P. Suribabu, Bezawada Rajarathnam, Balijepalli Lakshmikantham, Master Viswam, Lanka Sathyam, Kamalakumari, Lakshmi Devi, Annapurna, D. Lakshmaiah Chowdhary
South India's first movie mughal, S.S. Vasan's move from publications to cinema came rather unexpectedly. Though in 1936, his novel, Sati Leelavati was filmed he had no intention of entering the film industry.
But he later floated Gemini Picture Circuit to take up the distribution of films made by his friend K. Subrahmanyam. Soon he found it a profitable venture and financed others films too. It was during this time that in an unfortunate fire accident on December 21, 1940, Motion Picture Producers Combines (MPPC) studio helmed by K. Subrahmanyam was burnt. Subrahmanyam went into debts and the studio came to be auctioned. S.S. Vasan won the auction by bidding Rs.86, 427, 11 annas and 9 paise (16 annas = 1 Rs and 1 anna = 12 paise)! He was the only person to bid with annas and paise and the reason was that he promised to clear all the debts of his friend including staff wages with accrued interest. Naturally the staff felt their future safe in such a magnanimous owner and remained with him while he rebuilt the charred remains of MPCC into a modern studio and renamed it as Gemini Studios. Though he produced his first film, Madanakamarajan (1941) at Gemini Studios it was not officially considered as produced by Gemini Pictures Circuit as for reasons best known to him, Vasan made the film under Dindugal Amirtham Talkies banner. Interestingly the first film that Vasan produced under the Gemini banner was in Telugu titled, Jeevanmukthi (1942) remake of K. Subrahmanyam's super hit Tamil film, Bhaktha Chetha (1940).
The story of Jeevanmukthi dwells on untouchability. Jeevudu (played by Puvvula Suribabu) a cobbler by profession led a saintly life with his wife Seva (Bezawada Rajarathnam) and son Bhavudu (Master Viswam). Pleased by his devotion, Lord Vishnu (V.V. Satagopan) appeared before him everyday and ate whatever his devotee offered him as prasadam. The arrogant and powerful Rajaguru (Balijepalli Lakshmikantha Kavi)'s daughter Santha (Kamala Kumari) out of curiosity visits Jeevudu's hut to know whether God really makes a visit there and was awe struck when she saw the Lord and tells her father so. Rajaguru was aghast that his daughter went to an untouchable's house and locks her up in a dark chamber. He sends word for Jeevudu that the King (Dasari Lakshmaiah Chowdhary)'s mother was performing a cheppula nomu and that Jeevudu should send a thousand sandals by the next morning.
Jeevudu, his wife and son work overnight but could only make a few. Tired, they fall asleep only to find the house littered with sandals the next morning. They thank the Lord for his benevolence. Bhavudu takes them to the King's court. Poisoned by Rajaguru's words, the King orders that Jeevudu's hands be cut and his eyes pierced and he be jailed. Bhavudu was stoned at the instruction of Rajaguru. Santha escapes from the dark chamber with the help of the flower girl (Lakshmi Devi) and informs Seva of the King's order. Crestfallen Seva runs to the jail and looking at her blind husband she pierce her eyes too. The earth shakes violently, the jail walls break, Lord Maha Vishnu with his consort Sridevi (Annapurna) appear disguised as tribals bring back their devotees to their normal self. Rajaguru realise his folly. The whole dalit village comes to life again.
Balijepalli Lakshmikantha Kavi wrote the dialogue and lyrics. Saluri Rajeswara Rao who was on the rolls of Gemini Studios on a monthly salary of Rs.1,000 scored the music. Sailen Bose handled the camera. Though the film's direction was credited to T.V. Neelakanthan, B.A. B.L. a friend of Vasan who also worked at the Studios, it was in fact directed de-facto by the film's co-director L. S. Narayana who was none other than Lanka Sathyam. In fact, T.V. Neelakanthan never practiced as a lawyer nor ‘directed' another movie. His only credit was that he introduced popular Tamil actress Sundari Bai to films. Lanka Sathyam joined Gemini Studios on a monthly salary of Rs.700 and worked there for nearly 18 months. Vasan gifted him a Trump motor bike. Besides directing the movie with Ramachandra Rao as associate, Sathyam also played a cameo as Yegnanna, Rajaguru's sishya.
In spite of her singing prowess and talent as an actress, Bezawada Rajarathnam couldn't match the 14 year singing beauty debutante G. Subbulakshmi who played the role in the Tamil version. Papanasam Sivan essayed Jeeva's character in Tamil and that explains its hit status. Despite Suribabu's soulful renditions (only one song veligimpuma naalo jyothi…is available on the internet) in his nasal tone and Rajeswara Rao's magical music touch, Jeevanmukthi turned a miserable flop.
The same year Vasan tasted stupendous success with his second Telugu film, Balanagamma with a stunning portrayal from Kanchanamala.
While Vasan walked away with the big money, curtains came down on Kanchanamala's illustrious career. That's another story.