When I’d decided to dedicate this month to regional Indian cinema, I’d also decided that I wouldn’t restrict myself to only the grim, stark ‘real’ films that win awards (Chemmeen, as you will see over the next few films, was an exception rather than the norm). After all, it’s not only the films which win awards that are remembered and loved. There are also films that may not be award-winning material, but are enjoyable and prove to be hugely popular.
Pathala Bhairavi—originally in Telugu, also dubbed in Hindi and Tamil—was one of these. Although the research I’ve done doesn’t seem to indicate any awards won, this film was a superhit, which ran to packed houses for weeks on end. It was also the only South Indian film to be selected for screening at the first International Film Festival in Bombay in 1952. And—this was what made me want to see it—it was a fantasy film, one of my favourite genres.
Pathala Bhairavi (‘The Goddess of the Underground’) is set in the kingdom of Ujjaini. The story begins by introducing us to the hero, Thota Ramudu ‘Ramu’ (NT Rama Rao, looking very dashing). Ramu is busy practicing stick-fighting with his buffoonish but thoroughly loyal friend Anji (
? Bala Krishna, identified by Epstein) when Ramu’s widowed mother (Surabhi Kamalabai), who is a gardener, comes to haul her son home.
They live in the royal garden which is frequented by Princess Indumati ‘Indu’ (Malathi) and her ladies in waiting. No men should be around gaping at the princess when she arrives, so Ramu’s mother locks up her son and his friend in their hut.
The men, however, are wily, and manage to escape. Ramu sees the beautiful princess as she sings with her friends in the garden, and his heart is lost. It’s love at first sight.
But, alas for poor Ramu [who actually is pretty poor]. Besides the fact that the princess is way above him when it comes to wealth and status, there’s also another obstacle to his romance, though Ramu is as yet unaware of this. The queen’s brother (
? Relangi, identified by Epstein), a buffoon, has been pestering his sister to get him married to Indu, and the queen is not inimical to the idea. On the other hand, she’s quite vociferous in trying to persuade the king to agree to the match.
Indu’s uncle-cum-unwanted-suitor, besides being a fool, is a greedy fool. One day, while a singer is entertaining a small crowd in the street, Uncle turns up, along with a bunch of soldiers, and begins to harangue the people there. He scolds them for not paying their taxes, and as soon as he sees anyone wearing something valuable—a piece of jewellery, or a fancy turban—he commands his soldiers to confiscate the item in question.
Ramu, who’s in the crowd, springs to the defence of the people around. He beats up Indu’s uncle [not a smart thing to do, methinks, if you intend to marry his niece] and his soldiers. It ends with a less than dignified departure by Uncle, who is certainly not going to be on Ramu’s side now, even if a miracle should occur.
Over the days that follow, Princess Indu finds herself becoming the object of attention for two men. One is the handsome and romantic Ramu, who spreads flowers on the path leading into a gazebo, just so that she can enter and find him there, seemingly asleep—which allows him to finally get to talk to her. Indu, while shy and demure, does make it obvious that she thinks Ramu quite the thing. They sing some love songs, and all is bliss.
On the other hand, Uncle too is wooing Indu—also with songs, and also in the garden. His dancing leaves a lot to be desired [as does his singing], and in his fervour, he nearly ends up pushing Indu into the path of a cobra that’s lurking in the grass. Thankfully, Ramu is in the vicinity (he’s been looking on, amused, at Uncle’s attempts to win Indu), and he now rescues both members of the royal family.
…thereby sealing his own fate. The royal astrologers, called in to take a look at Indu’s horoscope, say that she’s had a narrow escape, but should now be kept completely housebound in the palace. Thud go Ramu’s chances of meeting his beloved in the garden. So he decides to take matters into his own hands, and one night, shins up a rope to Indu’s window.
He is little aware that far, far away, somebody—using a telescope—has seen him.
This is the evil and powerful magician, Nepala Mantrikudu (SV Ranga Rao). Nepala Mantrikudu, aided by his disciple (Padmanabham), has been hard at work casting spells in an attempt to conjure up a spirit that will tell him how to become all-powerful. Now, in a final [rather gruesome] finale to his magical mumbo-jumbo, the magician chops off his own forearm and sacrifices it.
This brings forth a female spirit, which gives him a clue: he should go to the lair of the Pathala Bhairavi, the Goddess of the Underground [she is kind enough to supply details of how to get there]. The Pathala Bhairavi will be propitiated only by being offered a sacrifice of a good and honest man; once that sacrifice is accomplished, the Pathala Bhairavi will be his (the magician’s) to command.
Once his informant has vanished—which she does, after telling him what he needs to know—Nepala Mantrikudu calls his disciple and instructs him on how to reattach the magician’s arm. A magical healing shrub must be brushed over the place where the arm had been amputated, and—hey, presto!—it’s back again, good as new.
Now the magician begins looking around for a good, honest man. [He uses a telescope, probably guessing that he will have to look really far to find one answering that description]…
…and his eye falls on Ramu, who is currently scaling the wall of the palace.
We now go back to Ramu, who enters the palace and manages to sneak into Indu’s room and declare his love for her. He just has enough time to do so before Indu’s Uncle, who has been sneaking about the palace and has seen Ramu enter her room, comes banging at the door, demanding Ramu’s head. Indu just about has time to assure Ramu that yes, she loves him too.
He tries to give Uncle and Uncle’s minions the slip, but is outnumbered and taken captive. Indu, much distressed, goes to meet him in the dungeons that night, and tries to persuade him to escape. She will help him.
Fortunately, Ramu [whose guardian angel must have a full-time, and very exhausting job] says no, he can’t do that—it wouldn’t be right. Fortunately, I say, because the king has surreptitiously followed Indu down into the dungeons.
Now, having heard what Ramu’s said, the king is convinced that this young man—even if he’s poor and of no account—is at least upright and honest. So he comes forth and lets Ramu go free, telling him that Ramu can be married to Indu only if he is able to prove himself worthy. In material terms. He should come back with enough wealth, and with a substantial army, to convince the king that he would be able to provide for Indu. It all seems utterly futile, and Indu is very distressed.
Ramu isn’t sure how he’s going to achieve this, but he doesn’t know that Nepala Mantrikudu has arrived in Ujjaini. The magician, after a brief (and popular) demo of his powers in the town square, gets talking to Ramu. Ramu is surprised to discover that the magician knows of his love for Indu and of the king’s terms and conditions for the match. And, says Nepala Mantrikudu, he will help Ramu get the wealth and the army he needs. If Ramu will help him.
Ramu is all eagerness, and sets off with the magician, deep into the countryside, to where Pathala Bhairavi resides underground. Along the way, the magician carries out some discreet tests to make sure Ramu is:
(a) as good and honest as he appears
(b) as courageous as he must be—it’s not going to be easy to get to Pathala Bhairavi
(c) as naïve [or dumb] as the magician thinks he is, since his gullibility will play a major part in the entire plan
They get to the underground cave where a huge idol of Pathala Bhairavi is installed, under a vast banyan tree. Ramu is obliged to pass through various dangers—fire, rotating swords, and such stuff, all of which clears the way for the magician, who follows safely behind. Finally, when they arrive in front of the idol, Nepala Mantrikudu sends Ramu off to a nearby pond to bathe, while the magician readies himself for the ceremony to follow.
Ramu, having doffed most of his clothing, wades into the pond, and his ankle is grabbed by a crocodile which had been lurking below the surface. Ramu manages to grab his dagger from the shore and kill the crocodile. Despite the croc’s tenacious grip on his ankle, there’s no sign of any wounds, and our hero merely rubs his ankle and is going about getting dressed when—
—a woman emerges from the pond, thanking him for freeing her of a curse that had imprisoned her in the crocodile’s body. In return, she offers him a piece of advice: Nepala Mantrikudu is an evil sorcerer, and is planning to offer up Ramu as a sacrifice to Pathala Bhairavi. Ramu should beware.
Thus warned, Ramu displays a bit of quick wit, and when told by the magician to lie prostrate before the goddess’s idol (preparatory to being decapitated, no doubt), he pretends not to know how to do that. Will the magician please show him?
A huffy Nepala Mantrikudu obliges, by lying down—and Ramu, quick as a flash, leaps up and beheads the magician. The idol in front disintegrates, and from it emerges Pathala Bhairavi (Girija) [who looks and acts deceptively sweet and gentle, not at all the sort of woman I’d expect to require such a gory sacrifice].
Patal Bhairavi is well-pleased with Ramu [she seems to have, in the interim, changed her rules about sacrifices; I wouldn’t have called Nepala Mantrikudu honest and good by any stretch of imagination]. She hands Ramu a small idol of herself and tells him that he must guard it. And, any time he wishes for something, all he needs to do is touch the idol to his forehead, utter her name, and she will appear, ready to grant his wish.
So Ramu asks to go back to Ujjaini as a prince, where he gets Pathala Bhairavi to create a magnificent palace for him, with many servants and great wonders. The king of Ujjaini is pleased; the queen has to grudgingly accept the inevitable, and all is set for Ramu and Indu to be married… but no, the film’s only about halfway through. There’s much, much more to come, with a range of magical things, some odd creatures, and many adventures.
What I liked about this film:
I have a weakness for fantasy, and this one—the earliest Indian fantasy film I’ve seen—delivered. It was fun, it had loads of adventure, and the special effects were about right for their time: not overly ambitious [and therefore running the risk of turning out ludicrous], yet good enough. NT Rama Rao made a dashing hero, and SV Ranga Rao a delightfully evil villain. I also liked the occasional flashes of humour—in some scenes featuring Indu’s Uncle, in particular.
The music, by the renowned composer and playback singer Ghantasala. The film has some great songs, ranging all the way from the gloriously romantic Enta ghatu premayo and the melodious Teeyani vuhalu haayi haayi to Itihaasam vinnaaraa aa ati saahasule unnaaraa, which I thought was a wonderful ‘street performer’ song.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional dragging of the plot. While it’s mostly fast-paced, every now and then, the pace suddenly slows down to make way for some slightly repetitive tomfoolery (mostly on the part of Anji, who got on my nerves at times). And yes, Indu—who started off seeming like a feisty sort of girl—ended up going all to pieces and acting like a ninny, which did cheese me off somewhat.
Still, this is a film I’d recommend if you like fantasy. It’s a good bit of fun.