BLAST FROM THE PAST A. Nageswara Rao, Anjali Devi, S. Varalakshmi, Kasturi Sivarao, Narimani, D. Sadasiva Rao, C. Venkateswara Rao, B. Sitaram and others

Akkineni Nageswara Rao has won many laurels in his 71-year film career. But not many know that he played the lead in the first ever Telugu film, which had a 100-day run and also celebrated a silver jubilee (25 weeks). Balaraju, produced and directed by his mentor, Ghantasala Balaramaiah, earned him that distinction.

Tasting his first success with Mugguru Marateelu, Balaramaiah desired to make another film based on folklore. Samudrala Raghavacharya came up with the subject of Balaraju. What made Balaraju more appealing than similar movies was its love story cleverly embedded into a folklore. For the title role, Balaramaiah had an in-house hero, ANR, who fitted the innocent adolescent. And for the female lead he took S. Varalakshmi, who had impressed him even as a child artiste in Gudavalli Ramabrahmam’s Balayogini. ANR and Varalaksmi had already starred in Mayalokam and Palnati Yuddham and were a popular pair. Anjali Devi, a dancing star then, was signed to play Mohini.

The story is in two parts – the first lasts for 20 minutes and happens in Suvarloka (heaven). The second, of a little over two hours, is set in Bhuloka (earth). ‘Devakanya’ Mohini and a Yaksha are in love. Indra, the ruler of Suvarloka, has an interest in Mohini. His emissary Kubera, unable to separate the lovers, curses Yaksha to be born as a human. Mohini refuses to bow to the wish of Indra, who then curses her to be born as a human and pine for her lover. The Yaksha, now Balaraju, is brought up by a shepherd. Mohini is found in a field by Kamma Naidu, who names her Sita and brings her up.

As she grows up, pressure mounts on him to perform her marriage. Fearing that the wealth he had acquired after her arrival may disappear if she leaves him, he refuses to get her married and keeps her in a solitary tower in a forest.

Balaraju and his companion Yelamanda pass by that route. Attracted by the music that Balaraju plays on his flute, Sita escapes to meet him. She recognises him, but his memory fails him due to the curse. She makes attempts to revive their love. The story takes interesting twists when the hero is turned into a snake by an angry sage. Balaraju regains his memory and realises that he is in love with Sita.

Indra once again makes an attempt to separate the lovers. Unable to bear any further agony, Sita is all set to to curse Indra when the Gods appear and Indra seeks Sita’s pardon. He invites the couple to Suvarloka, but Balaraju and Mohini prefer a blissful life on the earth.

The theme is simple – no one can separate true lovers. Samudrala’s catchy dialogues made an impact. When Indra insists that Mohini dance before him, she tells him in strong words, “Nee kumarthe Jayanthini gajje katti natyam cheyyamanu.” And when Balaraju asks Sita not to move from the place till he returns, she shoots back in mock humour, “Aalumagalu anukogaane adhikaram modhalaindi.’ Such dialogues went well with the audience.

ANR became a youth icon with his moustache, a slight variation of the French cut (make-up by K. Gopala Rao), which many in that generation aped. As Sita, S. Varalakshmi excelled in expressions, diction and rendition. Anjali Devi as Mohini attracted the audience with her dance numbers, especially in the song Theeyani Vennela Reyi. Kasturi Siva Rao turned a star comedian after his role as the partially deaf Yelamanda.

Balaramaiah’s smooth narration, coupled with rich production values, the opulent Indra sabha, the forest set, created at Newtone Studios (art director: S.V.S. Ramarao) and P. Sridhar’s photography (showing two Sitas in one frame) were all impressive.

However, what contributed largely to the movie’s phenomenal success was Gali Penchala Narasimha Rao’s music. He was ably assisted by Ghantasala, who also rendered his first song for ANR, ‘Cheliya Kanarava’. In fact, ANR himself sang it first and it was recorded along with other songs. But later he insisted on Ghantasala singing it.

Vakkalanka Sarala rendered two songs , ‘Navodayam Subhodayam’ and ‘Theeyani vennela reyi’ for Anjali Devi. (Incidentally, the legendary actress Savitri, who, in her early teens, used to give dance performances on the stage, further popularised the ‘Theeyani vennela reyi’ song by including it in one of her dance numbers). Kasturi Sivarao and B. Sitaram sang their own songs.

However, it was S. Varalakshmi, who stole the viewers’ hearts with her husky voice in such melodious numbers ‘Yevarine Nenevarine..,’ and ‘Rara Naa Raja raaraa… Prayaga and Samudrala penned the lyrics. It is said that Malladi Ramakrishna Sastri had ghost written some of these lyrics for Samudrala. C.R. Subbaraman composed the background score.

Balaraju rewrote box-office collections and celebrated a 100-day run in Vijayawada, Rajahmundry, Guntur and Eluru from June 4 to 7, 1948 and had its silver jubilee function on a shift basis at Ramakrishna Theatre, Eluru, on August 16. Both functions were attended by the lead stars and technicians. At the silver jubilee function the special attraction was a music programme by S. Varalakshmi. Balaraju thus set a trend for such functions in Telugu film industry.