Starring: Akkineni Nageswara Rao, Savitri, Lalitha, Peketi Sivaram, S.V.Rangarao, C.S.R. Anjaneyulu, Doraswamy, Arani Satyanarayana, R. Nageswara Rao, G.V.G. Krishna, Sitaram, Surabhi Kamalabai, Seetha, Chandrakumari, Annapurna Devi, Sudhakar, Baby Anuradha
The message that Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s popular novel, Devadas, conveys is that though one may sympathise with the character of the tragic hero, his actions in life do not deserve any appreciation. The character is a mixed bundle of paradoxes, starting as a charismatic hero and ending up as a socially disengaged recluse. If such a weakling still appeals to generations of readers and movie goers, it is perhaps because they find therein a reflection of their own desires and failures.
The first version of Devadas was made as a silent movie by Naresh Chandra Mitra in 1929 in Calcutta under the Eastern Film Syndicate banner. In 1935, Bengali writer, actor and director Pramatesh Chandra Barua made the first talkie version in Bengali with himself playing the title role. Since then there have been several versions – Bengali, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and in Assamese, Malayalam and Urdu between 1935 and 2002. As recently as in 2010, there was a Pakistani edition of the film, and in 2013, a Bangladeshi version hit the screens. But it was Devadasu (1953), made in Telugu and Tamil, starring Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR), that received the cult classic status for its all-round appeal. It was chosen by the CNN-IBN network as one of the 100 greatest Indian films of all time.
The story in brief: Devadasu (Sudhakar), son of Ravulapalle zamindar Narayana Rao (SVR), and Parvathi (Baby Anuradha), daughter of his not-so-rich neighbour Neelakantham (Doraswamy), are childhood friends. The zamindar enrols his son in a boarding school in the city. The grown-up Devadasu (ANR) returns to the village after his education. His childhood friendship with Parvathi now turns into love. When Parvathi’s grandmother (Surabhi Kamalabai) talks of the alliance, the zamindar spurns the proposal. A peeved Neelakantham vows to bring an even richer son-in-law home and arranges Parvathi’s marriage with the zamindar of Durgapuram (CSR), an elderly widower with children. Parvathi stealthily meets Devadasu and requests him to accept her as his wife. Surprised at her visit, Devadasu sends her away. He goes back to the city and writes to Parvathi that he cannot defy his parents. Parvathi marries the old zamindar. Unable to forget her, Devadasu hits the bottle, encouraged by his friend Bhagawan (Peketi), who also introduces him to a courtesan Chandramukhi (Lalitha). While Parvathi settles in her new house, Devadasu chooses the path of self-destruction. On the advice of Chandramukhi, he leaves for his village, but gets down at Durgapuram to keep a promise he had made to Parvathi that he would visit her before his death. But even before he could meet her, Devadasu breathes his last in front of her house. Parvathi rushes to see him, but the door is closed by family members and she collapses.
A brilliant team effort made this tragic tale an evergreen hit with cine-goers - be it Samudrala Raghavacharya’s effective but simple dialogue and meaningful lyrics (Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry too is said to have penned some of the lyrics), B.S. Ranga’s excellent cinematography, P.V. Narayana’s deft editing – all of which were in unison with the work of Vedantam Raghavaiah, who wielded the megaphone, creating live characters on the celluloid.
ANR, who made Devadasu an immortal character in the hearts of every movie-goer with his scintillating portrayal, has opined that Vedantam, being a Kuchipudi dance exponent and a veteran stage actor, used to enact the scenes before the actors, thereby making their job easy. “Apart from this, I held discussions with Chakrapani, who had translated the novel into Telugu. This helped me understand the nuances of the character.” ANR also gave credit to make-up chief Mangaiah for his excellent work.
“In fact, I ate to my heart’s content before the shoot which was held during nights for 50 days. The half asleep look aided by make-up worked wonders bringing in the necessary result,” the veteran actor once said in an interview.
Interestingly, Savitri was not the first choice for Parvathi’s role. The film was launched by Vinoda Pictures much earlier with ANR and Sowcar Janaki in the lead. A week’s shooting was also held. But the production was put off owing to the view that such a tragic tale might not run in Telugu. Instead, Vinoda produced Shanti, which proved a flop. Subsequently, one of the partners, D.L. Narayana, decided to go ahead with Devadasu as an independent producer, while his partners, Samudrala, Vedantam and music director C.R. Subbaraman, worked as technicians. It was then that Janaki was replaced by Savitri, and Lalitha of the Travancore Sisters was signed to play Chandramukhi. Both came up with exemplary performances.
The major contribution to the film’s success, however, came from the music director, a genius called C.R. Subbaraman. Every song he composed is a hit to this day, even 60 years after the film’s release. His tunes breathed life in the voices of Ghantasala (‘Palleku Podam Paruni Choodam…’ ‘Kudi Yedamaithe..,’ ‘Kala Idani Nijamidani,’ just to mention a few), Rao Balasaraswati (‘Tane Maarena…’), K. Rani (‘Anthaa Bhranthiyena…’) and her duets with Ghantasala ‘O Devada….’ and ‘Cheliyaledu Chelimiledu’. With Subbaraman’s untimely death after he had set tunes for most songs, his disciple M.S. Viswanathan completed the album by composing two songs – ‘Jagame Maaya…’and ‘Andam Choodavaya…’ He also scored the background music, along with violinist T.K. Ramamurthy, which enhanced the quality of the movie.
Devadasu, both Telugu and Tamil, celebrated 100-days run. The Telugu version was released on June 26, 1953 and the Tamil version three months later. It celebrated a 100-day run even on its re-release in 1974 - to sabotage the chances of Vijaya Krishna Movies’ Devadasu starring Krishna and Vijaya Nirmala (who also directed it).