Vetagadu (1979)

Vetagadu

K. Raghavendra Rao’s 1979 film is a classic featuring N.T. Rama Rao and Sridevi in a mystery/romance full of stupendous seventies fashion and glorious home décor. Jandhyala’s story seems to have all the required elements but despite having 2 DVD copies of this film that say ‘with English subtitles’ neither my copies, nor the versions available on YT are subtitled, so I’m really just going with my interpretation of events. And there is a lot going on. As well as a jewellery theft, there is a murder, a feud between two rich families, some shenanigans in a tea plantation, a tribal village with a propensity for celebrating by dancing, a cosy villain’s lair and a convoluted plot to expose the criminals. N.T. Rama Rao looks a little old to be romping around the forest and fighting off the bad guys, but he does it with plenty of style while Sridevi is simply stunning as the heroine trying to find out what really happened to her mother. Apologies for the poor quality of the screencaps – in addition to no subtitles the DVD’s are of equally bad quality.

The film starts with Gayatri (Pushpalata) performing a musical interlude for her family, including her husband Ananda Bhupathi (Jaggayya) and young daughter Roja, at what seems to be a house-warming for their new palace. During her performance Gayatri wears a super-sparkly necklace which quickly attracts the attention of the palace’s steward, Sivananam (Rao Gopal Rao). Sivananam hatches a plot to steal the necklace that involves kidnapping Gayatri the next time she attends the temple. However, Gayatri manages to escape from her captors and runs into the forest where she meets Kalyana Gajapathi (Kanta Rao), a friend of the family who lives in the neighbouring palace. Kalyana Gajapathi attempts to fight the kidnappers but is killed in the struggle, while Gayatri manages to give her necklace to a local tribesman before the thugs catch up with her too.

The film moves to the present day where Ananda Bhupathi has moved back to the city after losing his wife, and the young Roja has grown up into Sridevi. Sivananam has taken over running the estate where he runs various shady businesses, including trafficking young women, with the help of his son Hari (Satyanarayana). As with all good villains, Sivananam has a lair, which judging by the fishy view, appears to be underwater and is furnished with the usual accoutrements including a handy trap door and convenient crocodile for disposing of recalcitrant girls. Hari wanders around the tea plantation, acting as a lord of the manner in his fancy suits with matching hat and flower, selecting the women he wants and disposing of them in his father’s business.

Sivananam has grand plans to marry Hari and Roja, which he puts into action when Roja visits for a hunting trip. However, he’s reckoned without Raja (N.T. Ramo Rao), the son of Kalyana Gajapathi and a hunter still living in his father’s old palace. Roja meets Raja on her way to the forest and immediately dislikes his rather sleazy approach to romance. After crashing into her car and harassing her on the train, Raja then follows the tried and true method of tormenting Roja and stalking her to make her fall in love with him, but to Roja’s credit this doesn’t seem to work. However, Raja’s heart is really in the right place and when he rescues Roja from a gang of thugs she changes her mind and the two can get down to some serious prancing.

One night Roja hears music coming from the old abandoned palace, and when Raja investigates he finds a masked man attacking a young woman in the building. Further investigation leads him to suspect something shady is going on, but it’s not until he rescues another young tribal woman and meets her father (Chalapathi Rao) that he starts to put everything together. Since he’s a man of good sense, he enlists Roja’s help with his investigations, and between them they discover the real story of what happened to Gayatri and her necklace.

Of course that’s not nearly enough drama, so added in is a feud between Ananda Bhupathi and Raja’s family as he believes Kalyana Gajapathi was behind the theft of the necklace and disappearance of his wife, resulting in his refusal to allow Roja to marry Raja. There’s also something about a little girl who was killed in a road accident, who I think was Raja’s sister, which may explain why his father was off hunting in the forest when Gayatri went missing. Or may not – I’m not clear exactly how her death fits into the rest of the story. Naturally there is a comedy track too and Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah ham it up between them in a feud over one of the women from the tea plantation. There is also a rather sad and toothless tiger who gets dragged into the mix and is supposedly part of the ‘comedy’, but for the most part Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah play well off each other even if their antics seem rather dated now.

What helps Vetagadu immensely is the mystery-based storyline and the enthusiasm and energy of the leads. Rao Gopal Rao is good as the villain of the piece with a generally benevolent air as he plots and plans his way through various schemes. Satyanarayana is also excellent as his son, with all his affectations which he drops easily once he’s involved in a fight scene. There’s a particularly good moment where he swaps shoes during an item song to pick up some diamonds and has to carry off the disruption to his perfectly matched outfit. I do like his style!

But the real stars are NTR and particularly Sridevi who manages to make her romance with the ageing superstar reasonably believable. NTR helps things along by some energetic fight sequences and a number of good dance numbers including this one in the tribal village where he imagines Roja and himself as the lead dancers.

Sridevi is simply stunning and has plenty of scope to demonstrate the full range of her acting skills Her initial comedy scenes with Raja are good, and I definitely think she gets the upper hand even though she does eventually succumb to Raja’s charms, or at least his ability to get them out of a sticky situation. Roja also gets a chance to turn detective as she partners up with Raja to find out what happened to her mother and the heirloom necklace, vamping it up and flirting with Hari as well as schmoozing up to Sivananam. She’s also gorgeous in the dance sequences and manages to carry off the various ruffles and seventies fashion (even a crocheted dress) with plenty of style. NTR does well to keep up with her, and he’s excellent in scenes where he is chasing down the answers to the puzzle of his father’s disappearance and the mystery of the missing necklace.

Although the finale, where Raja attempts a disguise to fool Sivananam and Hari doesn’t work quite as well, the rest of the story is a good mix of romance and action, just the way a masala should be. I would love to see this properly restored with English subtitles but until then, this was an enjoyable watch, even without understanding the dialogue– worth it for Sridevi, N.T. Rama Rao and Chakravarthy’s catchy dance numbers. 3½ stars.

 

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Tirugu Leni Manishi (1981)

Tirugu Leni Manishi poster

The early eighties gave us so much in India cinema – psychedelic titles, crazy costumes, extreme décor and disco to name but a few – and they all turn up in Thirugu Leni Manishi! Chiranjeevi shares the limelight here with none other than N.T. Rama Rao and as far as I can find out seems to be the only film where they appeared together. Providing excellent support are Rati Agnihoti, Jayalakshmi and Jaggayya, with the unexpected pleasure of Bob Christo who pops up towards the end of the film.

Some of those amazing titles.

And almost immediately afterwards Chiru is introduced as up and coming singing sensation Kishore Kumar.

Oh yes!

Naturally Padma (Jayalakshmi) is seduced by Kishore’s smooth skills with a guitar and his excellent prancing prowess. Padma is the daughter of multimillionaire Sasibhushan Rao (Jaggayya) so it’s pretty much guaranteed that the romance is going to be an uphill battle. Raja (N.T. Rama Rao) is Sasibhushan’s son and in a nice contrast to Chiru’s tight trousers, Raja has a collection of very wide flares teamed with natty multi-coloured shirts, as befitting a successful lawyer and young man about the town. I’m not sure why they decided to portray Raja as a newly qualified young lawyer as he does look more his real age for most of the film, although no more so than watching an ageing Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson playing a younger hero in Hollywood, but as he has plenty of energy and dashes around saving everyone in sight his youthful on-screen age doesn’t really matter.

Sasibhushan has no intention of allowing his daughter to be married to a penniless singer and instead arranges Padma’s marriage to the son of one of his rich friends. Padma follows standard filmi heroine behaviour and decides to commit suicide as that’s much easier than standing up to her father or even running away with Kishore. Well, it is the Eighties after all, and she does make sure to call her brother and explain in precise detail exactly what she is doing.

Raja turns up in the nick of time to save Padma and decides to get her married to Kishore despite his father’s orders. At the same time, Raja keeps running into a con man (Allu Ramalingaiah) and his niece Seeta (Rati Agnihoti).To begin with Rama tries to turn Seeta over to the police, but when he realises she’s a good person struggling to makes ends meet as she looks after her dead sister’s children, he has a change of heart and gives her a job instead.

Naturally the two get to dance together so that Raja can have his love story too.

Things turn darker once Raja discovers his father was involved with a criminal gang of smugglers and even worse when he finds out that Kishore has been corrupted by the same gang. In an attempt to live up to Sasibhushan’s standards for his daughter, Kishore became involved with the gang as a way to make a lot of money quickly but soon realises the error of his ways. As Sashibhushan is murdered and Kishore’s son kidnapped things quickly come to a head leading to Raja and Kishore teaming up to overcome the gang.

N.T.Rama Rao is the man who no-one can oppose of the title. He is successful in court, in love and in rehabilitating Ramudu and Seeta so naturally it falls to him to deal with the smuggling gang once he discovers their activities. While N.T Rama Rao is the out and out hero, Chiranjeevi has a more shaded and probably the more interesting role to play. His singer is initially carefree and very much the man in love, but as he struggles to win over Padma’s father, his pride and determination to give her the life she has been used to lead to his downfall. Chiru excels as a man under pressure especially when his child is kidnapped to force him to comply with the smuggler’s orders. Although most of the film is relatively light-hearted, the scenes where Kishore struggles with his conscience are much darker and a tribute to his acting skills to be able to pull such a character off without derailing the story.

The cast are all excellent and K. Raghavendra Rao ensures that each plays to their strengths. N.T Rama Rao is charming and debonair as Raja but does get the chance to beat up the bad guys and indulge in a few disguises too, while Chiranjeevi starts off very cool and groovy but changes into a conscientious husband and father – at least until his secret dealing catch up with him and he has to fight to win back his son. Jayalakshmi doesn’t have too much to do after she falls in love with Kishore, but Seeta gets a chance to dress up and fight against the smugglers, and does a good job of it too. Chiru and N.T.Rama Rao still get the most dazzling costumes though!

The film is amazingly colourful and cinematographer K.S. Prakash goes for some interesting angles and unusual framing to keep everything looking sharp too. The decor in Sasibhushan’s house is incredibly lavish, but much more to my taste is a totally awesome lamp on Raja’s desk, and I love the Village People poster on the wall of Kishore’s living room . Naturally the smuggling gang also have style, and their hideout features a number of gigantic masks on the wall, while their criminal mastermind (Satyanarayana) has two large china cat statues on either side of his chair. The giant birdcage where they stow Kishore’s son for safe keeping is perhaps just a tad over the top though!

Thirugu Leni Manishi has a more complex storyline than I was expecting and is a lot more fun too. Chiranjeevi is in his element as a flamboyant singer and his shift to family man and gang member is beautifully done, while N. T. Rama Rao is a solid and righteous hero who knows how to make things right. It’s fantastic to see the two together and the film is definitely well worth watching for that alone although the costumes, décor and screenplay are awesome added bonuses. Drama, action, comedy, Chiru and NTR all add up to an excellent film and one that shouldn’t be missed. 4 stars.

Bhookailas


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.