m.l. narasimham
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Vemuri Gaggaiah, Ramathilakam and Nidumukkala Subba Rao

Vemuri Gaggaiah as Yama
Vemuri Gaggaiah as Yama

Two great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharatha have often influenced our filmmakers. And in 1933 two films with similar themes – based on the lives of Savithri and Sathyavan were made, one by Bharath Movie Tone and the other by the East India Film Company. The former was directed by H.M. Reddy in Bombay with V.V. Subba Rao as Yama Dharmaraja, Kanthamani Kanya as Savithri and L. V. Prasad, K.L. Kantham and Hem Singh in other roles. It did not fare well.

Shot in Calcutta on a lavish budget of Rs.75,000, East India Film Company's Sati Savithri was a huge hit. Based on a popular stage play of Mylavaram Bala Bharathi Samajam, the film directed by debutant C. Pullaiah starred stage stalwarts Vemuri Gaggiah as Yama and Dasari Ramathilakam as Savithri.

Based on a popular episode from Mahabharatha's Aranya Parvam, the story goes like this: Savithri the only daughter of Aswapathi, King of Madra was married to Satyavan, son of a blind king Dyumatsena who lived in exile as a forest-dweller. Knowing well that Satyavan has only a year to live, she marries him. On the day he is to die Satyavan is cutting the wood, he suddenly gets dizzy and lays his head in Savithri's lap. Yama himself descends on earth to claim his soul. Savithri follows him and when Yama tries to convince her to go back, she persists.

Impressed with her persuasive speech he grants her three boons; anything except bringing back Satyavan to life. She first asks him to restore her father-in-law's eyesight and kingdom, and then she asks for hundred sons for her father and finally hundred sons for herself and Satyavan. The last wish creates an awkwardsituation for Yama Dharmaraja. Finally, he grants Satyavan back his life and blesses Savithri.

A popular stage actor, Vemuri Gaggaiah played the role of Yama so well on stage, that he was a natural choice for the film version. Interestingly it was his debut film. He was also the first actor to get star status that too playing a negative role.

A Surabhi Nataka Samajam product, his rendition of poems and songs especially the one – po bala pommikan, ee mrugaranyamuna raavaladhu, raa thagadhu, raachanadhu, po bala pommikan – when Savithri still follows him after his pleadings failed with her, drew huge applause and ‘once mores' from the audience that the theatres had to stop the projection, run the film from the spool backwards and play it again on the single projector.

Gaggaiah acted in many mythological films produced during the early period of talkies and his last film was Bhaktha Siriyala (1948).

Chithajallu Pullaiah can be called as the father of theatre movement in Andhra Pradesh. He went to Bombay in early 1920s and worked in various departments of filmmaking. He also played bit roles in silent films. Then he met R.S. Prakash, the illustrious son of Raghupathi Venkayya Naidu. He worked as his assistant for the silent film, Bhishma Pratigjna. Pullaiah bought camera and other equipment and returned to Kakinada. He made a silent film Markandeya. Since there was no facility to screen a film in Kakinada, he started a tent theatre, ‘City Electric Cinema' and showed the film much to the cheers of local people.

He then took the projector and chairs to various towns and exhibited his film, thus pioneering a theatre movement.

With the advent of talkies, he joined East India Film Company when they were making Ramadasu and made his debut as a filmmaker with Sati Savithri, the same year. Beating the competitors both the films he was associated with were hits.

Sati Savithri was later made twice – by Kadaru Nagabhushanam in 1957 with A. Nageswara Rao ( Satyavan), the film's producer S. Varalakshmi (Savithri) and S.V. Ranga Rao (Yama) and the 1978 version directed by B.A. Subba Rao for Lalitha Siva Jyothi banner starred, N.T. Rama Rao (Yama), Krishnam Raju (Satyavanthudu) and Vanisri (Savithri).

Both films flopped.

Remembered for: Gaggaiah's powerful portrayal of Yama and his expressive rendition of poems, especially – Po bala pommikan that was a rage.

m.l. narasimham



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