This romantic tale with a climactic twist can be found in Mahabharatha's Aadi parva and in Matsyapuranam. The asuras belligerence against the Devas always resulted in favour of them thanks to the Maha Mrithasanjeevani mantra their guru Sukracharya learnt from Lord Shiva. Brihaspathi, the guru of Devas sends his son Kacha to learn the secret of immortality the Sanjeevani mantra from Sukracharya. Following the Guru dharma, Sukra accepts him as his disciple. Sukracharya's daughter Devayani falls in love with the handsome Kacha. Vrishaparva, the asura king wished his brother-in-law Madanasura marry her. But Devayani rejects him with disdain. Kacha was killed and buried by asuras. Devayani pleads with her father to bring him back to life which he does. Vrishaparva hits upon a more diabolical plot, kills Kacha, burns him and mixes his ash in an alcoholic drink and serves it to his guru. The unsuspecting Sukra drinks it. When he realises the truth, he had one option left to save Kacha. To teach him the mrithasanjeevani so that after he pierces his stomach and come out alive, Kacha can chant the mantra and bring him back to life. Devayani is happy to see Kacha. But Kacha refuses to marry her, the reason he cites is since he had come out of her father's stomach, he is like a son to Sukra. Aggrieved by his argument she curses him that the mantra will become ineffective when he uses it. Kacha finds solace as he can teach it to other devas. Mission fulfilled he returns to Paradise.

This story has inspired even Rabindranath Tagore to pen it in verse form in The Fugitive and other Poems. An ardent fan of Tagore, B.V. Ramanandam wrote a screenplay based on the verses. By then three silent films were made – Kacha Devayani (1919) directed by S.N. Patnakar with Usha and Gai in the lead for Patnakar Friends Co., Bombay. Patnakar remade it in 1926 for Pioneer Film Co., Bombay. The third, much longer (8,444 ft.) silent version was made in 1929 for Hindusthan Cinema Film Co., Nasik by none other than the grand old man of Indian cinema, Dhundiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke.

Ramanandam founded Radha Film Company with friends to produce and direct Kacha Devayani. He signed the legendary Bengal lensman Prabhod Das to crank the camera. He took renowned singer-actor S.P. Lakshmana Swamy for Kacha's role and the upcoming Krishnaveni as Devayani. Acting in her second film, Krishnaveni was 14 and the seasoned Lakshmanaswamy was 40! What weighed in favour of Swamy besides his acting and singing prowess was his short stature that made him look young. To the amusement of the unit, members, Krishnaveni used to address him as ‘daddy' on the sets after enacting a romantic scene. She carried the role with ease and her rendition of Prema mahimagana… interspersed with dialogue was long remembered as the diction perfectly jelled with her acting.

Choppalli Suryanarayana Bhagavathar from Vizianagaram played Sukracharya. Hailed as ‘Harikatha Kantheerava' when his programme was broadcast, people stopped all work and glued to their radio sets.

With such talented actors and technicians with him and with his taut screenplay, Ramanandam tasted success. The print is available with the National Film Archives, Pune.

Telugu version's success prompted K. Subramanyam to make Kacha Devayani (1941) in Tamil, starring T.R. Rajakumari which was also a big hit. In 1955 when Subramanyam remade the film in Kannada he took B. Saroja Devi for the female lead. He spotted the teenager at a stage play in Bangalore. Her mother Rudramma was running a firewood and charcoal shop in Bangalore. Saroja Devi's debut film Mahatma Pictures, Ashadhabhoothi directed by Shankar Singh was also released in 1955. It was a flop. But Kacha Devayani's success made her a star overnight. The rest is history.

Three more attempts were later made in Telugu to remake the film. In 1964 Vedantam Raghaviah launched one with Kantharao and Krishnakumari and in 1967, D. Sarvabhowma Rao with Sobhan Babu and Rajasri in the lead. But both did not take off beyond their launch. Though completed the C.S. Rao directed version with Chakrapani and the Kannada heroine Vijaya Ranjani failed to hit the theatres due to financial constraints.

Remembered for, the huge sets and the trick photography besides the lead pair's histrionics.

m.l. narasimham