Telugu ‘mythologicals’, or mythological films, are an ingenious genre; so much so that the term itself is often a misnomer. There are in these films the ‘period’ sets, costumes and make-up. There is a plot inspired from an actual Purana, a Sthalapurana, or dare I add, a pukkiti puranam (a snide term in Telugu meaning ‘rumour’). Everything in between, the Rasa and Bhava of the film, dates to sometime in the mid-twentieth century. The principle is particularly true to ‘mythological-comedies’, epitomised of course by the 1957 classic Mayabazar (the film is notable for lines like “ee kalam pillalu inthe kada annayya”, Krishna saying, ‘kids these days are like that, brother’; generic banter that we hear in our households). Another of these mythological-comedies is Bhookailas, a film that I am led to time and again, not just as a classic but as a universe of nostalgia; it is a movie that wove me a homeland in a thermostat-conditioned room in the US in my childhood. The film, starring both NT Ramarao and A Nageswara Rao, with SV Ranga Rao in an extended cameo, is remembered as a classic for being a smash hit and very funny, while chronicling the legend of the pilgrimage site of Gokarna in coastal Karnataka (known more for its psychedelics than for the shrine of Mahabaleshwara). I have always found the screenplay of this work unfairly underrated.
Bhookailas performs a remarkable act so subtle and unassuming that its charm is obvious and yet not pronounced. This act occurs at two levels: firstly, in the terrain of character set-up and progression. Bhookailas strings together a series of comic episodes involving Narada, the news runner, jester, and poet-saint of the gods, and Ravana, the first and most irresistible anti-hero in Indian mythology. At first sight, Ravana, with his muscle, moustache, military might, Lanka and captured women, can unhesitatingly be called the ‘hero’ of the story. Enter Narada. Lean, sly but not strong, and annoyingly mobile, he seldom inspires awe. Ye one has what the other does not. Sure, Ravana does not have the benedictions or the favour of Vishnu, but in this movie, he is designed to be a figure whose heart is not in the right place and, more critically, he is something of a dud. The king of Lanka is a mass of self-amour, pride and narcissism to the extent of being a self-flatterer, and all mirth and no matter. Meanwhile Narada, while lacking everything that Ravana has, is supremely intelligent. He would be a maestro-salesman were he to manifest in our capitalist world order. And Bhookailas is a tale where wit reigns over buff.
Impose upon this act the layer of casting. Ravana is played by the ever-charismatic and perfect NT Ramarao, while Narada is A Nageswara (he sure did an extraordinary number of films as Vishnu Bhakta for a vocal atheist). They were both top stars in Telugu filmdom and, for practicality’s sake, equals. Yet they pulled off the feat of acting in nearly fifteen films together. However, it was easy always to be drawn to NTR for his comic timing and physique, and equally easy to ignore the brilliance of ANR. But how does one avert that? The stakes become higher with an unconventional screenplay and so we have Bhookailas!
A theme that runs consistently through the film, always making the audience laugh, is familial connections. Indian mythologies are notorious for their complicated bloodlines that need much grappling with to wrap our heads around. But in Bhookailas, they are a treat to reckon with. The most memorable scene is obviously the one where Ravana meets Narada. Ravana is not bedecked in jewels, and is unadorned barring the Mantra Danda, Kamandalu, and a mat of wound up Rudrakshas. Narada, a celibate man devoted to the service of Vishnu, is perplexed to hear that this sturdy young man is his grandson. And Ravana is not wrong. Ravana’s grandfather and Narada are brothers, and by a classificatory kinship method, Narada indeed is the grandfather! Thereafter, the ‘Tata-Manavada’ relationship between the two characters becomes the warmest and most endearing leitmotif in the film. Then there’s the scene where Kaikesi (played by Hemalatha) and Mandodari (Jamuna) fall at each others’ feet, while Ravana slaps his forehead; the former out of reverence towards the Mother Goddess (which Ravana is forced into believing that she is), and latter out of respect towards her “attagaru” (mother-in-law). How else would the film carve its home in every household if Mandodari is not swayed by the soap opera-esque attagaru sentiment?
That brings me to another set of relationships, those between gods, or rather, their advocates. Much of the film gravitates around Shiva-Bhakti and its opposite, Shiva-Droham. Every time Ravana appears to display and be overcome by the former, his libido only pushes him towards the latter. The comedy of errors that the film charts ensues from Kaikesi’s wish to acquire the Atma-Lingam, the Linga that encapsulates the subtle essence of Lord Shiva. But Ravana always strays away; although we are led to believe that this is due to his flaws, the story seems to suggest that this is because of Narada’s guile and the command he has over the illusory and deceptive power that Vishnu can summon. In the film this is called Vaishnava Maya. So is it really Ravana’s fault then? That’s the mystery we are left with. When Shiva first appears, Maya goads Ravana to ask for Parvati as a boon and after winning the goddess, Maya further leads him to renounce her and go after Mandodari – the daughter of the architect of Asuras. Maya (played by the inimitable SV Ranga Rao) is (surprise, surprise) a Vishnu Bhakta, furthering the Vaishnava-Shaiva rivalry. Here Narada is made to mouth a few lines articulating the ‘Shivaya Vishnu Roopaya, Shiva Roopaya Vishnave’ dictum, but everyone knows that this is only tokenistic and none need fear that the tiny moral sermon is at the expense of the film’s comedy. For finally the film goes full circle when Ravana entertains the wrath of Shiva’s own son, Ganesha, for not being devoted to him enough. It is this tantrum of this cute little godling that ultimately inaugurates Gokarna as a Teertha.
All the Bhakti that the film lacks is made up for by its music: the soundtrack of the movie was a chartbuster and is an exemplar for Bhakti lyrics and tunes. ML Vasanthakumari, a gem in the Carnatic triumvirate of the time, was roped in to sing two devotional numbers, one on Shiva – ‘Deva Mahadeva’ (sung in the film by Kaikesi to Shiva on the beach of Lanka) – and the other on Vishnu – ‘Munneeta Pavalinchu’.
The film, on using Ravana’s name, has to also place itself in the Ramayana tradition – hence there is a fast-forward musical version of the Ramayana featuring young actors (including Vijaya Nirmala, who would later be a matinee star, playing a tender Sita). The summit in the film’s musical accomplishments has to be ‘Deva Deva Davalachala Mandira’, because this is the song that culminates in the delightful episode where Ravana and Narada meet; to the same tune, the terrestrial and slow-moving NTR sings ‘Samba digambara namo namo’ in praise of Shiva, while the aerial and swift ANR sings ‘pankaja nayana pannaga shayana’ to Vishnu. These songs are often cited as instances of singer Ghantasala’s brilliance, for without ever mimicking the respective actors and with very subtle shifts in his vocal registers, he becomes two entirely different characters. Different not only by their sectarian affiliations but in their very temperaments. A mildly husky, youthful and energetic intonation for the non-serious ANR, and a deep, trained and focused rendition for the self-important and narcissistic NTR.
‘Deva Deva Davalachala Mandira’ is pretty much the film in a nutshell. In the exchange between ‘Samba Digamabara Namo Namo’ and ‘Narayanahari Namo Namo’, there is space for Ghantasala’s vocal funambulation to make its way through. There is a display of the performative niches of NT Ramarao and A Nageswara Rao. There is foreshadowing (set in motion already by the stripping of Ravana’s ornaments and his transformation into a glamorous sage) of the comedy that is to unfold in the rest of the movie. And through all of these phenomena, the principle of mythologicals in Telugu shines – they are mythological only in show. The rest is popular cinema at its best.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.