slice of cinema historyPoster of the film ‘Keelu Gurram’ featuring Akkineni Nageswara Rao, A.V. Subbarao and Anjali Devi  

It was the most eventful year in the first two decades of the Telugu talkie. Of the seven films released in 1949, five turned out to be big hits. The year also saw the first Telugu film being dubbed into another language, Tamil. The credit goes to Raja Meka Venkatarama Apparao Bahadur, better known as Mirzapuram Raja. The Sobhanachala Studio owner and producer also debuted as a director with Keelugurram starring Akkineni Nageswara Rao in the lead with Anjali Devi in a role with shades of grey. Fascinated by the commercial success of folklores, the Raja asked his writers to come up with a similar subject. Thapi Dharma Rao, ably assisted by the noted story-teller Sadasivabrahmam (however his name does not figure in the credits), got ready a new tale, inspired by Kasimajili Kathalu , and wrote the dialogue and the lyrics for the film. Chitrapu Narayanamurthy, who had earlier directed all of Raja’s productions, did the screenplay.

On a hunting expedition, Prasena Maharaja is spotted by a demon, who takes a fancy for the Maharaja and wants to marry him. Assuming a human form as Bhuvanasundari, she lures him into wedlock. The devout Queen Prabhavathi receives her with warmth. Bhuvanasundari and her maid Kekini clamour for their carrion diet and begin to savour on the elephants and horses. They place the blame on Prabhavathi and the King orders her to be taken to the forest and killed. The executioners take pity on the Queen, who is in an advanced state of pregnancy, and leave her in the forest, but not before plucking her eyes to show them to the King and Bhuvanasundari.

Prabhavathi delivers a boy and finds shelter in a hamlet, where the boy grows up as a valiant teenager, Vikramasimha. He comes to know of his parentage and enters the capital to set things right for his mother. Meanwhile, the Anga Raja’s daughter Suguna is kidnapped by a demon who is none other than the elder sister of Bhuvanasundari. The King proclaims that whoever brings his daughter home will be rewarded with her hand in marriage. Vasudeva, an astrologer, finds out that the girl is held captive by a demon at a faraway place beyond the three seas. His sculptor Pratap makes a mechanical horse that can fly. But who will take the flight on it? Vikrama successfully takes a ride on the magic horse. On his adventurous journey, Vikrama saves not one but two princesses, Vidyavathi who is about to be given as a sacrifice to Kali by a wicked tantric, and Suguna, the daughter of Anga Raja. Through Suguna he learns that the life of both the demons Bhuvanasundari and her elder sister lies in two bugs kept in a box on a mango tree at a faraway place guarded by a ‘rakshasa’ with dangerous snakes lurking around. Vikrama undertakes the adventurous journey, kills the elder demon, comes to the capital on the magic horse with the two princesses, completes his mission by killing Bhuvanasundari and unites his parents.

Thanks to Chitrapu Narayanamurthy’s taut screenplay, the nearly three-hour movie sustains viewers’ interest. In fact he ghost directed most of the scenes for the Raja. What made the movie so engrossing was the trick work done by M.A. Rahman. The wooden magic horse was created by art director T.V.S. Sarma.

If ‘Balaraju’ won him stardom, it was ‘Keelugurram’ that established ANR as the much sought-after hero. Anjali Devi at first expressed apprehension at being type cast in a negative role, but after persuasion, accepted the job on the condition that the Mirzapuram Raja’s actress-wife and her friend C. Krishnaveni sang for her. Krishnaveni agreed and rendered all her songs, including the hit number, ‘Theliyavasama palukagalama.’ Apart from her dancing prowess (choreographers: Vedantam Raghavaiah and Vempati Pedda Satyam), Anjali Devi showcased her brilliance as an actress. A.V. Subbarao as Prasena Maharaja and Balamani as Prabhavathi managed to underplay their characters. Relangi as the King’s Man Friday Govindudu tried to evoke a few laughs along with Kanakam who played Kekini. Pucha Viswanatham was cast as the astrologer and Koteswara Rao as the sculptor while Suryasri and Jr. Lakshmi Rajyam played the two princesses Vedavathi and Suguna respectively.

Among the songs tuned by Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao the evergreen hit number, ‘Kaadu suma kala kaadu suma…” rendered by him and Vakkalanka Sarala and shot on ANR and Jr. Lakshmi Rajyam stands out.

Released on February 19, 1949 Keelugurram was such a big hit that it celebrated a 148-day run at Maruthi Talkies in Vijayawada and hundred-day run at other centres. Incidentally, a day before the film’s release, ANR married Annapurna at Denduluru near Eluru.

Keelugurram also created another history. While it was in its shoot, Lanka Satyam approached Mirzapuram Raja for the story to be made in Tamil by Jupiter Pictures. The Raja agreed. Lanka Satyam named the film as Mohini and directed it. Madhuri Devi and T.S. Balaiah were in the lead, with the then upcoming actors M G Ramachandran and V.N. Janaki in supporting roles. But the audience could not relish the pot-bellied Balaiah on a magic horse (the role played by the handsome ANR in the Telugu version). The film flopped. But, funnily, the shrewd Raja dubbed Keelugurram into Tamil as Mayakkudirai , which turned out to be a big hit. Keelugurram thus created history by becoming the first Telugu film to be dubbed into Tamil.

m. l. narasimham