The Madras Mail had halted at Guntakal station. The then Union Home Minister C. Rajagopalachari, who was travelling by the train, alighted from it and was receiving the crowd’s greetings. Just then another train arrived at the other platform and people started rushing towards it. Rajaji called the guard, who too was rushing towards the other platform, and asked him what was going on. The guard replied that the 100-day celebration of Vijaya Productions’ Pathalabhairavi was scheduled at Bellary, and the movie’s actors and technicians were in that train. Still not convinced, Rajaji wanted to know who they were and what they had achieved. The guard explained to him about NTR, Samarlakota Venkata Ranga Rao (SVR), director K.V. Reddy and producers B. Nagi Reddi and Chakrapani and said, “They are from the world of cinema. The Bellary train is about to leave, and, if you permit me, I will also have a glimpse of them.” Rajaji was surprised at the craze people had for film stars.
Pathalabhairavi created history by being the first Telugu film to have a direct silver jubilee and a 200-day run. When Vijaya’s maiden production, Shavukaru won critical acclaim but did not earn the expected profits, Nagi Reddi- Chakrapani duo signed K.V. Reddy in 1950 to direct a folklore. Pingali Nagendra Rao came up with a story inspired by the popular ‘Aladdin and the magic lamp.’ KV and Kamalakara Kameswara Rao wrote the screenplay. Interestingly, NTR was not the first choice for the hero’s role. While KV had ANR in mind, the producers suggested NTR, who was under a four-film contract with Vijaya. At that time, both ANR and NTR were acting in Samsaram , and, during the break, were playing tennis. When he missed hitting the ball a couple of times, the determined NTR held the racquet with both hands and smashed the ball which fell outside the compound. KV, who was watching this, immediately felt here was his folk hero.
The experienced Mukkamala Krishnamurthy was being considered for the Nepala Mantrikudu’s role. But with the entry of the upcoming NTR as hero, KV felt an actor without any image would be better suited to play the antagonist opposite him and signed SVR. Malathi, who had earlier acted in the director’s Bhaktha Pothana , was signed to play the heroine Princess Indumathi.
Thota Ramudu (NTR), a gardener, and Indumathi (Malathi), daughter of the Ujjaini king (CSR), fall in love after he saves her from a deadly snake. Veera Soora Dheera Sena (Relangi), the Queen’s brother, orders the soldiers to punish Thota Ramudu. But the King releases Ramudu and asks him to meet him after acquiring wealth. The Nepal Mantrik (SVR) is in search of a valiant youth with whose help he could possess the all-powerful Pathalabhairavi (played by Girija). Trusting him, Thota Ramudu accompanies him, but soon learns the truth.
He kills the Mantrikudu and acquires Pathalabhairavi. When he is about to meet Indumathi, the Mantrikudu reappears, befriends Veera Soora and kidnaps Indumathi. How Thota Ramudu eliminates the Mantrikudu and marries the Princess forms the climax.
This simple story was made into a grand spectacle by the genius that Kadiri Venkata Reddy was, with excellent technical support. He mesmerised the audience with a smooth narrative. Madhavapeddi Gokhale and Kaladhar created fabulous sets and designed eye-catching costumes. Marcus Bartley came up with excellent cinematography, more so in the scene where he created an illusion that the miniature Maya Mahal set was flying in the air. The sound designing by A. Krishnan and V. Sivaram, assisted by Kasinathuni Viswanath, was a value addition.
Ghantasala’s tunes and rendition ( Kalavaramaye madhilo… , Yentha ghatu premayo… and Premakosamai valalo padene… ) in the company of P. Leela and the comedy song Vinave bala naa prema gola (Relangi) also contributed to the film’s success. Hammond organ was specially imported at a huge cost for this movie and it was played by Master Venu.
Pingali Nagendra Rao’s lyrics and dialogue, particularly the words not in usage that he dug out from the dictionary, went well with the audience. Words used by SVR, such as ‘dingari’ (servant) and ‘dhimbhaka’ (fool) attracted the audience attention. The catch words, ‘Thappu Thappu’ (Relangi), ‘Mosam guru (Padmanabham), ‘Nijam cheppamantara…. Abaddham cheppamantara’ (NTR) ‘Sahasam seyara dhimbaka’ (SVR) and ‘Naruda Yemi Nee Korika’ (Girija) became part of common usage in Telugu homes. The movie showcased yet another facet of NTR’s versatility, as a folk hero, and he became a super star overnight. SVR, with his natural poise and ease, won people’s heart, despite playing a villain.
Pathalabhairavi was in the making for nearly a year as it was produced simultaneously in Telugu and Tamil. Released on March 15, 1951, the 195-minute grand spectacle turned out to be a big hit in both languages. The Telugu version celebrated 100-day run in 10 centres, and silver jubilee in Vijayawada, Bellary, Nellore, Gudivada and Bangalore. Gemini Vasan acquired the Hindi rights of Pathalabhairavi and reshot two song sequences – in colour starring T.G. Kamaladevi ( Ithihasam vinnara… as Sunloji Sardaro rendered by Kamala Devi) and Lakshmikantha ( vagaloi vagalu… as bindiya chamke… rendered by Jikki). Released in 1952, the Hindi version also ran well.
When the India International Film Festival was kick-started in 1952 in New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras simultaneously, Pathalabhairavi was the only film from the South selected for screening there.