Malliswari (1951)

Malliswari-MalliswariB.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, the actress who plays 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. I thought I had identified the actress in a small but challenging role as Nagaraju’s mother, but I was wrong – so if you know her name, please share! 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!

Jagadeka Veeruni Katha

Jagadeka Veeruni Katha

Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961) is a sumptuous fantasy drama directed and produced by K.V Reddy. It stars NTR with B Saroja Devi, L Vijayalakshmi, Jayanthi and Bala as the love interests, is loaded with songs and is beautiful to look at. It’s also around 3 hours long, clearly made for a time when a more meandering pace was appreciated.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-Pratap and parents

The plot can be loosely described as follows. Prince Pratap (NTR) defies his parents and leaves the kingdom in search of love. His dream women are the devakanyas who represent the elements of Air, Water, Fire and…Snakes. Indra Kumari (B Saroja Devi), Nagini (L Vijayalakshmi), Varuna Kumari (Jayanthi) and Agni Kumari (Bala) like to bathe in a decorative pond, gossiping and singing the day away. Pratap finds them, but in return for his unwanted attention Indra Kumari turns him into a statue. Pratap’s mother goes into devotional overdrive and Parvathi (Kannamba) answers her plea. Pratap is restored to his princely self and Parvathi gives him the tip-off that if he stole Indra Kumari’s clothes, she would be stranded on earth and have to marry him. Marriage duly accomplished, he sets off with new wife and newly acquired best friend Rendu Chintalu (Relangi) to a neighbouring kingdom.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-ThreesokananduJagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-Men in drag

Threesokanadu (Rajanala Kaleswara Rao) is a petulant brat of a ruler and wants whatever he can’t have, including Indra Kumari. Devising numerous ploys to send her husband off on missions to Nagalokam and elsewhere, all he succeeds in is getting the remaining devakanyas hitched to Pratap. I don’t know why he thought dressing in a saree would help his cause. Relangi and Ekasa (Girija) have a comedy subplot in which they thwart the king’s plans and generally bicker.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-hard times

Meanwhile, back in Pratap’s home his brother has conspired to overthrow the Maharaju and Maharani (Mukkamala Krishnamurthy and Rushyendramani), who are now living on the streets. Eventually they get wind of Pratap’s whereabouts and a tearful reunion is on the cards. The devakanyas trick their mother-in-law and get Indra Kumari’s saree back and leave for the heavens.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-wild with griefJagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-change of heart

Pratap goes wild with grief and the ladies seem to miss him too. Indra and the other lords of various heavens test Pratap and eventually he gets his wives back. Happy days.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-NTR and RelangiJagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-NTR and Saroja Devi

It’s NTR’s film from go to whoa and he could do this kind of role in his sleep. Pratap is the perfect prince and goes from swooning to swashbuckling in the blink of an eye. He gets all the big speeches and a couple of key songs, and NTR dominates all his scenes. He always has a nice rapport with Relangi, and I liked them together as they showed the more human side of Pratap with a bit of humour.  Relangi’s character gets to do some useful and sensible things in amongst all his comedy bumbling too.

B Saroja Devi is the leading lady and does get the majority of screen time, but her character is not really developed beyond being designated as a heavenly beauty. The warmth in her interactions with the other devakanyas, and her chemistry with NTR is largely drawn from her own performance and not the script as far as I could tell.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-Indra Kumari and NaginiJagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-Pratap and Indra Kumari

One of my favourite filmi dancers L Vijayalakshmi gets a little bit of dialogue and a few not very snakey dances, but the other wives are not given a lot to do in the story. They all look stunning in their sparkly costumes, and I found their scenes together more lively than the ones where they had to stand around simpering at Pratap.

Given the heavenly origins of the leading ladies and the divine interference by Parvathi, there is lots of scope for special effects and magical plot developments. The devakanyas all have distinctive modes of arriving at their bathing spot. Nagini turns into a snake when her mood sours.

And faced with the demands of multiple wives, Pratap is magically cloned so he can spend quality time with his spouses.

Comedy demons perform a range of useful services, including transforming into a flying divan. Pratap is changed at different times into a statue and a baby. Aside from Marcus Bartley’s stunning camerawork with his trademark moonlit scenes, I was struck yet again by the skilful use of the limited 1960s technology to create some really effective illusions. There’s nothing that would fool today’s CGI savvy audience, but the sequences are creative and are perfect for the fable of a prince on a quest.

Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-lifelike rag doll 1Jagadeka-Veeruni-Katha-lifelike rag doll 2

Except maybe not the rag doll dummy used in some fight scenes.

The music by Pendyala Nageswara Rao is lovely and it feels like someone breaks into song every few minutes. The only character who does much by way of dancing is L Vijayalakshmi as Nagini. When Pratap arrives in her kingdom, this is how he is greeted.

And there are some lovely duets as well as more devotional songs.

The set design is lavish with all the intricate decorative motifs I’ve come to expect from this era and genre, including fabulous animal themed furniture and fittings. Plus some excellent work from the hat department. The film is available without subs on YouTube. I’ve also managed to track down an unsubtitled VCD, but the picture quality is poor. I can only imagine what it might have been like with a decent print and sound. Really Telugu film industry – get your act together and do something about these classics!

Considering so many things happen in this film, it’s almost remarkable how few of the incidents are essential to the plot. But if you can spare the time for a rambling adventure with a charming cast, gorgeous music, and beautiful visual design this is a sheer pleasure. 4 stars! (A small deduction for general crappiness of the print, irritatingly big watermark on that crappy print, and because comedy demons are to fantasy films what comedy uncles are to modern movies – a plague and a pox.)


Bhookailas is replete with all the necessary elements for fine entertainment; great actors, beautiful music, lots of excellent dancing, fabulous sets and most important, a good story. It’s not just a fluffy fairytale or fantasy though as there is some philosophy underneath the gilding. But more than anything, it is a great entertainment and a pleasure to watch. (The Volga DVD has good subtitles and the picture quality is fine on screen although poor in screencaps.)

Ravana (NTR) has conquered the human world and is at a loose end. Being a magnanimous ruler, he asks his brother demons what they want as a reward for this victory. His generals suggest a sleeping festival (excellent!), peace and justice for all, and finally that he declare war on heaven as the gods are worthy opponents for demons, not like frail humans. In order to avert this war which Ravana will likely win, the sage Narada (ANR) starts conniving and scheming to keep Ravana from invading.

Ravana is brave, intelligent, principled but very impulsive and has little self control. NTR is in his element as the larger than life Ravana. He creates a sympathetic character but one whose flaws are all too evident. The character spans broad comedy, doe eyed romance and the aggressive assurance of unchallenged leadership. Ravana is easily manipulated by Narada, Vishnu, Parvathi, his own mother and Ganesh among others.

His lack of insight and self awareness brings him undone when he has the potential to rival the gods should he focus his will. So he is like lots of men we all know- asked to bring back one specific item from the shops, and coming back with either nothing or something completely random.

Ravana’s mother Kaikasi (Hemalatha) is a devotee of Shiva. When her prayers are disrupted to stop her gaining Shiva’s benediction, she charges Ravana with making Shiva answer her prayer. He is a total mummy’s boy. He takes it one step further and promises to bring back Shiva’s atmalingam, his soul, for her to pray to. When he decides to beseech Shiva through rigorous penance, not even Helen can distract him.

But he loses this focus and falls under an illusion that sends him off on a tangent. Ravana’s quest to win back that blessing from Shiva takes many detours thanks to Narada.

Narada (ANR) is intent on maintaining the status quo. He plays on the susceptible Ravan and the change resistant gods. He puts the wind up heaven with dire predictions about what will happen should Ravana succeed. He stirs up Ravana’s impulsive and suspicious nature to manipulate him. ANR’s performance is lots of fun with a supercilious eyebrow here, a self serving whinge there, and a whole lot of economy with the truth. He sabotages Ravana’s request for a boon from Shiva, using illusion to persuade Ravana to ask for Parvathi as his reward. But the plan doesn’t play out exactly as Narada hoped, and he scrambles from drama to catastrophe and back again with only his wit and sophistry to help him navigate between the gods and demons. The gadfly tactic manoeuvres the protagonists, sets up conflict and also provides some of the more comedic moments.

Shiva’s alert and active snake companion was a highlight. The snake is quite interested in the proceedings. I was picturing the person responsible for snake directing and the bag of tricks they must have employed. Occasionally the snake would have a snooze and seemed to be waiting for someone to do something entertaining. Nagabhushanam portrays Shiva in a more paternal style, taking an indulgent approach to his devotees most of the time.

Parvathi (B Saroja Devi) is beautiful and stately and her role requires little more than that. Parvathi is used as a pawn in the game Narada is playing with Ravana, and despite her power she finds herself being carted around from pillar to post. But finally after prompting from the ever helpful sage, she uses her own power of illusion to break free. Apparently Ravana couldn’t see her inner beauty.

Mandodari (Jamuna) is Mayasura’s daughter, and persuades herself to fall for Ravana. Jamuna is lovely but she looks a little too mature and knowing to be totally convincing as the young and inexperienced princess. Her handmaidens joke about how Ravana will be a bucktoothed crosseyed hunchback and then tease her when they see she has feelings. Mandodari is very privileged and enjoys the finest things in her father’s lavishly decorated aquatic themed underwater kingdom.

But she has a hard time of it when she gets the husband she wants and discovers he was under the impression he had married the goddess Parvathi. Mandodari is another unwitting player in Narada’s plan to keep the three kingdoms in their proper place.

After all the trickery and deceit, Ravana offers penance in very dramatic style, cutting off his own head. It makes the acts of contrition my school priests used to dish out look pathetic. Ravana wins forgiveness but fails to triumph thanks to his inability to stay on task. Again. He neglects an instruction, disregards a warning and jeopardises the very thing he had struggled for.

His flaws were his undoing and they were all things he could control or learn to manage. Luckily his failure created something very special for the human world, so the film ends on a cheery note.

The animosity between would-be in-laws Ravana and Mayasura (an ebullient S.V Ranga Rao) is due to their worship of different gods – Shiva and Vishnu. There are some very pointed references to this, including Narada rebuking them for not realising that god is one and omnipotent. I wondered if this speech was in response to current day issues or purely part of the story. It seemed to be directed straight down the barrel of the camera which made me think it was at least partly commentary aimed at the audience.
The songs are particularly enjoyable, even more so with the bonus of excellent dancers. The songs are directly linked to the story so expand on things or underline issues. In Mayasura’s palace Kamala Laxman performs a very elegant dance depicting Vishnu’s avatars, while Gopi Krishna dances in a more wild and entranced style in devotion to Shiva.

The visual effects are simple, and the use is restrained, so they also enhance the atmosphere of a world outside of human reality.
As with many of the devotional, religious and mythological films from the 50s and 60s that I’ve seen, you don’t need to know anything about the main characters as a preqrequisite to enjoy the story. Bhookailas is beautifully self-contained, and K. Shankar has structured it to make the story accessible and entertaining. Watch this for the rattling good story, the wonderful actors and the visual riches. 5 stars!

Heather says: I found Bhookailas to be an interesting film as it shows Ravana from a totally different point of view. NTR’s demon king is depicted more in his ‘devoted follower of Shiva’ character rather than the more traditional ‘Ravana as the embodiment of all evil’ and for most of the film he is heroic and really quite dashing. It’s quite a change as I think this is the first film I have seen where Ravana hasn’t been just the villain that everyone is supposed to hate and it does make for a fascinating story.

NTR is excellent in his role and his depiction of Ravana’s all-conquering and all-powerful king is very believable. His devotion to Shiva is well shown but even better is his colossal arrogance which NTR hits just right, and when Ravana loses his temper there is a real edge which brings out his demonic nature clearly. However, Although I really liked NTR here, the standout performance for me was ANR. He is brilliant in his depiction of the sage Narada, and I think that this is probably the best characterisation of the trouble making sage I have seen. Narada’s frequent nods, winks and knowing looks are very well done, and he excels in causing trouble for trouble’s sake. ANR hits the character perfectly and his mannerisms and facial expressions make his scenes very enjoyable to watch.  The interactions between Narada and Ravana are also very well written, and both actors work very well together to bring their characters to life.

As Temple has mentioned, there is very little scope for any of the female roles here, and Hemalatha as Kaikasi probably has the role with the most substance. I enjoyed her performance and her exasperation at her impetuous son was excellently done. I wasn’t very impressed with Jamuna’s Mandodari and all her simpering, but I did love the underwater palace where she lived. Seeing Helen pop up in a song was a lovely surprise, and I was suitably impressed that Ravana was able to ignore her wonderful dancing as he meditated. Great music, fantastic performances and a thoroughly entertaining story make Bhookailas very well worth watching and I thoroughly recommend it. 4 stars.