One of the most popular among the 12 Alwars who propagated Vaishnavism in this part of the country, Vipranarayana (also known as ‘Thondaradippodi Alwar’) led a life which was a mixture of bhakthi and sringara. The story of this saint used to be enacted as a musical drama successfully by several troupes. Quite naturally it attracted the attention of film-makers and the earliest celluloid version of Vipranarayana was a silent movie in 1931 by Peninsula Film Company, Madras, with T.K. Rukmini and T.S. Bhaskaran in the lead. Six years later came the first talkie on the saint, made in Telugu by Ahindra Chowdhary for Arora Film Corporation with Kanchanamala and Kasturi Narasimha Rao, playing the heroine Devadevi and Vipranarayana respectively. It was a hit. In 1938 director A. Narayanan made ‘Vipranarayana’ in Tamil for Sound City Productions with Tanguturi Suryakumari and Kothamangalam Seenu.

P. Ramakrishna and Bhanumathi of Bharani Pictures decided to go in for a devotional subject for their sixth production and selected the story of Vipranarayana. While Bhanumathi herself was the natural choice for the role of Devadevi, Ramakrishna signed ANR to play the saint despite severe criticism from his well-wishers that the artiste, being an atheist, was a misfit for that role. Similar criticism had been thrown at ANR earlier too when Ramakrishna took him to play Majnu in Laila Majnu and when Vinoda Pictures signed him for Devadasu. On both occasions, ANR proved his critics wrong. ANR is believed to have prepared for the saint’s role by having regular dialogue practice sessions with Samudrala Raghavacharya (who wrote the dialogue and lyrics ) and also watched Nagaiah’s movie Bhaktha Pothana four or five times to get the feel of the Brahmin devotee’s character. His superb performance answered his detractors that an actor’s personal beliefs do not come in the way of his screen portrayal.

Incidentally, ANR was perhaps the only actor to play both Devadevi and Vipranarayana, one on the stage and the other on the screen. When ANR used to don mostly female roles in his early days of acting on stage, he played Devadevi in the drama ‘Vipranarayana’, training under popular theatre personality of the time, Oddhiraju Sriramamurthy.

The story: A staunch devotee of Lord Ranganatha, Viparanarayana (ANR) lives, along with his disciple Rangaraju (Relangi), in an ashram on the banks of the Cauvery at Srirangam. Devadevi (Bhanumathi), a devadasi, after performing a dance recital at the Chola King (V. Sivaram)’s court on her way back along with her elder sister Madhuravani (Sandhya, mother of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha), passes through the ashram. When Viparanarayana does not even throw a glance at her, Devadevi’s vanity is hurt and she vows to entice him with her charm.

She enters the ashram making Vipranarayana believe her sorrowful story. Very soon Vipranarayana surrenders to her charm. Once her ego is satisfied, Devadevi begins to regret her act. She leaves for her home and Vipranarayana follows her, but Devadevi’s mother (played by Rushyendramani) drives him out. Unable to see His devotee’s plight, Lord Ranganatha (R. Nageswara Rao in a guest appearance) assumes the form of Rangaraju and gives a golden vessel to Rangasani, saying that it has been sent by Vipranarayana. Soon it comes to light that the vessel has been stolen from the temple. The Chola King orders the hands of Vipranarayana to be amputated as a punishment. Finally the Lord appears and reveals the truth, saying that Vipranarayana is none else than the human form of Vyjayanthi, the garland that adorns Him and Devadevi is a gandharva kanya. Vipranarayana assumes his real form and adorns the Lord.

In the movie, Ramakrishna gave prominence to spiritual lyricism over romantic sensuality. His deft handling both as director and editor coupled with Sevaraj’s brilliant cinematography, Samudrala Raghavacharya’s dialogue and lyrics tuned by Saluri Rajeswara Rao contributed greatly to the film’s huge success.

If ANR was subdued, Bhanumathi as Devadevi dominated the screen with her effortless acting. In the song sequence, ‘Saavirahe thava dheena…’ her melodious rendition and brilliant acting sent the audience into a trance. Trained by popular Bharathanatyam exponent of the time, Kancheepuram Ellappa of Thanjavuru (who composed a couple of songs for the film), Bhanumathi’s classical dances were also a revelation.

Vipranarayana was happened to be a rare movie in which Ghantasala did not sing for ANR . It was also being rumoured that for some unknown reasons differences cropped up between Bhanumathi and Ghantasala. However his absence in Vipranarayana benefited the upcoming singer A.M. Raja, who did not betray the trust reposed in him by Rajeswara Rao. Raja, a student of Pachaiappa’s College, Madras, used to meet the maestro frequently. He mesmerised the viewers with his soft melodious voice in ‘Paalinchara Ranga…,’ ‘Choodumade cheliyaa…,’ and the duet with Bhanumathi ‘Madhura madhuramee challani reyi…’ Bhanumathi is also credited with the background score for the film.

Released on December 10, 1954, Vipranarayana turned out to be a big hit and won the Certificate of Merit at the first national film awards, for its all-round excellence.