C.S.R. Anjaneyulu, P. Santhakumari, Madduri Buchanna Sastry, Bandaru Venkateswarlu Kocharlakota Rangarao
The mythological tale on the incarnation of the wealthiest God in the country, Lord Balaji was captured on celluloid first as a silent film, Shri Balaji (1929) by N.D. Sarpotdar of Aryan Film Company, Pune. It was directed by Sane Mama with Bhaurao Dattar, Das, Sandow and Amboo in the lead. Amboo is none other than one of Hindi cinema's greatest actresses Lalitha Pawar.
The first talkie on the subject was made in Tamil in 1934 as Srinivasa Kalyanam by A. Narayanan starring P.S. Srinivasa Rao, R.B. Lakshmidevi, and M.D. Parthasarathy. Meena Narayanan who recorded the sound became India's first female sound engineer. Produced at Srinivasa Cinetone studios situated in Poonamalli High Road, it was also the first Tamil talkie to be produced in Chennai, then Madras. A film in Telugu on the famous God by Famous Films Circuit, Nellore with P. Pullaiah and Shiraj as partners came about in 1939 as Venkateswara Mahatmyam (Balaji) starring C.S.R. Anjaneyulu as Lord Srinivasa, Santhakumari as Padmavathy, Rajeswari as Lakshmi. The other key players were – Bandaru Venkateswarlu (Narada), Madduri Buchanna Sastry (Bawaji), Kocharlakota Rangarao (Akasaraju), Tandra Subrahmanya Sastry (hathayogi), Pandit Rao (Bhrigu), Ogirala Ramachandra Rao (Lord Shiva), B. Seetharamayya (Varahaswamy) and MS. Raju (Vakulamatha).
Pullaiah met Shiraj, then a popular film personality in Bombay while he was working for Harishchandra. The friendship soon turned into partnership and the first film to roll out was Venkateswara Mahatmyam. Pullaiah added some imaginative fiction to the popular mythology. He made the film at Shalini Cinetone Studios, Kolhapur and it was also the first film for Santhakumari after her marriage to the ace director. Interestingly she gave birth to her eldest daughter during the making of the movie and named her Padma after the celestial character she had played in the film!
The mythological story in short. With the advent of Kaliyuga, the earth (bhooloka) faces threats of all sorts thus creating a burden on Mother Earth (Bhoomatha).
To reduce the burden on her, Saptharishis helmed by Kasyapa muni perform yagna. Narada says that Indra is not fit to be the invoking god. So Bhrigu Maharshi sets on a journey to approach Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. When he goes to Vaikuntha the abode of Lord Vishnu, the Lord and his consort Lakshmi were in a playful mood and ignore Bhrigu. Angered by this, Bhrigu kicks Vishnu on his chest. Vishnu smiles and pacifies him but this upsets Laksmi.
She leaves for earth in a fit of anger. Vishnu goes in search of her but he is charmed by the beauty of Padmavathy, daughter of Akasaraju. Informed about their wedding, Lakshmi lands there. The fracas between his two consorts leave Lord Vishnu now known as Srinivasa turn his self into a statue.
In one of the scenes shot in a forest location while Srinivasa searches for Lakshmi singing ye dari gaanaka… a wild elephant charges towards him and a bewildered and apprehensive Srinivasa places his steps backward. A natural actor and a melodious singer, CSR was at his best enacting the scene.
The tunes were composed by Ogirala Ramachandra Rao, Madduri Buchanna Sastry (also wrote the lyrics with Viswanatham) and Akula Narasimha Rao while ‘kavi kokila' Duvvuri Rami Reddy wrote the dialogue. Ogirala stepped in to play Lord Shiva when the actor chosen for the role developed fever after wearing a live snake on his neck.
The film was a hit thanks to the interesting narrative style of Poludasu Pullaiah. Publicity gimmicks added to that making it the most successful film at the turnstile after Lava Kusa. A week after the release of Venkateswara Mahatmyam, life size replicas of the Lord of Tirumala were kept at the theatres drawing large crowds offering puja, breaking coconuts, putting coins in the hundi and then entering the hall to view the film. And rumours were also spread that whoever criticizes the film will incur the wrath of the God and whoever watches the film would benefit. At a Vizianagaram theatre it was said that after the night show, the garland adoring the deity flew all over the hall and went back to its original place. Needless to say that people thronged to the theatres.
P. Pullaiah remade the film in 1960 with NTR, Savithri and S. Varalakshmi. Santhakumari played Vakulamatha. It was even a bigger success.