Punnami Naagu (1980)

Punnami Naagu is almost two films in one. It’s as though someone took a deck of cards marked ‘happy animal friends’ and shuffled it with the deck marked ‘a nagin stole my soul’ and voila!  It was an excellent opportunity to apply the principles in Jenni’s Field Guide.  Apologies for the crappy screencaps – the DVD picture is really grainy. And I didn’t have subtitles so I may have made the whole story up.

A local snake charmer uses his snake coercing powers to kill a priest after he had stopped the snake charmer raping a girl. The priest seems to make some dying invocation or curse, and leaves his young son an orphan.

The priest’s son is adopted by the landlord, and I think god sends an elephant to look after him. The elephant is very maternal, making sure Raju eats and washes regularly. It’s all very family friendly and sweet. When Raju moves in with the landlord, naturally his elephant moves in to the luxurious mansion too, and they grow accustomed to the good life. I would have had seizures looking at that decor, but apparently elephants rise above such things.

Meanwhile the snake charmer is in less happy circumstances, and his son Naagulu is growing up unaware of the curse that will take over his life. The father is feeding Naagulu snake venom in his food to help him become immune to snake bites, and he is being trained to take up the family business. It is lucky he is immune as his snake handling is a bit cavalier – I’m pretty sure they could fang you through a hessian sack. Nevertheless.

Naagulu’s heavily pregnant aunt has an animal helper of her own – a very useful monkey that assists with laundry and has exceptional empathy and communication skills along with basic midwifery knowledge. When little Laxmi is born, all the main players are set for the drama which is to unfold.

It’s a standard boy woos girl story, as Raju and Laxmi flirt and fight and make up, all under the watchful and slightly exasperated gaze of their animal friends who also help to patch up fights and carry messages. There is dodgy dancing, Narasimha Raju has an exceedingly voluminous coiff, the elephant and monkey are smarter than the humans, and that storyline is all quite cutesy. Laxmi (Rati Agnihotri) is bright and confident, their courtship is energetic and they get all the upbeat songs. Raju’s costumes are entertaining even without a story to go along with – Could his collars have been any bigger, his pants any higher? It’s kind of fun, especially a song and dance involving the couple wearing each other’s clothes. Laxmi does not fit any of the clothing or eyeliner indicators, so I suspected the snake thing skipped her side of the family.

But. The dark side of the film starts to emerge.

Chiranjeevi as grown up Naagulu is unaware that he is slowly becoming more snake than human. There are some annoying comedy snake charmers on the scene, and they perform with a troupe which includes a spectacularly flexible snake dancer in a bejewelled bodysuit. Naagulu berates the performers for using the gift as entertainment. He may not know why,  but he cannot control his response to the snake music. It was easy to pick the real snake here, bedazzled Fake Snake notwithstanding.

As his hormones kick in, the lust aspect of the snake character takes over when the moon is full. So it’s a bad idea when Naagulu falls for Raju’s sister Menaka after saving her from a rampaging roaring bovine. I applaud the enthusiasm if not the ability of whoever did the voiceover for the animal – I have never heard a cow go “Grrrr-aaaaaargh” nor have I heard one oink like a pig so I was very impressed. Menaka manages to be quite saucy even when barely conscious and Naagulu was smitten.

This can’t end well, what with Naagulu being lethal and all. He lures young ladies to a lonely spot, where it is always night and swirling with mysterious mists, and the venom contained in his bodily fluids is fatal to them. They are mesmerised by his snake gaze (blue contact lenses – tick!) and don’t seem to notice his odd mannerisms that echo some snake behaviours. In his human state he has no recollection of these interludes.

Back in Raju’s storyline, Naagulu’s father repeatedly stomps on a baby snake and the local snake deity eyes him with a vengeful glare. Duelling snakes ensue as Naagulu’s dad tries to kill Raju with his snake, and the deity pursues the snake charmer with eventual success.  Naagulu’s dad delivers a deathbed monologue which seems to include telling his son that he can never marry as he will poison any woman he sleeps with. This revelation came a bit late for poor Menaka.

Naagulu inherits a book that seems to explain his condition, but now he knows what he is there is no one to help him. Naagulu is devastated by what is happening to his body. His eyes change to those blue contacts, his skin is shedding, and he seems to be in agony as he sees these familiar but totally inhuman changes. And that’s what makes this a bit more interesting than I expected. It’s a strong performance in what started out looking like a fairly silly film. There is more to Naagulu than just the killing and being venomous, and Chiranjeevi shows the transition from carefree boy falling in love to tormented soul.

A new school teacher arrives in the village, and takes a photo of Naagulu that later proves his undoing. He offers to guide her to the village but the sun sets and his cobra nature asserts itself. When Raju sees the significant photo he confronts Naagulu. There is no real outcome, just a scuffle and then everything goes back to normal. I was struck by another snake indicator – venom. During the fight, Chiru bit a chunk out of a tree, which then appeared to ooze blue ink. Both he and Narasimha Raju looked a bit taken aback by that, as was I. Another thing the book clearly neglected to mention was hunting technique. Naagulu keeps trying to bite Raju’s neck, when I suspect a nip at the fingers that were pushing at his face might have been just as lethal.

Despite the rising body count, Raju and Laxmi are still flirting madly and Raju doesn’t seem to be too concerned about all the deaths. But then Naagulu is drawn to his cousin Laxmi and it all becomes much more dangerous.

Luckily Laxmi’s monkey Anji has a reliable mongoose supply and the peril is averted.

This scene was so strange – on the one hand very silly with a mongoose being thrown at Chiru’s face repeatedly as he emoted fiercely, but also a strong defining point in the character’s transition from troubled man to snake.

Naagulu makes an unsuccessful attempt at assaulting a blind girl – she couldn’t see his mesmerising gaze so escaped. Raju and a mob of villagers with flaming torches (led by the elephant) are soon on his trail. Naagulu reveals he cannot control the snake and has become a monster even to himself. Raju cannot help but feel sorry for him and tries to help. But what monster ever gets a happy ever after? And seriously, could Raju’s collars be ANY bigger?

Rajasekhar’s film gave  a bit more food for thought than I was expecting. The Raju-Laxmi romance was sunny and a good contrast to the Naagulu story. The animals seemed fairly un-stressed, with the exception of the spring loaded mongoose and the sacrificial snake, and their antics were highly entertaining if predictable.  It’s a strange mix but overall, I really enjoyed the characters, the unusual story, and the general WTFery. The only thing missing was a Chiru snake dance. 3 stars!

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16 thoughts on “Punnami Naagu (1980)

    • hi mm. I have no idea who she is but she is spectacularly bendy. I couldn’t find much information on the cast at all so I have no idea who played most of the supporting roles. And nothing I read mentioned that snake dance. Maybe minai minai will know…I’ll have to pop over to her blog and ask.

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  1. Ooops. Venom. Should have remembered to include that one!

    Also. You would think that mongeese (?) would play a more prominent role in snake movies but I think they are fairly thin on the ground. Another area for research.

    Also. All his bodily fluids kill? Eeeewww. Nice touch.

    And I agree with mm about the spectacular ( yet quite disturbing) snake dance, snake fakery notwithstanding.

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    • re the venom/bodily fluids – The girls die with all the symptoms of snake bite except that there are no fang marks or puncture wounds so I had to make a guess as to how the venom entered their system – that and the ‘Son, you’re going to have to stay a bachelor’ monologue gave me the hints. Enquiring minds need to know jenni! As for the mongooses they were around in Doodh Ka Karz but I don’t recall any other films with a noticeable mongoose presence. You may have to publish a revised field guide after the fesssstival to incorporate any new findings 🙂

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      • In Nagin, the Reena Roy snake spits venom into a drink at one point so I guess that’s another piece of evidence for the bodily fluids argument. Her venom is also a bluey purpley colour (which incidentally seems to dissssipate quickly once in alcohol). Hmmm. I think I can feel another hypothesis forming.

        Also. What is the plural of mongoose? Enquiring minds etc.

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      • There is a very nice story I heard David Attenborough tell about a zoo manager who wanted to order more than one mongoose from another zoo. He realised he wasn’t sure about the plural so had a letter typed up asking for one mongoose and then added a handwritten postscript along the lines of ‘And while you’re at it, just chuck in another one’. But I believe it is mongooses. Which sounds all wrong.
        I look forward to the new hypothesis!

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      • Per Merriam-Webster, either “mongooses” or “mongeese” is acceptable. I have a feeling that “mongeese” is British usage (I first encountered it in a P.G. Wodehouse book), since my browser’s spell check is objecting to it. 🙂

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  2. That dancer is truly amazing. I might not be able to replicate her moves, but I could probably get a sequined body suit like that, right?

    I’m also impressed with the nice screen caps of Naagulu in his human and snake forms. I’m finding that getting good screen caps of the snakes is hard, because the snakes are moving, and usually there are lots of fast cuts during the snakey parts.

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    • Please post pictures when you acquire the body suit 🙂 Screen capping the snakes is very hard. Between their natural speed, and the edits, I haven’t been able to do their performances justice.

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  3. Awesome! You found the video of the snake song! I loved the menagerie of animal chgaractors in this and Chiru darting his tongue in an out of his mouth when in snake mode..too cool. I loved the Mongoose scene as well..I’ll make a link to your post on mine.

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  4. If I had had any doubts that those two packs being shuffled together – with a splash of character study and psychological portraiture – would make a great film (which I certainly did not), your writeup would assuage them. This sounds very fun and interesting indeed and I heartily echo the comments by others about the spectacular flexibility and expressiveness of the fake snake!

    re: venom: remember how in Sheshnaag, there is venom that makes heads separate from torsos? (I can’t remember if it’s Rekha’s or Danny’s.) Even though Naagbharna is super boring and talky, there is venom, but it just makes the victim foam at the mouth, which seems disappointingly realistic.

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    • Ah that was actually Danny separating his head from his torso to avoid Rekha’s venom (that could strip paint off walls). I made jenni watch some of Sheshnaag and she started muttering something about another hypothesis.
      Punnami Naagu is a fun film Beth – and I think depending on your mood, you could focus on the light or dark sides of the story and still feel you hadn’t wasted your time. And you know, how often do you get to see a monkey graffiti an elephant? See – I left so much for the alert viewer to discover for themselves.

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  5. Its funny you took so long to find this movie after watching obscure movies like Shwetha Nagu. This one on the other hand is a popular movie. And it has one of your favourite actors.

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    • Hi Alex (or is it aksha?) I don’t write about films in any particular order, so the date that I watched it isn’t reflected on this blog. I wrote about Punnami Naagu when I did because there was a bloggers event going on that focussed on snake films so it fit with that theme. Otherwise I just have a list of films I am interested in enough to want to write about, and I keep ticking things off and adding more on. As to how I choose films – I watch movies in a variety of languages and genres so I never run short of options, even if they’re not films you would have picked 🙂 Do you mind if I ask how you found us? Cheers, Temple

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  6. I remember watching this film alone at home exactly five years ago. I didn’t like it very much then, but started exploring all those old Chiru movies after that. The theme was more prevalent in Telugu films. But the film never gave me a feel that I’m watching a Telugu film as a majority of the crew members were from Tamil cinema: AVM (production house), Rajashekar (dir.), Rama Narayanan (story). Also, the actor who appears as Chiru’s father is a Tamil. I remember him very much for his role in Adhey Kangal. A local Tamil television used to telecast this movie on weekdays. The dubbing and music were horrible.

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