“Nijam Cheppamantara, Abaddham Cheppamantara?”
(Do you prefer the truth or the deception?)
‘Thota’ Raamudu, Paathala Bhairavi (1951)
It is easy to trivialise fantasy. One would find it more tempting to perform an analysis of the themes and psychology in a film like Darlings (2022) than say, Eega (2012). But the simplicity of fantasy stories is deceptive. They often speak to something deeper within us while being outwardly dressed up as something fanciful. Isn’t Eega compelling because it is really speaking to our deep insecurity about being loved despite losing our physical and sexual characteristics? Would it work the same with a female protagonist? You could argue, somewhat reductively, that Eega is a male fantasy in which the protagonist is able to retain his “masculinity” and perform it even after the loss of his human body, by protecting his woman from his rival’s advances and sustaining a relationship with her while violently avenging his own death.
Or consider the most famous of Telugu classics: 1957’s Mayabazaar, more specifically, its most famous scene (and probably the most iconic scene of Savitri’s career)—the song ‘Aaha naa Pellanta’. In the film, set in the interstices of the Mahabharata, Sasirekha (Savitri), who is in love with Abhimanyu (Akkineni Nageswara Rao, or ANR), is being coerced by her family into marrying another man. However, Krishna (N.T. Rama Rao, or NTR) intervenes to have her be replaced by Ghatotkacha (SV Ranga Rao) who has transfigured into Sasirekha, while the real Sasirekha has eloped with Abhimanyu.
Fake-Sasirekha sings Aaha Naa Pellanta? (Oh, my wedding approaches?) to her handmaidens about her impending wedding—outwardly, it is celebratory, but she keeps slipping up—breaking out of her demure and coy persona to show rage at being married off to a man she doesn’t fancy. In the Fifties, when the heroine was expected to be coy, isn’t the fakeness, the Ghatothkacha substitution, just a ploy to get the audience to revel in the real Sasirekha’s unabashed, raw, un-feminine rage, despite their own patriarchal expectations of the heroine?
Long before Rajamouli, there was Paathala Bhairavi
For those recently initiated, Telugu fantasy did not begin with SS Rajamouli. He is only the latest, most widely known practitioner of a genre that has been one of Telugu cinema’s greatest strengths. While many mythological and fantasy films existed before it (also see 1949, ANR-starrer Keelu Gurram), it was the success of K.V. Reddy’s Paathala Bhairavi (1951), the movie that turned NTR into a bonafide star and introduced SV Ranga Rao, (and in a song-cameo, Savitri) that really started it all. Here, you begin seeing the makings of Baahubali—in the protagonist’s relationship with his mother in the opening scenes—but also, the Telugu experiment with Indianising fantasy by Hindu-ising it.
Paathala Bhairavi draws heavily from Alibaba and the 40 thieves and Alladin from the One Thousand and One Nights — but instead of a magic lamp or a treasure, there is a fictional wish-granting goddess who demands a human sacrifice to grant a wish. (The film also notably introduced the Vijaya Vauhini Studios’ trademarked studio moon.)
Its massive success began Vijaya Vauhuni Studios’ golden era under producers B. Nagi Reddy and Aluri Chakrapani. There came big-budget films with ensemble casts. Vijaya Vauhini’s most famous offering, apart from Paathala Bhairavi, would of course be Mayabazaar (1957), an adaptation of the play Sasirekha Parinayam, also directed by K.V. Reddy. In Mayabazaar, the Pouraanikam (mythological drama) that evolved from the South Indian theatre, would meet fantasy. The film is about a box that reveals the heart’s deepest desires — much like the Mirror of Erised — along with magical illusions and weapons. Remarkably, it is also about a love marriage-through-elopement set in that most conservative of havens which is the mythological epic. You can see the genesis of SS Rajamouli’s battle sequences in Mayabazaar’s special effect-laden skirmishes, achieved, again, through Marcus Bartley’s effects.
Mayabazaar is also notable for adding a layer of relatability to Hindu mythology in particular — Krishna and Balarama’s families are depicted as privileged Telugu families with local customs and practices. The film would also begin NTR’s tryst with the mythological film — his Krishna would lead to a career almost defined by an image of him as a mythological deity-hero. (This journey, as well as the history of the Telugu Film Industry and its social, cultural, and political dimensions can be found in SV Srinivas’ book Politics as Performance: A Social History of The Telugu Cinema).
Blurring the lines between mythology and fantasy
It is hard to separate the mythological from the fantasy from here on — Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961), in which NTR plays a prince who courts four devakanyas (angels), leans heavily on the side of fantasy while drawing on Hindu mythology. Its most famous scene is a song in which NTR uses a magical spell to replicate himself into five versions, all forming a musical group whose melodic prowess melts a rock and frees a man. ANR would continue doing swashbuckling fantasy films like Suvarna Sundari (1957), while NTR would star in Bala Nagamma (1959) and Gulebakavali Katha (1962), an Indianised adaptation of the story from One Thousand and One Nights.
Among the many Pouraanikams (mythological dramas), Bhookailas is notable (the second adaptation of a Kannada play based on the Sthala Purana) for featuring Raavana (NTR) as the protagonist, contending with the tricks the deities in the Hindu pantheon play on him to keep him from obtaining the aatma lingam which would render him supremely powerful. There is also the Savitri-starrer Sati Savitri, about Savitri’s journey through the netherworlds to save her husband (ANR), drawn from the Hindu epics. You can find the genesis of the Komaram Bheemudo sequence from RRR (2022) in Seetharama Kalyanam’s famous scene where NTR, playing Raavana, attempts to please Shiva through song, tries to lift Mount Kailasha, fails, and then rips his intestines out and plays music with them. You’ll be relieved to know this does succeed in mollifying Shiva.
Notable among the filmmakers (and name-dropped in Rajamouli’s Eega) is B. Vittalacharya, who is remembered for a filmography almost entirely consisting of swashbuckling fantasy films like Aggi Barata (1966), Pidugu Ramudu (1966), Jaganmohini (1978), and Gandikota Rahasyam (1969).
The mythological film would continually remain in production for the following decades — especially with NTR and films like 1977’s Dana Veera Soora Karna (an anti-brahmanical take on the Mahabharata that sympathises with Karna and Duryodhana) and Yamagola (1977), which is notable for its anti-Emergency dialogues and sees NTR playing a murdered man who gets into an argument with Yama, the God of death. There is also Superman (1980) in which the hero gains his powers through the blessings of Hanuman. But it is in the early Nineties that you saw a revival, mostly nostalgic, of the whimsical fantasy film.
Singeetham Srinivas Rao’s endlessly innovative Bhairava Dweepam (1994) starring Balakrishna and Roja is a throwback to Paathala Bhairavi with its sorcerer, cave and goddess. Yet, you can spot striking similarities to Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) — the protagonist floating downriver and being adopted by a tribe that resides at the foot of a giant waterfall, along with the ambitiously orchestrated action. This came on the heels of another Singeetham-Balakrishna sci-fi smash hit Aditya 369 (1991), a play on HG Wells and Back to the Future, in which Balakrishna travels back in time to the Vijayanagara empire and teaches Krishna Deva Raya’s royal court to groove to rock n’ roll through Ilaiyaraaja’s music.
The most financially successful fantasy film of the Nineties, also the most successful Telugu film until that point, would be directed by the man who would go on to become Rajamouli’s mentor, K Raghavendra Rao. It would star Telugu cinema’s biggest male star at the time opposite India’s biggest female star.
The name Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990) is a reference to NTR’s aforementioned Jagadeka Veeruni Katha, but the film, written by Jandhyala and novelist Yandamoori Veerendranath, would also borrow from Mr. India and the Indiana Jones franchise. In it, the “mass film” would meet the Pouraanikam, with Chiranjeevi embodying the mass hero and Sridevi playing a surakanya (angel) who comes down to earth. The clash would also be one of language — mythological films in Telugu use a heightened dialect almost exclusively heard on the stage and on screen, it was called graandhikam. In JVAS, (as in Yamagola and Devanthakudu), Chiranjeevi’s everyday Telugu (vyavahaarikam) would clash with Sridevi’s graandhikam for comedic effect. Chiranjeevi’s Raju assumes Sridevi’s Indraja to be a stage actor because of her heightened dialect. Owing to Sridevi’s stardom, this is a film in which the hero and the heroine are arguably equally “heroic” — even the title represents both as opposed to the hero alone (though it also has a song as regressive as Abbanee Theeyanee, so make of that what you will). Another notable Nineties’ film starring Sridevi is Ram Gopal Varma’s Govinda Govinda (1994), which is part-caper and part-mythological fantasy. Its plot revolves around the theft of the deity’s crown from the Tirumala Tirupati temple.
The Nineties would also see Kodi Ramakrishna begin the streak of his particular brand of women-centric mythological horror-fantasy, most notably 1995’s Ammoru (starring Soundarya and Ramya Krishnan), whose incredibly gory ending contains one of the most impressive fusions of VFX and practical effects in Indian cinema. He would follow this with Devi (1999); the Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque Venkatesh-Soundarya starrer Devi Putrudu (2001), and Anji (2004) with Chiranjeevi — another film notable for Indianising an Indiana Jones-esque plot with elements from Hindu mythology, and for its ambitious VFX.
In the 2000s, he would make his magnum opus Arundhati (2009) starring Anushka Shetty, a folk horror story in which the eponymous Arundhati (Anushka Shetty) faces off against a lecherous demonic spirit (Sonu Sood) and, in a Madhumati-style twist, learns about her doppelganger great grandmother’s travails with the same villain. Inspired by Manichitrathazhu (1993) and The Exorcist (1973), Arundhati is as visually impressive (its cinematographer is the Rajamouli regular, K.K. Senthil Kumar) as it is disturbing and gory, featuring depictions of sexual assault and gore that make it one of Telugu cinema’s most effective horror films. It also features both Hindu and Muslim characters teaming up and using supernatural powers to fight the evil villain.
Another woman-centric, epic historical film from the 2000s — one again starring Shetty in the lead — is Gunasekhar’s Rudhramadevi (2015), purportedly based on the first female ruler of South India, Rani Rudramadevi. The film also had Allu Arjun and Rana Daggubati.
Perhaps the most discussed “cult” Telugu fantasy film of this period is Trivikram Srinivas’s Mahesh Babu-starrer Khaleja (2010), which through its dubbed version Jigar Khaleja, has probably reached as many in the north as any SS Rajamouli film. Khaleja is about a foul-mouthed cab driver discovering that he’s God—but his Godhood only manifests in the context of helping a specific village, Pali, which is plagued with a mysterious disease (in what is likely inspired by the real-life mysterious kidney disease afflicting Uddanam in Andhra Pradesh). Khaleja is the most conceptually experimental a commercial Telugu film would get in the 2000s and its box-office failure pushed the industry towards making safer, more formulaic films for the next few years. And yet, the success of Magadheera (2009) and Arundhati would urge Telugu filmmakers to pursue fantasy throughout the 2000s and 2010s with more failures than successes — Anaganaga Oo Dheerudu (2011), Shakthi (2011), Badrinath (2011), and Akhil: Power of Jua (2015).
Man of the (present) moment
With SS Rajamouli, Telugu fantasy would transform into a hypermasculine beast (ironic, given that he made the least overtly hypermasculine Telugu film of them all, Eega). While the heroes of Paathala Bhairavi, Bhairava Dweepam, and Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari were all strong, agile, adventurous men, there is a specific sort of muscularity that Rajamouli has adopted from the Hollywood spectacle of Mel Gibson and Zack Snyder that is missing in those films. The older films also contained a flexible Hindu milieu — one in which fictional gods and goddesses were often invented for the purposes of the plot. Some of them, especially the Kodi Ramakrishna films, also had women as central figures and protagonists.
The Rajamouli films, despite sharing their Hindu iconography, are not, however, as religious (with the possible exception of RRR) — perhaps reflecting his professed atheistic beliefs. His heroes count less on divine favours and more on their muscles (and often, their wits). And yet, his films sometimes uncritically internalise the racial and cultural tropes of the older mythological and fantasy films (case in point, the depiction of the Kalakeyas).
Undeniably, Rajamouli’s storytelling is a product of the Telugu mythological fantasy as much as it is of the Bollywood masala film and the Hollywood action spectacle. In these films, you see traces of many films that came before that would certainly have found a wider audience had they been written and spoken about as much as Hindi films have been historically. Maybe it is a good time to follow the sorcerer and step into the mysterious cave. Treasures (and other perils) lie within.