Memories of the Southern Devadas

Vedantam Raghavalah

Vedantam Raghavalah  

SANJAY LEELA Bhansali's Devdas is now trying its luck at the Oscars. Sarat Chandra's 1917 novel has fascinated the Indian film industry. First made as a silent film in 1928 by Naresh Mitra, Devdas became a cult figure after Saigal donned the lead role in P.C. Barua's 1935 version. In the South, Devdas has been reincarnated in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.

How will Hollywood take Bhansali's opulent costume drama? One foreign critic was cutting about the latest Devdas, which he described as "not fit to lick the boots of Lagaan". Indian audiences have not been so harsh: the Shah Rukh starrer has been the solitary commercial success since Lagaan.

In seven decades, Devdas has been filmed at least 10 times, and this is a good time to talk about the one version that the South remembers most vividly. It was the Telugu film Devadasu (1953), produced and directed by Vedantam Raghavaiah, with music by C.R. Subburaman.

We stumbled upon this film's Bangalore connection recently. Raghavaiah's son Nagaprasad runs a boutique in Safina Plaza. He says Devadasu is still loved so much in Andhra Pradesh that the mere name of his father is enough for weavers to open their doors to him and shower him with warmth.

The hero of Raghavaiah's Devadasu, A. Nageshwara Rao, became an overnight star. Nageshwara Rao has gone on record to say that the director shot him only at night so that he could get a "natural" feel to the hero's drunken stupor.

Subburaman (1921-52), a harmonium player, did not live long enough to see how popular his music for Devadasu would become. He died just before the film was released. He was a partner of Vinoda Pictures which he had formed with writer Samudrala Raghavacharya and Raghavaiah.

The award his film won when it ran for 100 days. Devadasu, of course, ran for much longer than that eventually. It still draws crowds.

The award his film won when it ran for 100 days. Devadasu, of course, ran for much longer than that eventually. It still draws crowds.  

During a chat over coffee, Nagaprasad gave us a close-up of Raghavaiah (1919-71):

What do you remember of your father?

I am number seven among the children. One of my sisters, Shuba, became an actress. She starred in Puttanna Kanagal's Nagarahavu. She was the only one who got into films. My mother Suryaprabha was an actress. She stopped acting after she got married. My mother's sister Pushpavalli was more popular. They were very close to each other. My four elder sisters learnt music. My third sister was a little on the fat side, and my father was always kidding her! I was the only son and my father thought I would be spoilt at home. So I was away at boarding school, and then after graduating from Madras, went to do catering in Bombay. Within nine months I quit. My father was a huge man and wore a tiger's claw around his neck. The moment he walked in, everyone started shivering. He would tell people to their faces whatever he thought about them.

Your father hailed from the village of Kuchipidi, and was an accomplished dancer. He first worked as a choreographer in films like Raitu Bidda, Vipranarayana, Swargaseema and Vande Mataram. Did he get you to learn dancing?

I used to come home for the summer holidays and used to see a lot of movies.

I was mama's boy; my father was too busy with Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi films. He once took me to a movie called Geet with Rajendra Kumar. Lovely songs. I remember because he lost the keys to the Ambassador! Sri magazine said sometime ago that the actual dance genius was Vedantam Pedda Satyam and not my father. I know the kind of perfectionist my father was. Hardly anybody who knew him would take this claim seriously but I was very hurt. I was offended that he was not alive to defend himself and somebody who was so close to him and got his break in films because of him should turn false after my father died. My father died of food poisoning or some diabetic ailment. I was in Madras then.

So you never became a professional dancer?

Collage: P. Viswanathan

Collage: P. Viswanathan  

I was a very shy boy. One of my cousins once told me to dance. There was music playing in the house and she realised I had a sense of rhythm. I started off learning Kathak. I came back to Kuchupudi late in life, after I had finished my graduation. I love dancing. I have choreographed some ballets and English plays.

What do you remember of Devadasu? In Calicut, we hear, shops attracted customers during the "inauspicious" Adi month by offering tickets to Bhansali's version of the film.

I saw the film when it was released in Majestic. One of my customers said he had watched the film 42 times. They made another version in Telugu, in 1979, with Krishna in the lead. It ran for 50 days. They released the old Devadasu simultaneously and it ran for 200 days! Customers who came to the shop saluted me. For a whole generation this movie means something, it has touched their hearts, and they can relate to it even today. When I go to some village in Andhra to meet new weavers, the moment I say I am so-and-so's son, I know I have an entry. Such tremendous respect.

Have you seen Bhansali's film? You think that may not leave the same sort of effect on people?

Let me not be biased. I don't know. In the black-and-white movie the people were so real. People's priorities have changed. They look at the costumes and the hairdo. I don't think anybody is coming out with the kind of tears now as when they saw the old version.

Don't you miss being in films?

No. Father wanted us to be good at whatever we did. And I believe my creativity has gone into weaves and designing. My wife Sharmila and I set up this shop and we have enjoyed the challenges of business very much. If I hadn't got married I would have been in the movies. My wife didn't give me a choice!

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