Mayabazar, One Of Telugu Cinema’s Foundational Epics Is 65

The film's success owes to the fact that it emerged at a very specific period of filmmaking in South India, when filmmakers were building a cinematic grammar atop theatrical traditions
Mayabazar, One Of Telugu Cinema’s Foundational Epics Is 65

No other film has impacted the Telugu states as Mayabazar has. As an epic, it is one of the tributaries that flows into not just Rajamouli's, but a majority of mainstream Telugu filmmakers filmography— K Raghavendra Rao, Bapu, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, and Gunasekhar. Watch Sita Ramam’s 'Kaanunna Kalyanam' and there’s a scene in a boat that tips its hat to Mayabazaar’s 'Lahiri Lahiri Lahiri Lo'. Watch Baahubali 2’s stretch set in the Kuntala kingdom and you know the film is paying homage to the Lakshmana Kumara scenes in Mayabazar. Most importantly, NTR's mythological turn as Krishna in the film went on to define not only his film career, but also the political destiny of the Telugu states, as he capitalised on the very mythological identity consolidated in this film to become Chief Minister of the combined state of Andhra Pradesh.

But the film itself is interesting for many reasons—set in the interstices of the Mahabharata, its central event, the marriage of Abhimanyu and Sasirekha, is based on a local folk version of the epic, and isn't canon. This version of the story seems to have originated in the Harikatha ballad tradition, or picture-folk storytelling, fans of the film might recognise the famous scene of Ghatothkacha and Abhimanyu's battle in this Paithan painting dated 1850, found in Maharashtra.

The folktale, which some have theorised to stem from frustrations with the canon treatment of Abhimanyu and Ghatothkacha—specifically their premature deaths— survived in puppet-plays (tholubommalaatalu) and ballads. In the silent film era, Baburao Painter notably adapted the folktale into film thrice with V. Shantaram playing Krishna, and the first Telugu adaptation would arrive in 1936, directed by PV Das.

And yet, it is the 1957 version that changed everything. Here you see for the first time, Telugu film industry’s ambitions of transporting the masses into a world of mythical fantasy realised on an epic scale with ambitious special effects, sets, and costumes. And yet, for all its immeasurable impact, the film itself is an exercise in levity: a romantic comedy about an elopement, orchestrated by Krishna (NT Rama Rao) who is really playing an elaborate game of chess with his counterpart, the wily Shakuni (CSR).

It says something about Hindu mythology’s ties with Telugu cinema that Mayabazar assumes familiarity with the Mahabharata’s story from its audience. For the uninitiated, the story begins when Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu and Balarama (Krishna’s brother)’s daughter Sasirekha are betrothed in their adolescence. When the Pandavas are exiled after losing the game of dice, Balarama and his wife Revathi are asked for Sasirekha’s hand in marriage by Duryodhana for his son — an alliance Revathi is immediately keen on, given that Abhimanyu’s family, the Pandavas, now happen to be in dire straits. The complication is that Abhimanyu and Sasirekha happen to be in love with each other, and Krishna decides to side with the couple against his own family and help them elope.

 With Mayabazar, KV Reddy and Vijaya Vauhini Studios continued Telugu cinema’s romance with fantasy (facilitated by the mythological) after the success of Pathala Bhairavi (1951). For Mayabazar, despite its mythological setting, is designed to be whimsical fantasy, and it is precisely when it plays in this register that it is at its best. The scene that is emblematic of its tone is 'Laahiri Laahiri Laahiri lo' — Abhimanyu sneaks Sasirekha out of her chamber by building a ladder shooting arrows. They go out for a boat ride on a moonlit night, singing the first part of the song when they are spotted by a guard who informs her parents. Krishna is aware of this and takes Rukmini out on a boat ride to cover, singing the second part of the song as they cover for the young couple making their escape. When Sasirekha’s parents finally appear on the scene, they too are taken in by the moonlit night, forget their suspicions, and sing the third part of the song. One wonders if the Hindu mythology in theatres today can be secure enough to accommodate this sort of whimsy.

That it is whimsical fantasy is abundantly on display with the many magical devices at play: The mirror-box that shows the viewer what their heart desires, the peeta that forces anyone standing on it to tell the truth, and the titular Mayabazar itself, a marketplace full of illusions and traps intended to mess with the entrant. The film is also something of a special effects showcase, and though the tricks behind many of the practical effects and trick photography is now apparent, the joy of watching laddoos fly out of a plate into Ghatothkacha’s mouth is mostly undiminished.

Mayabazar’s filmic success owes to the fact that it emerged at a very specific period of filmmaking in South India, when filmmakers were building a cinematic grammar atop theatrical traditions. Savitri’s movie-stealing performance, especially the precision of her body language in 'Aaha na pellanta' and 'Sundari' owes much to comedy performance in the theatre; so does the writing with its intricately embedded wit. And yet, look at the way her closeups are orchestrated in the song 'Neevena nanu pilichinadi' (much of the credit for this goes to cinematographer Marcus Bartley), and how her performance is film-acting as much as it is theatre.  In Abhimanyu’s skirmishes with Ghatothkacha and his minions in the forest, you’re faced with the emergence of a decidedly cinematic epic.  It also boasts of the greatest scene transition in Telugu cinema.

 But the film is really held up by a slew of great comedic performances, the greatest among which is Savitri’s turn as Sasirekha. I’ve written before about how in 'Aaha Naa Pellanta', even when she is impersonated by Ghatothkacha, the film is really showcasing Sasirekha’s own anger at being married off to a man she doesn’t approve of. The seeds for this lie in the way Sasirekha is written—she is rebellious right from when she’s a child—and Savitri never plays her as coy. It is a remarkably executed comedic performance that never falters, even when she’s not playing herself. 

The last third of the film is really a tug of war between Savitri’s comedic performance and SVR’s boisterous turn as Ghatothkacha, another great comedic performance that has contributed to the film’s legend. NTR plays Krishna as one who is always subtly aware of the real motivations of the scheming and prevaricating characters, his lines always loaded, suggestive, even mocking, and it is precisely because of its subtlety that this performance paved the way for a career filled with mythological roles. Then there is the curious performance of ANR as Abhimanyu, who suggests a melancholic interiority that is atypical of a youngster—perhaps foreshadowing the tragic fate of Abhimanyu in the Kurukshetra. Then there are Gummadi, Relangi, CSR, Chayya Devi, all of whom are equal contributors to the film’s legacy.

Mayabazar’s great success with its audience lies in making the mythological familiar by having Krishna and Balarama’s family resemble that of a privileged Andhra family. Thus, Balarama, is the short-tempered, easy-to-please patriarch, Revathi, his wife, the elitist jewelry-obsessed aunt, Ghatothkacha, the wedding guest who is obsessed with food—with the ceremonies and traditions (Andhra-specific cousin-marriage being one among these) particular to these communities. The relatability of the family dynamics diminishes the distancing effect that is only natural with epics like the Iliad and the Mahabharata, and it is precisely this, along with its use of natural Telugu as opposed to the loft, mythological graandhikam that has allowed it to persist in cultural memory, solidifying the role of Hindu mythology in Telugu films, as well as opening up the space for more flexible interpretations to emerge. 

The familiarity and the Andhra-specificity also manifest in other ways: the film opens, not by centring any of its male leads, but Sasirekha, during the opening song 'Srikaralu Devathalu'. That she is introduced during what is essentially a celebration of puberty—a rite-of-passage that announces the readiness of a young girl for marriage is only testament to the social background of its filmmakers, and their attempts to find a reflection of their own family dynamics in mythology. It is in its portrayal of Ghatothkacha’s forest-dwelling minions that the film ages its poorest, because the associations of the depiction with minstrelsy are clear as day and unavoidable. (In later years, as NTR helmed the Telugu mythological, he would incorporate Dravidian rationalist themes in these films—in Dana Veera Soora Karna’s (1977) monologues, and in Sri Rama Pattabhishekam (1978), where playing Ravana, he labels the Soorpanakha incident an atrocity committed by the Aryan race against the Dravidian.)

RRR released three days before the 65th anniversary of Mayabazar’s release. With the mythological making a comeback in Telugu cinema, functioning as a vehicle for it to go Pan-India, it is only natural to be skeptical. Mayabazar is a whimsical fantasy of the kind we may not see in the near future, because the mythological is now being weaponised, masculinised even, which narrows the range of possibilities it affords for storytelling. But the epic still remains ripe for a revisit, despite its blemishes. 

The black and white original version of the Telugu classic is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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