Chittoor V. Nagaiah, Mudigonda Lingamurthy, R. Rami Reddy, M.V. Rajamma, Kshatriya Parvathi Bai, B. Kanthamani, A. Seetha, K. Doraswamy, V. Lakshmikantham, Rayaprolu Subrahmanyam, Baby Krishnaveni

A big crowd of devotees has lined up on either side of the pathway that leads to a cave to have a last glimpse of the saint who is about go there to attain ‘jeeva samadhi.’ In the crowd are an old couple – the saint’s elder brother and sister-in-law and his childhood friend. The pious man walks in, with a benign smile on his face, stops for a few seconds before his kin as if to tell that he has recognised them and then moves on with a sense of detachment. His childhood friend, however, reaches him. The bearded saint embraces him and leaving the world behind, enters the cave. This is the last scene of Vauhini Pictures 1947 classic, Yogi Vemana.

The principal actors, the crowd and the unit, including the light boys, were spell bound by the performance of Nagaiah, and were almost in tears. Such was the poignant performance of the thespian. Even an astute filmmaker like K.V. Reddi was so overwhelmed by the scene that he forgot to tell ‘cut’ which made Nagaiah wonder how long he had to stay in that suffocating cave. Soon, K.V. Reddi regained consciousness and rushed towards the cave not only to heap praise on the veteran actor but also to say sorry for the inconvenience he had caused. No wonder, Kamalakara Kameswara Rao, who co-authored the screenplay along with K.V. Reddi, and worked as an associate director, considered Yogi Vemana as the best film he had worked, despite the fact that he himself made many classics at a later date.

With B.N. Reddi busy constructing Vauhini Studios, the job of directing and producing Vauhini’s next production fell on K.V. Reddi. The banner had made a box-office kill with Bhaktha Pothana and Nagaiah followed it up with his own production, Thyagayya, which was a smash hit. Naturally, K.V. opted for another film in that genre and that’s how they zeroed in on Vemana. But there was not much of a story material available on the saint-poet’s life except for the folk tales that were in circulation. K.V., Kamalakara and Samudrala pieced together these tales and wrote their own version, leaving behind the sleaze. They introduced a couple of miracles as they had done earlier in Bhaktha Pothana. A disclaimer to this extent is given in the credits – ‘No historical accuracy is claimed or is to be expected.’

Vema Reddy’s elder brother Anavema Reddy is the ruler of Moogachinthapalle, part of the Gajapathi kingdom. His wife Narasamamba is a kind-hearted woman. They have a daughter, Jyothi. Vema and little Jyothi are fond of each other. While Anavema struggles hard to clear the debt that he owes to the king, the atheist and pleasure-seeking Vema steals the family gold to please his mistress Mohanangi, a woman of low morals. Narasamamba tries to mend him, but in vain. Vema’s misdeeds land Anavema in jail. Vema vows to get back the gold from Mohanangi to seek his brother’s release, but fails. Thereupon he and his childhood friend Abhiram, experiment with some ancient crude methods to make gold. They succeed in making gold bar. Just then he comes to know that Jyothi is critically ill. Vema rushes back to the house. Jyothi’s death brings about a transformation in Vema.

He goes on a quest to find the secret behind birth and death. Lord Siva appears before him in the guise of a yogi and enlightens him. Vema roams around villages, distributing to the people through his verses (which are very popular even today) the knowledge that he had gained. And finally at a ripe old age, Vema attains ‘jeeva samadhi.’

These days there is much talk about an actor’s body language. One has to see the performance of Nagaiah who did it with such ease as a Casanova in the first half and as a saint in the later part, to know what body language really means. Excellent make-up work from pioneer Haribabu helped to a great extent to showcase the difference. Apart from Nagaiah, Lingamurthy as Abhiram and Parvathi Bai as Narasamamba excelled in their performance. M.V. Rajamma as Mohanangi is enchanting and is particularly good in the classical dance numbers (choreographed by Vedantam Raghavaiah) – Thadavaye nika levara and Aaparani thaapamayera Kanthamani as her mother Komalangi, the ‘vesyamatha’ lived the role. ‘Rakthakanneeru’ Seetha, perhaps it was her debut film, played her younger daughter Kanakangi. Even the child actor Baby Krishnaveni as Jyothi made her presence felt. The burly Rami Reddy who played Ghatotkacha in the first edition of Mayabazaar (1936), was perhaps chosen for Anavema’s role to match with Nagaiah’s personality.

Apart from performances, Marcus Bartley’s photography, art directors Nagoor and S.V.S. Ramarao’s lavish sets and the musical score by Nagaiah and Ogirala Ramachandra Rao contributed largely for the film’s success.

Though all the songs were melodious, the pick of the lot was the lullaby – Andalu chindeti naa Jyothi rendered by Nagaiah.

Yogi Vemana stands out as one of the greatest classics of Telugu cinema.