HYDERABAD: After producing films in partnership with Shiraj Ali (Banner: Famous Film Circuit; Movies: Sri Venkateswara Mahathyam -1939 and Dharmapathni -1941) and with music director B. Narasimha Rao (Ragini Films; Ardhangi and a few other movies) P. Pullaiah floated his own production company, Padmasree Pictures with his one time assistant director and brother-in-law V. Venkateswarlu as the producer. His thoughts went back to the days of his first production and the enormous amount of accolades and box office revenue it brought. Pullaiah decided to remake Sri Venkateswara Mahathmyam (SVM) starring N.T. Ramarao who by then attained a demigod status among the cine goers for his portrayal of mythical avatars.
Pullaiah retained ‘Kavi Kokila’ Duvvuri Rami Reddy’s screenplay and dialogues from the original version and engaged Acharya Athreya to simplify the dialogues to cater to the sensibilities of the changing generation. Athreya made a commendable contribution and also wore the hat of a narrator for the docu-feature that Pullaiah added to the main story.
The Story: With the advent of Kaliyuga, the earth faces threats of all sorts. To reduce the burden on Mother Earth, Saptharishis helmed by Kasyapa Muni perform a yagna. On the advice of Narada (P. Suribabu) sage Bhrigu (Gummadi) sets out on a journey to approach Brahma (A.V. Subbarao jr.), Vishnu (NTR) and Shiva (the film’s choreographer Vempati Pedha Sathyam). When he reaches to Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu, the Lord and his consort Lakshmi (S. Varalakshmi) are 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. In a fit of anger she leaves for earth. Vishnu goes in search of her and stays at his ardent devotee Vakulamatha’s (Santhakumari) ashram. She names him as Srinivasa. During his search for Lakshmi, Vishnu meets Padmavathi (Savitri), daughter of Akasaraju (A.V. Subbarao Sr.) and is charmed by her beauty. After initial hesitation the queen Dharuni Devi (Rushyendramani) agrees for their marriage. Informed by Narada about the wedding, a fuming Lakshmi confronts Vishnu and Padmavathi. The clash between his two consorts leads Vishnu, now known as Lord Srinivasa, to turn his self into a stone statue.
Pullaiah ingeniously added a 30-minute documentary film that narrated the story of Balaji’s ardent devotee Bawaji (played by Nagaiah) and his interactions with Lord Srinivasa (NTR) and the mystical powers of the Lord apart from the daily rituals (‘ nithya sevas ’) performed at the Tirumala temple. There were a couple of poems and songs in this section including the famous song ‘ Seshasailavaasaa Sri Venkatesa… ’ rendered by Ghantasala which was shot on him playing the role of a devotee and the popular song – ‘ Padave podamu gowri paramathmuni chooda ’ (Pithapuram Nageswara Rao) shot on Lanka Sathyam and Prabhavathi, the pilgrims. It is interesting to note that in the scene of offering hair, Lanka Sathyam tonsured his head for real.
Veteran art director S.V.S. Ramarao designed exact replicas of the Tirumala temple interior and the Lord and his consorts while the statues were made by the sculptor K.G. Veluswamy. Cinematographer P.L. Rai and Editor K.A. Sriramulu made rich contributions too.
As for the casting, Pullaiah had a pool of talented actors to choose from. NTR with his benign smile and calm demeanour fitted the role of the mythical avatar. The rest were proven actors. Santhakumari who played Padmavathi in the 1939 film acted as Vakulamatha. Even though it was a one scene appearance ‘Shavukar’ Janaki as the soothsayer (‘ yerukalasaani ’) left her mark. Rajanala also made a guest appearance as the king in the documentary.
Pendyala’s compositions for the devotional movie were enriched by the melodious voices of Santhakumari (‘ Yennalani naa kannulu kaayaga yeduru choothura Gopala ’) and S. Varalakshmi (‘ Sridevini needhu deverini ’; ‘ varala beramaiah …’). The other popular songs were – ‘ Kalyana vaibhogameenaade …’ (P. Leela, Jikki) and ‘ Velliraa maa thalli… ’ (Leela, Vaidehi). There was even a conventional duet like in social dramas shot on NTR and Savitri – ‘ kalaga kammani kalagaa ’ (Ghantasala, Susheela). P. Suribabu rendered the poems shot on him. Except for two songs (‘ Jaya Jaya Jagannayaka ’- Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry and ‘ Sridevini needu deverini ’ – Arudra) all the other lyrics were by Athreya. Narapa Reddy wrote the poems.
Trivia: The Tirumala temple set erected at the Vijaya-Vauhini studios attracted a large number of visitors even after the shooting was completed. B. Nagi Reddi, the owner of the studio, waived the rent and allowed it to remain there till it lasted.
The money dropped in the hundi by visitors was later sent to Tirumala temple. Statues of Lord Balaji were placed at the theatres where the movie was played and it is reported that at times the hundi collections far exceeded the counter sales.
In the Vakulamatha ashram two real life sisters – Swarna and Mani were also seen.
It was Mani’s first screen appearance and later she became a popular actress with a name change – Geethanjali.
SVM celebrated a 100-day-run in 16 centres. NTR acquired the Tamil dubbing rights, titled it Srinivasa Kalyanam and made profits. Two decades later it was dubbed in Hindi as Bhagawan Balaji .