Bhairava Dweepam

Bhairava Dweepam DVD

Released in 1994, Bhairava Dweepam is a lavish lolly coloured Telugu folk tale. Writer/director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao picked up a couple of awards and the film was both a commercial and critical success. Although I found it quite entertaining, there are a few things I couldn’t help but compare unfavourably with other similar films.

Bhairava-Dweepam-Vasundhara is rejected

The story is easy to follow, which was handy as I haven’t been able to find subtitles. Vasundhara (K.R Vijaya) had a baby, probably out of wedlock but certainly not to the liking of the royal family. When she takes her son to the prince, the father in question, she is turfed out into the stormy night. She has an accident in her small unstable boat and mother and child are separated. Vasundhara is taken in by a kindly hermit who also creates a magical (poorly trimmed fabric) flower that will thrive as long as her son is also alive.

The boy is adopted by a village leader and grows up to be Vijay (Balakrishna). The people rejoiced – except that baby in yellow. Vijay and his sidekick or adopted brother, (Mohan Babu), are out and about doing what boys in folktales do when they spy Padma (Roja). Vijay is instantly smitten and sets about finding his way into the palace to spend more time with her. Unbeknownst to Padma, an evil magician also has his sights set on her. Padma is rendered seriously ill by a spell and Vijay searches for a cure. Along the way he meets his mother but they don’t yet realise their connection. She gives him a protective amulet which comes in very handy. He discovers the nefarious plot and after much travail, confronts Bhairava to set things to rights.

The story is very similar to the gorgeous 1951 film, Patala Bhairavi. And that is where the comparisons start. Where Patala Bhairavi was stunning and NTR was effortlessly charismatic, Bhairava Dweepam is a bit less magical and Balakrishna is more workmanlike in constructing his performance. The special effects in 1994 have not moved on all that much from 1951. I did wonder what my 1994 self would have thought, but in 1994 I had already seen films like Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). While there were some things about Legend I don’t care for (Tom Cruise for starters), it did look like a magical fairytale and the unicorns are beautiful. Compare and contrast these approaches to prosthetic horse makeup.

While I appreciate the spirit of making do, even if it does result in a grumpy looking horse with feathers stuck on, I was left a little underwhelmed. It was a mixed bag and often more amusing than enchanting.

There are other sequences involving a two headed rubber chicken dragon attacking the flying bed used to whisk Padma to the villain’s cave, some tiny miniature people who help Vijay obtain a magical necklace, a mirror monster in a peekaboo green rubber suit and so much more. It is kind of great but not really good. Ajooba-esque, perhaps. And there are some horse stunts that look horrible. One scene involved Vijay using a stick to trip horses, and not all of them looked like they were going to get up. I deducted Hero points from Vijay on seeing that tactic.

Balakrishna works harder than anyone else in the cast. Vijay is in almost every scene and usually throwing himself into a duel or bounding about rescuing the princess so this is a physically demanding role. If Balakrishna had been paid per leap he would have cleaned up. Vijay helps or liberates a number of magical beings along the way, and they give him valuable assistance in his quest. Balakrishna certainly has the confident swagger down pat even if his dancing is less than impressive. But making a film that is so similar to one of NTR’s acclaimed roles and trying to replicate his style is a big ask. I thought the same when I watched Sri Rama Rajyam. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but he doesn’t have the same expressive quality or panache and so comes off as less engaging. Tarak (NTR Jr) seems to take a slightly different tack by paying a tribute to his grandfather in his films but not trying to mimic him as closely. That allows for more individuality and he has developed a kind of everyman hero persona (with phenomenal dancing skills). Balakrishna is more closely tied to the legacy and so I find it hard to appreciate him as an individual actor, at least based on the handful of his films I’ve seen. Plus he will always be This Guy to me.

Roja is the love interest, Padma Devi. Padma is your standard damsel in occasional distress. She does nothing other than look sparkly, frolic with her handmaidens and wait to be rescued from Certain Death. Roja is pretty and lively, and she handles the numerous songs and dances easily. But I think she would have spent more time in hair and makeup than having to learn her few lines. I did wonder why, since Bhairava required a virgin for his spell, no one thought about how Padma could disqualify herself.

The supporting cast are all good without being outstanding. Rambha has one of the big musical numbers as Yakshini, the owner of both magical necklace and green mirror monster. Giri Babu and Subhalekha  Sudhakar play scheming brothers (and Vijay’s relatives) who not only depose their own father but have their eye on Padma’s kingdom as well.

K.R Vijaya is good as Vasundhara and she does get a couple of quite dramatic scenes, including a classic Nahiin Face Off with Balakrishna.

The design department certainly went for it. Their philosophy could be summed up as ‘all the colours, all the time’. Vijay has an extensive wardrobe of gaudy leggings and tunics, nicely accessorised with an array of ornate boots and matching wristbands. I was particularly impressed with the outfit that had canary boots to match the yellow terry-towelling trim and headband. Perfect for the active hero! Roja is very glittery, as are her attendants. Bhairava’s island cave lair is more impressive from the outside but he does have more than the usual number of talking statues so that was something. There are comedy demons that help Vijay, and they look like something straight out of the kindergarten dress up box.

Bhairava Dweepam is entertaining enough, but having seen it twice now I don’t think I’d invest the time on watching it again. See it for a relatively recent take on the folkloric blockbuster and for the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the cast. 3 stars! (But if you’re a diehard fan of Ajooba, add an extra star!)

Bhairava-Dweepam-Rabbit

Also – I love this production house emblem.

Gulebakavali Katha

I love folk tales and fantasy in Indian cinema, and when they are combined with a theme involving eyes and blindness then that’s a combination guaranteed to make me watch. And Gulebakavali Katha doesn’t disappoint with plenty of eye references and fantastical scenes throughout. The story is reputably based on Madhira Subbanna Deekshitulu’s Kasimajili Kathalu which also provided the story line for Patala Bhairavi, although from time to time the story here reminded me of Jason’s quest in the Greek classics. It’s a fun film with the emphasis on the fantasy and NTR’s hero is dashing, suitably brave and self-sacrificing. The music is lovely and plentiful, and the sets and costumes are absolutely fabulous.  There are excellent opening titles featuring an animated skeleton, and the story opens in the best possible way with a song featuring Geetanjali and Jyothy as dancers.

The storyteller introduces the tale of King Chandrasena (Mukkamala Krishnamurthy), his two wives and his wicked brother-in-law who is conspiring to take the throne. King Chandrasen’s first wife Gunavathi (Rushyendramani) falls pregnant after she is blessed by the goddess Parvathi. This makes his younger, second wife Rupavathi (Chayadevi) jealous even though Rupavathi already has 3 sons of her own. To make sure that her children will inherit the throne, Rupavathi plots with her brother Vakraketu (Rajanala Kaleswara Rao) to get rid of the baby and discredit her rival. With the help of the Royal astrologers, Vakraketu concocts a tale that the King will go blind if he sees his son. Not content with this form of banishment, Vakraketu then orders his soldiers to take the baby into the woods, kill him and bring back his eyes as proof of the deed. Of course it doesn’t go to plan and the baby ends up being rescued and brought up by a shepherd couple in the forest.

Rajanala makes an excellent villain here with his amazingly expressive eyes and appropriately evil laugh. His performance also provides a strong foundation for the story as he schemes his way towards the throne with the help of the treacherous army chief Dushtabuddi. He also has excellent moustache twirling skills!

Meanwhile, as may be expected from someone who grows up as a goat-herder in the woods, Vijay (NTR) grows up to be a handsome well-spoken young man who has an amazing ability with a sword but no idea about his real parents. Despite his lowly start in life, Vijay is a man of principles and NTR gives him plenty of charm and humour to go with his bravery and spear throwing. He does look the part of the perfect fantasy prince and can look determined, puzzled, worried or intrigued as required.

Now that Vijay is grown up and capable of thwarting his plans, Vakraketu finally decides to make his move on the throne by poisoning the King’s wine to destroy his sight. This happens to coincide with a hunting trip into the woods enabling Vijay to turn up just in time to be the last person the King sees before the poison takes effect, thus fulfilling the totally fabricated prophesy. While Vijay easily evades the soldiers sent to capture him he’s intrigued enough to climb up to the King’s lodge and discovers his heritage. After meeting his real mother, he sets out to discover the fabled Gulebakavali flower which will cure his father’s blindness.

Vijay’s three elder brothers have grown up to be complete fools under the influence of their uncle, but they also decide to search out the fabled flower and they provide much of the comedy throughout the film. Although they’re not particularly funny they aren’t too irritating despite the youngest brother’s incredibly squeaky voice, and they do have an important role to play as they cheat their younger brother later on in the film. The rest of the comedy is provided by Atitelivi (Balakrishna) who befriends Vijay and helps confound and defeat Vijay’s three brothers and by Vijay himself as he proves he has plenty of brains to go with his bravery.

On his quest for the gulebakavali flower Vijay has to overcome many challenges, and the first of these is in the form of a beautiful woman who has declared that she will marry the man who can beat her at dice. Yuktimati (Jamuna) provides plenty of glamour and looks stunning as she scams various rich men out of their wealth and takes them prisoner, although unlike Circe she doesn’t go as far as turning them into pigs.

After his brothers succumb and are taken prisoner Vijay disguises himself as an old man and beats Yuktimati when he discovers her trick of using a mouse to distract her cat which serves as her lamp.It’s all rather silly and the cat and mouse are both obviously stuffed, but it’s a nice fairy-tale like idea and the song with NTR in disguise is excellent.

Despite beautiful women throwing themself at him, the search for the gulebakavali flower must go on and Vijay leaves his new wife to continue looking for the cure for his father’s blindness. He picks the scariest looking spot in the entire forest to go to sleep, so it’s not surprising that he is awakened by a skeleton that attacks him as the statue starts to breathe smoke, the moon sports a skull and there are bats and snakes in abundance. However it was all just a test and after proving his bravery, Shiva gives Vijay an enchanted jewel which will enable him to become invisible and reach the yakshaloka.

Once there he discovers the beautiful princess Bakavali and her entourage who guard the golden flower. The sets here are beautiful and as well as singing and dancing there is also synchronised swimming to enjoy. Peacock beds are obviously de rigueur for fantasy princesses and Bakavali has a rather nice example here.

Back on Earth with the flower Vijay meets treachery and betrayal and becomes progressively more unshaven and tattered which makes the resemblance between him and his grandson Tarak very obvious.

There are more damsels in distress to rescue and more fantastically gory eye scenes before Vijay adds a second wife to his collection by marrying Bakavali as well before heading home to save the day.  Here are some more pretty pictures of the various beautiful women who all are happy to see Vijay, plus the elusive gulebakavali flower.

While Gulebakavali Katha follows a fairly standard fantasy theme with a heroic prince overcoming various challenges it’s all done beautifully with stunning sets and some very sparkly jewelry.  There is enough humour in Vijay’s character that he doesn’t become too sanctimonious despite all his self-sacrifice, and he seems quite delighted at the various women who throw themselves at him. Jamuna has the best described role among the women as Yuktimati along with her chief handmaiden Asha and it’s a shame that they disappear from the story so quickly.

The effects are really quite innovative for the time and feature transformations, fighting skeletons and plenty of quite realistic eyes being thrown around. There is even a flying dragon as transportation although rather oddly it makes the same noise as is generally used for UFO’s. On reflection though, that perhaps does make sense! There are plenty of songs and some very beautiful duets although the mix of traditional songs and fifties ‘big band’ sound is occasionally a little strange. I really couldn’t decide which of these was my favourite, so here is a link to Nannu Dochokundavate with Vijay and Yuktimati, and below is Kalala Alalapai where Bakavali is dreaming of Vijay.

I really enjoyed this film as the simple story unfolds so smoothly and the whole film looks absolutely stunning. NTR makes a wonderful heroic prince and I love him in these roles, particularly with such excellent co-stars. The eye related theme is fantastic and so much fun without being overdone or used too heavily as a metaphor.  I thoroughly recommend watching and as an added bonus, it is available with subtitles! 5 stars.

Temple says:

I tracked this film down after reading Minai’s excellent blog post. While I enjoyed it immensely, there are a couple of things that didn’t work so well and I wouldn’t put this quite at the top of my list of vintage Telugu fantasy.

After the great start with jaunty music and skeleton, the device of a story being told within the film detracted a little from the opening sequences. There was a bit too much telling via voiceover and not enough getting on with it. I don’t particularly care for the intrusive narrator in films, unless we are talking The Princess Bride, as it can be distracting and can break the rhythm of the story. While it was intended to convey the folktale flavour, I think just showing the events happening would have been better. Heather has pretty much retold the whole plot, so I won’t go over my favourite episodes, but there are lots of obligatory folktale challenges and obstacles, all solved in a stylish and heroic manner. But while there is a lot happening, and lots of characters coming and going, this felt like it was plodding along at times where it should have had more zing.

Maybe that is because there just isn’t enough dancing for my liking. Compared to other favourites of mine like Patala Bhairavi, Bhookailas (featuring Helen!) and Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (with the peppy L Vijayalakshmi as a snake goddess), this film is a bit light on for songs and dances. The music is very pleasant, and slightly eccentric at times, but I can’t recall most of the melodies now while I can immediately think of songs from the other films. Clearly I need the sparkly dance outfits and choreography to make me remember.

NTR has a romantic melting eyed look that suits the princely characters but is physical enough to be the heroic warrior or goatherd as the case may be. I can see why he is synonymous with this genre – it is just perfect for him. I’m quite fond of Balakrishna too so I enjoyed his contribution to the comedy and confusion. And the ladies all look stunning and suitably fairytale princess inspired, which for the most part is all they need to do. The costumes and jewellery are typically lavish and beautifully filmed.

The fantasy genre is something I think Telugu film makers excelled at in the 50s and 60s. Regardless of whether the inspiration was folktale, mythology, history or religion there is an abundance of delightful films that combine beautiful visuals with a sense of wonder and whimsy. But while I like Gulebakavali Katha, I prefer the more sprightly energy and derring-do of the other films I’ve listed. (Although this film has NTR plucking his eyes out, I don’t think anything can top him cutting his own head off in Bhookailas. Terrible pun, sorry!) It is well worth a watch but there are other films in this style that appeal to me more. A small deduction for the slightly draggy start, and the missed opportunity for more dances. 4 stars.

Patala Bhairavi (1951)

Patala Bhairavi is a wonderful fairytale complete with a pauper turned prince, a wicked wizard, a princess, a quest, flying castles, magic, disguises and divine intervention. This is not a stuffy staid classic; this is fun! I watched it without subtitles, but the story is clear and easy to follow. And the cast is fantastic – NTR, Malathi K, SV Ranga Rao , Relangi – and  a young Savitri makes a small appearance.  There are beautiful sets as well, and lovely music by Ghantasala. It really is a feast.

Thota Ramudu (NTR) lives with his mother Kanthamma the palace gardener (Surabhi Kamalabai) and his sidekick Anji (Balakrishna). He spies the princess Indumatha (Malathi K) and is smitten. Her father  is not as enamoured of the idea, and tries to deter the youngsters but love will not be denied.  The King dreams that the poor man will be his daughter’s saviour and decides to be merciful. After being released from the palace dungeons Ramudu vows to make his way out into the world and return with the requisite riches and glory to be deemed worthy.

NTR is excellent as the hero. He stands up to the king’s bullying brother (Relangi), defends those in trouble and exudes righteousness without being stuck up. He gives his mother some trouble as he and Anji are silly boys when given half a chance, but he is fundamentally a nice guy.

Plus – he has snake wrangling and crocodile wrestling skills! It’s a fun role and he really embraces the swashbuckling hero style. He also gets to do romantic and dramatic scenes so there is a range of emotion and intensity. NTR balances it beautifully. Had the performance been tipped more towards silliness or self importance, it would have been a lot less enjoyable.

Indumathi is a proper princess. She lives in a palace, indulges in approved princess pastimes like singing to flowers and playing music, and after an exhausting day of these activities she sleeps in a peacock bed.

Indumathi doesn’t do much except wait…wait for her sweetheart, wait to be married, wait to be rescued. Malathi K made a strong impression in her later scenes when she is fearful and alone, but Indumathi is off screen for a lot of the film so she has little scope.

Relangi plays the king’s relative, and is NTR’s rival for Indumathi. There is little to fear on that front however as he delivers his habitual bumbling fool performance. He does have an eye catching hat though, so that was something. And he does his own singing. He and Balakrishna have ownership of the comedy track, and it is fairly amusing as the jokes are integral to their characters.

Anji is by Ramudu’s side for the adventure, and he contributes a little bit more than just comedy, although that is his primary purpose. In the battle of the sidekicks between Anji and the sorcerer’s apprentice Dingiri (Padmanabham), Anji wins the day. He is loyal and resourceful, if a bit dim, and without him the hero might have failed miserably. Considering I usually find the comedy sidekick more irritating than entertaining, I think he did really well to keep me from fast forwarding through his solo scenes.

SV Ranga Rao is Nepala Mantrikudu, a sorcerer who needs to sacrifice an innocent young lad (I wonder who will fall into his hands) in order to gain control over an idol that can compel goddess Patala Bhairavi (Girija) to grant wishes. He has a fabulous cave lair with excellent statuary, and the hapless Dingiri as his assistant.

Nepala Mantrikudu is a determined man, who will stop at nothing to gain his desire. He even cut his own arm off once for a spell, and then used his magic to reattach it. I like his dragon headed telescope that sees whatever the user wants to find.

He impresses the yokels with a great array of tricks – including turning a rock into a monkey and then transforms the monkey into a dancing girl before giving Relangi similar treatment. Ramudu can’t resist the show, and that brings the protagonists together. I always like SV Ranga Rao as a villain because he can be amusing with a twinkle in his eye and then turn to seriously threatening in a blink. He adds most of the drama and menace to the story, and is larger than life.

Ramudu steals a magical vessel and tries to create his own wealth. But he lacks the ability to use it so, promised money and the princess, he goes with Nepala Mantrikudu to retrieve the idol. The quest involves a lot of near death moments for NTR including – the crocodile wrestling!

Not the most lifelike crocodile, nor the most convincing wound I have seen. I shall digress – I keep hearing rumours that Rana Daggubati may be in a remake of this film. I think he is a competent actor although I’m not sure he has the right acting style for this sort of caper, but I do think he might be excellent at shirtless crocodile wrestling scenes.

Ramudu emerges from his dip triumphant, and worded up about the magician’s treachery by a goddess in the crocodile pond. Of course the sorcerer and his intended sacrifice have different ideas, and Ramudu wins that encounter and the idol.

While he is rich (thanks to the goddess) on his return to Ujjain, he is not out of trouble. It takes more than decapitation to stop a dark sorcerer who has a history of sticking his limbs back on.

Old enemies unite against Ramudu and he loses control of the idol. What next?

There are demons, bears, seven-league boots, invisibility cloaks, disguises, flying palaces, fisticuffs and so much more before the end of the tale.

When I say the sets were lavish – there are 3 separate credits for set design, moulding and painting and I think they earned their keep. When Ramudu takes the royal family on a tour of his magically appointed residence, the building is stunning. This song includes some performances by his household dancers (including Savitri), and the sets are just delightful. I’ve screen capped if you can’t be bothered with the song clip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The visuals perfectly match the story book action and characters, with the painted backdrops reinforcing the fantasy element. The special effects are lots of fun (especially considering it was the 1950s).  I saw Sri Rama Rajyam on Friday night and despite the apparently huge budget for CGI, I found the effects more distracting than beautiful. I know that is a devotional film, and this isn’t but it made me think about the use of visual effects in films that are depicting an alternate reality. Patala Bhairavi keeps the people at the centre. When someone pulls on an invisibility cloak, other characters react to this amazing sight – the gimmicks support the story. In Sri Rama Rajyam, they chose to use CGI for things like birds, leaves, foliage, peacocks and deer to the point that it cluttered up the screen. It detracted from the story and from the actors. I appreciated the mastery of Kadri Venkata Reddy. He and the team including writers Subbanna Deekshitulu, Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao, Pingali Nagendra Rao art director Madhavapeddi Gokhale and DOP Marcus Bartley  have created a really beautiful fantasy realm with an engaging story.

Perhaps I am fond of this film because it reminds me of being a kid, watching Disney TV shows with my family on a Saturday evening. The good guys are nice, there are pretty jewels and costumes to admire, the music is lovely and the story ends on a high note. I would love to see it with subtitles but I enjoyed it immensely without. 5 stars!