Remembering Krishna’s Alluri Seetha Rama Raju, One of Telugu Cinema’s Greatest Hits

The film was the story of Alluri told in images by Indians in glorious Cinemascope, and it still remains one of the biggest, most long-running hits of the Telugu film industry
Remembering Krishna’s Alluri Seetha Rama Raju, One of Telugu Cinema’s Greatest Hits

To those not from the Telugu states, the only photos that exist of the adult Alluri Seetha Rama Raju might come as a grim, sobering surprise—they are of a thin twenty-seven year old, bullet-stricken, dead. The photos were ostensibly taken right after a public execution in 1924 in which he was tied to a tree and shot. This was followed by an exhibition of the body in the villages where the revolutionary had operated.

In his essay about the photograph of Che Guevara’s corpse which was released by the Bolivian officials after the revolutionary’s execution, John Berger notes “Thousands of photographs are taken of the dead and the massacred. But the occasions are seldom formal ones of demonstration”. He insinuates that what the officials are doing through the photo is “ demonstrating the final fate – as decreed by “divine providence” – of a notorious guerrilla leader…meant to apply to every guerrillero on the continent”. The photo of Alluri was also meant to be demonstrative—and demonstration was critical to the British. Having spent over 40 Lakhs to capture the guerilla warrior, they now had to ensure that his death meant the death of the Rampa Rebellion.

Thirty years after his death, and seven years after India became independent, the NTR starrer Aggi Ramudu (1954) would feature a burra katha (folk ballad) venerating Alluri Seetha Rama Raju. An eleven-year old watching the film would be incredibly moved, and would begin dreaming of a film based on the revolutionary. This boy, Krishna, would go on to be the first South Indian “Super Star”, and for his hundredth film he would both produce and star in Alluri Seetha Rama Raju (1974), a project which was in imminent danger of being upended by NTR’s own version, which never ended up taking off.

A few months ago, at the hundred and twenty-fifth birth anniversary of the revolutionary, the usually mild-mannered veteran allowed himself to revel in pride when he said “That film played for a year. Even though I acted in three hundred and sixty films, the number one film in my life is Alluri Seetharama Raju”. This was, finally, the story of Alluri told in images by Indians in glorious Cinemascope—only the first or second Scope film in South India—and it still remains one of the biggest, most long-running hits of the Telugu film industry. 

Unsurprisingly, the film itself has not all aged well—particularly its first hour. It has stretches of broad comedy and Telugu actors in whiteface playing the British, as well as a Tamil stereotype. And yet, there is much to admire: its epic scope, a lot of it shot on location in forests (practically unheard of in the set-heavy era of Telugu cinema) with many extras, Krishna’s performance, the anti-colonial “punch” dialogues, and its depiction of the guerilla warfare between the adivasis and the British. Among its songs, Telugu Veera Levara (Telugu Warrior, arise) written by the celebrated poet Sri Sri would go on to win the national award. 

Telugu films also had a history of crude minstrelsy—adivasis were often depicted as comical figures. In Alluri Seetha Rama Raju, the adivasis are never caricatured, but the British and their Indian collaborators are. Since there are no British actors, Telugu actors filled in for the colonial rulers in whiteface—affecting a concocted, British-accented lofty Telugu. This is as frequently amusing as it is annoying. In its second half, when Jagayya makes his entrance as the special commissioner TG Rutherford, he indulges in caricature, but still manages to turn in a menacing performance with more nuance than the villains in RRR.

The best stretches of the film are the games of one-upmanship between the British and the adivasi rebels. The Rampa Rebellion sprung up, largely in response to British Raj laws that prohibited the adivasis from extracting resources from the forest or clearing parts of it to practise agriculture. Importantly, the British moved to coerce the tribal people of the area into forced labour to construct a road—a move which sparked the guerilla rebellion.

The film stays true to these core events and manages to become cinematically dynamic when it depicts this conflict—when Alluri is arrested, for instance, the rebels communicate with each other across the forest through sounds. In another scene, he captures a convoy of elephants carrying goods by firing arrows non-lethally. The real Alluri is rumoured to have left messages to officials telling them which police station he was going to raid next, along with a signature—a bunch of chillies. In the film, the arrow with the letter and the chillies is transmitted by a chain of rebel archers till it reaches the headquarters. In the battle sequences in its final stretches, you can glimpse hints of RRR when Alluri fires flamed arrows that set fire to foliage and trap entire British regiments in flames. 

And then there are its dialogues, exchanged between hero and villain as blows in a fencing match: when Rutherford tries to justify colonial rule by asserting that the British built schools and roads, Rama Raju retorts that they only built schools because they needed trained clerks for their offices, that they only built roads so that their officers could travel around the country and plunder India with ease. 

If the film mythologises Alluri, this is because his story stayed alive for decades only through folk ballads which mythologised him; there is little by way of historical record.  What we know is that he was from a privileged caste and renounced his possessions to become a forest-dwelling revolutionary, that he was something of a pious ascetic who was at least partially influenced by Gandhi (he urged his followers to give up liquor and wear khadi), but disagreed with his stand on non-violence. We know he was born “Srirama Raju” and later, changed his name to Seetha Rama Raju, but we don’t know if this was in honour of his sister, or as the films suggest, a love interest.

Even the snippets of the letters that he wrote which we have access to, both English and Telugu, are frustrating in how little they reveal. But most significantly, we know that he united thirty to forty villages in the area across caste lines to mount a significant opposition to the British, a rebellion which only ended when he was captured and executed.

The film portrays him as a progressive, inclusive revolutionary: early on, he saves an inter-caste couple from ostracisation and proclaims to his followers that caste and religion are only barriers erected by human beings to discriminate amongst themselves. When he’s asked to join the non-violent Gandhian Non Cooperation Movement, he says that he believes that all roads lead to the same goal, but he doesn’t believe atrocities can be met with non-violence. In the final scene, when Rutherford orders his troops to shoot Alluri, a Hindu hesitates because he sees Lord Ram in him, a Christian because he sees Jesus Christ, and a Muslim, the Quran. (Notably, Krishna would play Jesus Christ in a biopic based on the New Testament later in his career)  Like RRR, there is a song at the end which pays homage to other freedom fighters — but here, Gandhi and Nehru are credited for realising the dream of an Independent India. Notably, Alluri first received legitimacy as a martyr nationally when Gandhi paid homage in an edition of Young India in 1929.

In the Telugu Film Industry, tales abound about the kindness, decency, and charity of Krishna. After his demise, Paruchuri Gopala Krishna released a Youtube video in which he revealed that when his writing weakened and he was struggling economically, Krishna gave him an advance to complete the construction of his house.  In a comprehensive piece by V Shoba for Open Magazine, Alluri Satyavati, a member of Alluri’s family is quoted as saying: “Until ten years ago, no one even knew we existed. Actor Krishna was the only one to track us down, to present a panchaloha idol of Rama when the film was released”.

It is perhaps no surprise that he plays Alluri as a fundamentally decent man, one who isn’t animated by the kind of bloodlust that we see in a lot of “mass” film protagonists. Even when he raids police stations, he leaves a list of the weapons and supplies looted so that the police officers manning the station are not suspected by their higher officials of stealing any. With Krishna’s passing, an era is truly at an end, and you can’t help but wonder if the inclusive, humanistic decency that defined him has also passed with him.

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