Bhatktha Potana (1943)

A still from ‘Bhaktha Potana'  

Not a day passes without the rendition of Sarvamangala nama…seetharama…rama at the Ram mandir in Athur, a tiny village in Chittoor district with folks from the local Bhajana mandali singing it in unison. Not just Athur, it is the same scenario in most temples dedicated to Lord Rama and this has been happening for the past 68 years, ever since Nagayya composed and rendered it in his mellifluous voice in Vauhini Pictures, Bhaktha Potana . Such was the impact the movie and its music have created. It was also the first devotional film for Nagayya who played the title role and it was also the debut movie for director Kadiri Venkata Reddy better known as K.V. Reddy, the wizard who later wielded such all time classics as — Mayabazaar and Patalabhairavi .

All credit to his close buddy from Tadipatri, Moola Narayana Swamy, co-founder of Vauhini Studios to support him along with the legendary cinematographer K. Ramnoth when K.V. Reddy expressed a wish to turn a filmmaker after dabbling in the production work for Vauhini's earlier ventures. Vauhini was just turning the corner and there was initial hesitation on the part of B.N. Reddi but he too supported the move and agreed to help by supervising the production. Since the banner had made social films till then, K.V. felt that a devotional subject would offer the difference and also a safe bet. The trio Ramnoth, Samudrala Raghavacharya and K.V. zeroed in on the life of Bammera Potana. But there is not much drama in his life. Nor there is any relationship between him and poet Srinatha. Srinatha had three brothers-in-law. They were Potana, Yerrana and Duggana, the last named a poet groomed by Srinatha. Duggana's elder brother Potana was not a poet. But he was the cause of the presumed relationship between Srinatha and Bammera Potana.

Taking a cue from this K. Ramnoth wrote a movie story linking the families of Srinatha and Bammera Potana, created a few miracles for mass appeal while Samudrala brought in value additions with his soulful dialogue and lyrics. K.V. Reddy brilliantly translated it on to the celluloid making it the biggest hit of 1943.

Bammera Potana (played by Nagayya), a staunch devotee of Lord Rama lived with his wife Narasamamba (Hemalatha Devi), son Mallanna (Vallabhajosyula Sivaram) and daughter Lakhsmi (Nalam Vanaja Gupta) in Ekasilapuram. On a lunar eclipse day Lord Rama (Ch. Narayana Rao) appears before him and orders him to translate Bhagavatham. His brother-in-law Srinatha (Jandhyala Gowrinatha sastry)'s daughter Sarada (Malati) lived with Potana's family ever since she lost her mother. King Sarvagjna Singabhoopala (Dr. V.R. Sarma) sends Srinatha to convey his wish to Potana to dedicate Bhagavatham to him. Potana refuses saying that his work will be dedicated only to Lord Rama. The king's attempts to forcibly take it were thwarted by divine intervention. Singabhoopala realises his mistake and brings back Potana and his family whom he had banished from the town.

It was Nagayya's ninth film and he set a benchmark for devotional characters with his subdued portrayal and measured diction. But Nagayya was not the first choice! The lean and short stature Daita Gopalam, actor, singer and musician of repute was considered first. But K.V. insisted on Nagayya. Jandhyala Gowrinatha Sastry, who hailed from an affluent family in Pidaparthi near Tenali matched him in stature and histrionics and made an outstanding debut. Though he later played lead roles in a couple of films, he was remembered more for his role of chairman Dharma Rao in K.V. Reddy's Peddamanushulu . Mention must be made of Sivaram as Mallanna and the film's production manager Mudigonda Lingamurthy, as the rowdy Ajamileedu. Suryakumari made a cameo appearance as Goddess Saraswati.

Apart from his histrionics, Nagayya contributed largely to the movie's success with his melodious score. He was also the first to employ playback system when he recorded the song manchi samayamu raara… idi manchi samayamu raara rendered by Bezawada Rajarathnam and it was shot on Samrajyam who played the dancer Bhogini in the king's court. While writing the dialogue, it seems Samudrala had kept in mind the social milieu of the time, in one scene Potana answers Srinatha: kotaanukotla Bharatheeyulu kollayigudda tho thrupti paduthunte naaku mathram ee jari panchalenduku.

Bhaktha Potana kindled interest in the legendary B. Nagi Reddi (whose birth centenary falls on December 2, 2012) to enter film industry full time after he had successfully worked on the movie's publicity by erecting huge Hanuman cut outs in key junctions starting with Bangalore to counter the publicity blitzkrieg of Balanagamma released three weeks earlier. It is said that Bhaktha Potana turned an ordinary Sheppard boy into Balayogi in Mummidivaram. The film celebrated jubilee runs all over the South including Mysore state and Kerala.

Filmmaker K.V. Reddy had arrived on the scene. But it also marked the departure of two stalwarts from Vauhini camp, K. Ramnoth and art director and sound designer A.K. Sekar. Not for any difference of opinions but when the film was nearing completion the Second World War touched the shores of Madras and Vauhini office was shifted temporarily to Tadipatri where the film's negatives were also taken for safe keep. Ramnoth and Sekar stayed back in Madras and S.S. Vasan invited them to join Gemini Studios.

Bhaktha Potana was remade in 1966 with Gummadi Venkateswara Rao and S.V. Rangarao directed by G. Ramineedu.

It met with failure as K.V. Reddy's work still lived fresh in the audiences mind.

m.l. narasimham