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!

Telugu Film History – Filmfare August 23, 1963

A kind reader with excellent research skills sent these photographs of a Filmfare article from 1963. If you click on the pictures below you should be able to see the full sized version and zoom in to read about the early years of this wonderful industry. If you’re observant you will spot a hand that may belong to our film historian/spy. The story starts in 1931 with ‘Bhakta Prahlada’, made by H.M Reddi and a troupe of Telugu stage artists who travelled to Bombay as there were no studios in the South. It also covers Vauhini Pictures and Vijaya Productions who made classics including Mayabazar and Missamma and provides some detail of the classical and mythological inspiration behind many successful films. I loved reading about the early cinemas and the ingenuity of film makers in an era before fancy technology. If you still need persuasion to see some vintage Telugu cinema, this may do the trick: “Telugu film has not only emerged as a powerful medium of entertainment and instruction, but has also scaled new heights of artistic and technical excellence.” Or you can just enjoy some lovely stills of favourites NTR, Savitri, ANR, Jamuna, SV Ranga Rao and L Vijayalakshmi, among others.

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