more theatrical than Bhanumathi’s and while I felt her pain I wanted to give him a bit of a slap and tell him to do something sensible instead of wallowing. I did a bit of eye-rolling in the final scenes where Nagaraju declared to the king that Malliswari was his life and he couldn’t give her up – I reckon the result had already been decided by the queen, and was based on her regard for Malli, not all the manly posturing. But this is a romance and since the chemistry and relationship building is so good, everything else diminishes.
The support cast is hard to identify due to the paucity of detail available but I did manage to put some names to faces. Surabhi Kamalabai is given a small but challenging role as Nagaraju’s mother. She is a servant to Malliswari’s family and so is often a silent observer of goings on and has little dialogue to express her feelings. When she fears Nagaraju is dead or lost to her she cracks up (so that seemed to be a family trait) and goes a bit over the top, but is set to rights when her boy comes home and they can have a good cry. I recognised T.G Kamala Devi from Patala Bhairavi. I looked up her filmography and was amazed and quite delighted to see she was a billiards player, and won the Indian Womens title twice – when she was in her 60s! Doraiswamy (another familiar face, this from Devadasu) is the inarticulate father who regrets sending Malliswari away but doesn’t stand up to his wife. Kumari looks the part as Maharani Tirumala Devi, exuding confidence and a subdued energy in her scenes. Plus she gets to wear some stunning bling. I should mention Baby Mallika and Master Venkata Ramana who played the young Malliswari and Nagaraju. Both were lively and playful, and matched the adult stars well in terms of looks and mannerisms. I also liked the gossipy village ladies who always seemed to be at the well, passing comment on everyone else.
The set design is very pretty but is quite generic. I felt the actors were the real focus and the sets provided an appropriate backdrop. I really liked the episode at the fair as it was attractively shot and showed more of Malli and Nagaraju’s personalities, especially in a scene with a fortune teller. There was even a man in a bear suit. The music is outstanding, as it should be in a film about a singer. There are over a dozen songs in the film and composer Saluri Rajeswara Rao employs a range of styles to fit the scene and emotional tone. The songs are placed well and are a logical extension of the drama so they reinforce the actors characterisations. Music is always present, whether as a childhood favourite, a soulful plea to the heavens, a performance given for royalty or a simple work song to speed the day along.
There are several uploads of the full movie on YouTube and other sites. The official running time is 194 minutes but I haven’t managed to find the full version – most are missing around 20 minutes but not always the same 20 minutes. The sound and picture quality on every copy I have found is subpar. But if you can persevere with the technical issues, this is a beautiful film and a firm favourite of mine. Bhanumathi is superb, NTR is a perfect foil for her, and B.N Reddi blends everything into a very charming story with love and music at its heart. 5 stars!