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!

Gundamma Katha

Gundamma Katha is a classic film from 1962 and is considered to be one of the last great films to be produced by B. Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani under the Vijaya Studios banner, which also gave us Mayabazar. It features an all-star cast, lovely production design and  a lyrical score by Ghantasala.  Sadly the Shalimar DVD has really ordinary subtitles which detract from what is supposedly a well written story.

Perhaps they meant thirsty? Who knows.

The story revolves around Gundamma, a wealthy widow who has one spoilt and indulged daughter, one Cinderella like step-daughter from her husband’s first marriage and one largely absent son. Gundamma rules the household with an iron fist and her reputation as a termagant is well known in the village. She wants to make an advantageous match for her daughter Saroja but her wastrel brother Gantayya throws a spanner into the works every time. As Gundamma casts her matrimonial nets wider she contacts wealthy Ram Bhadrayya, a friend of her deceased husband, who has two eligible sons. While Ram Bhadrayya wants to help his former friend’s family, he is concerned about the values and character of the girls and decides to put them to the test.

NTR plays Anjaneya or Anji and it is decided that Laxmi (Savitri) is the best match for him. Since Laxmi is effectively a servant in the household, he poses as a labourer in order to get closer to her, and to appear to Gundamma as an appropriate suitor.  This part of the deception seems very typically filmi and almost justified, since Laxmi does deserve better than the life she has. NTR is charismatic as the exuberant Anji, and Savitri is beautiful as Laxmi. Their relationship develops over conversations and teasing, and they develop a true appreciation for each other. With a jaunty song Anji points out to Laxmi that women can do whatever they want to do in the world, and she should have no fear in letting herself be more than an unpaid servant to her step-mother. Sadly this enlightened attitude turns out to be lip service as the story progresses, but the partnership of Laxmi and Anji does seem to be a happy and balanced one.

Ram Bhadrayya’s second son Raja (ANR) woos the privileged and spoiled Saroja (Jamuna) and finally marries her. Playing out a drama concocted by his father and Anji, Raja tells Saroja that everything was a lie and that he is not even Ram Bhadrayya’s son.  After some more drama Saroja is forced to choose between her home and comforts or leaving to an unknown future with her drunk and possibly criminal husband. This deception is all to ensure that Saroja has a proper wifely attitude and will look after her husband in the manner he feels appropriate. Saroja doesn’t seem to deserve all of the heartache she is put through, as her attitude already appears quite appropriate for the wife of a wealthy man. It doesn’t seem likely that she will have to clean pots and pans, plough fields and cook once she is established in her new household but she is forced to learn as she lives in near poverty with her husband. Why her father-in-law feels this trickery is necessary for her to become a better wife is not apparent to us. She actually seemed to be mellowing and becoming more empathetic as her romance blossomed with Raja. It certainly wasn’t a palatable part of the plot and made the second half of the film much less enjoyable.

Throughout all of the drama, ANR manages to instil the character of Raja with enough charisma that Saroja’s devotion to him is understandable to some degree, although her behaviour is clearly driven as much by wifely duty and the expectations of society as anything else. Jamuna is excellent in her early scenes as the lazy daughter and also as the bewildered wife whose world rapidly falls apart. Despite this couple’s rather dubious story there are some lovely duets which are beautifully depicted and in these scenes the two actors have great  rapport with each other.  The growing closeness is illustrated by the proximity of their sleeping mats – initially on opposite sides of the room, by the time ANR decides to reveal the truth they are happily snuggled up next to each other.

The cinematographer Marcus Bartley has a reputation for creating beautiful moonlit lighting effects, shown to great effect here and in Mayabazar.  The costumes are lovely, and very much serve to illustrate the status of each character. A simple change in clothing is all it takes to make a prince a pauper and back again. Initially Laxmi wears cotton saris and simple blouses while Saroja gleams in silk and jewels. As the sisters’ fortunes change, so do their wardrobes.

The film excels in the story of Gundamma, played by Suryakantham (who apparently made her career out of playing wicked stepmother type characters).  Gundamma’s scenes with the argumentative and shifty Durgamma (Chayadevi) are well written and enough to make anyone duck for cover when the two start fighting. Her clashes with the various members of her family are realistic and energetic.  Her final humiliation, which eventually results in her reconciliation with Laxmi, is a nice twist to the story and a suitably sentimental resolution to the melodrama.

The lead actors were all at their peak when Gundamma Katha was made and they seem to share an easy rapport. In particular the many wordless exchanges between the two brothers are great to watch as they convey so much through their posture and gestures alone. Savithri and Jamuna are beautiful and show distinct personalities without ever falling into caricature. The sisters’ relationship is not as friendly as the boys’, but they exhibit familial love and loyalty regardless of their difference in status. Once again, the comedy track is hit and miss and we have different opinions as to what succeeded.

The film does end in a rushed few scenes of everyone reconciling. We were disappointed by this as it seemed a bit under-written and hasty, and also because there was never any sense of owing the ladies any explanation for what had been done to them. Granted, Gundamma, Laxmi and Saroja were none the worse off in a material sense at the end of the story, but they had been lied to and manipulated and that was hard to swallow. Certainly we expected more anger or argument between the couples. Setting up three strong and intelligent women and having them turn into doormats by the end of the film was a major let down.

We haven’t really mentioned the lovely L Vijayalakshmi who played the boys’ cousin Padma.  She was actually the sensible and sane one who married the man she wanted (Gundamma’s son) and stood up for what she wanted. Apart from looking lovely and putting Gundamma back in her box, she also performed a very pretty classical dance which was a highlight in this largely non-dancing film.

The music is very melodic and the songs seem to suit the characters and the situation. We were amused to recognise the opening titles music, also used in that L Vijayalakshmi dance, as the riff from recent Hindi hit Pe Pe Pepein from Chance Pe Dance!

Temple says: I liked a lot about this film – the cast, the production design, the music and the cinematography. I strongly disliked the story. The message seems to be ‘be strong, intelligent, independent…until your husband tells you to stop’. In addition to my issues with that, the character of Saroja just wasn’t written as someone eligible for Taming of the Shrew type behaviour modification and so the treatment meted out to her seems harsh, unnecessary and not in keeping with her actions in the film. The acting style has really dated, especially that of the male cast members. ANR and NTR do have oodles of charisma, which makes the stomping and scenery chewing much more entertaining than it might have been. But the acting honours go to all the ladies – which is ironic in a film that certainly isn’t about girl power – with Savitri the stand-out performer. She is beautifully expressive without ever being over the top. The minor supporting cast didn’t make much of a contribution other than to add the alleged comedy (regular readers will know I suffer from Comic Sideplot Intolerance). It seemed a waste to have Allu Ramalingaiah as the hotel owner as he had so little to do. I really found Ramana Reddy as Gantayya (Gundamma’s dodgy brother) annoying and hammy and I fast-forwarded through many of his scenes just so I could get through the film.  Actually, I think the fast forward button was essential to me getting through this – I was bored by the over-acting and repelled by the story so this wasn’t the pleasure to watch I had hoped for. Time hasn’t been kind to this classic. I give it 3 and 1/2 stars, just for the stars.

Heather says: This is a film which both looks and sounds very beautiful and from this point of view is an absolute winner. The story of Gundamma and her two daughters had a lot of potential, and it’s a shame that the writer D.V.Narasa Raju decided to turn the two sisters such perfect and therefore perfectly dull wives by the end. Both Laxmi and Saroja had plenty of personality at the start of the film and eradicating this in the quest to make them the ideal wives just made them rather less interesting to watch. The lack of a reaction from Saroja when she discovers the deception was particularly irritating considering she had just been put through absolute misery by the man proclaiming to love her. It was also a little odd that the start of the film featured a song all about women’s rights and then proceeded to firmly walk all over them. I suppose that in 1962 it was more important to adhere to conventional principles rather than allow a strong-minded woman to succeed. However, despite these issues with the storyline, I did enjoy the romance between Anji and Laxmi. Their songs, as well as the duets between Saroja and Raja, were really lovely.

The characters of Gundamma, her perpetually scheming and whining brother and the very shady Durgamma were much more entertaining. The interactions between them all were much more believable and seemed to be better written, although this could just be due to the subtitles. I found the comedy scenes with Ramana Reddy and Allu Ramalingaiah in the restaurant to be really funny, as were his scenes with NTR. What can I say? I’m Irish and it reminded me so much of similar scenes I’ve seen at home! The comedy track here worked well for me, and was much more enjoyable than the unsettling story of Saroja and Raja. ANR and NTR were excellent together and their relationship as brothers was very well portrayed. I also liked the minor characters and the way their individual stories were worked into the plot. The standout performance though was that of Gundamma, and for that alone this film deserves to be a classic. Without the Raja and Saroja storyline it would have been even better, but overall I enjoyed this film and it gets 3 ½ stars from me.