Pathala Bhairavi (1951)

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.

The cave of Pathala Bhairavi

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.

Ramu's mother shoos him from the garden

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.

Princess Indumati

Ramu with Anji

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.

The king and queen, with the queen's brother

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.

The queen's brother throws his weight about

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.

A meeting in a gazebo

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.

Ramu saves Indu and the Uncle

…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.

I spy with my little telescope...

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.

Nepala Mandrikudu at work

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.

A spirit appears and gives some instructions

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.

Ramu, en route to Indu's room

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.

Indu declares her love for Ramu

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.

The king overhears the two lovers

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 is freed

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.

The magician approaches Ramu

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

... and enrolls him

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—

Ramu emerges from the pond, after being bitten

—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.

An apparition gives Ramu some advice

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].

Pathala Bhairavi

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.

The idol of Pathala Bhairavi

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.

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42 thoughts on “Pathala Bhairavi (1951)

    • Thank you, Ava!

      The Hindi Pataal Bhairavi was the Jeetendra-Jaya Prada starrer, no? From the 80s, a time period I generally steer clear of. ;-) Jaya Prada was lovely, but 80s Jeetendra was pretty avoidable, as far as I’m concerned.

  1. Madhoooooooooo! You bad girl! Now you have got me all eager and panting to watch this one! NTR was dashed good in some of his early roles and one can see how he managed to win hearts. This one, with all its magic and curses and wish-fulfilment, is right up my alley. (And as always, I giggled over your asides.)

    *goes off disconsolately to try and find a sub-titled version of Pathala Bhairavi*

    [And with your promise(threat) to be reviewing fun films from different languages, I know I’m sunk!]

    • Hehe :-D

      This was the first NTR film I’ve seen (somehow, my memories of the few Chitramala songs in which I’d seen him weren’t pleasant – always overly made-up, and rather too pudgy). But he was great in this, and one could well imagine why a princess would fall for him. (Or why Pathala Bhairavi would change her rules and accept a sacrifice of even someone like Nepala Mantrikudu!)

      Do you understand Tamil, Anu? If you do, the Tamil-dubbed version of the film is available on Youtube:

      http://www.youtube.com/movie/pathala-bhairavi

      • Yes, I do understand Tamil, Madhu. Thanks for that link. :) I used to speak Telugu – not very well, but enough to understand it if someone spoke slowly, but over the years, lack of regular use has made me forget even the little I know.

  2. Seems to be lot of fun, this movie! Alone the name conjures up vision of mighty adventures!

    NTR does look dashing here. I only knew him in his political-phase avatar. Difficult to imagine that it is the same guy, who romanced Sridevi in the 80s. Mind-boggling! ;-)

    It sounds very logical to assume that a man who is scaling the wall of a palace in the middle of the night is a good, honest man!

    The part of the story, where the magician needs a good honest man to achieve wealth sounds a bit like Alladin, doesn’t it?

    I’m so glad you are paying attention to regional cinema. I am wondering, which Marathi cinema you’ve chosen. Shyamchi Aai? I would also recommend Sangte Aaika. The other Marathi film, which I would recommend, would be Shantata, Court Chalu Aahe. But it is a 1971 release.

    Thanks for the review! Makes me want to see it!

    • Same here, Harvey. I remember NTR from his days as a politician. And from some of the songs that used to be aired on Chitramala, the regional language songs equivalent of Chitrahaar. Those were mostly from NTR’s later films, and he didn’t appeal to me at all. Now I wish I’d discovered the early NTR earlier!

      Ah, I won’t say which Marathi film I’ve chosen. I did think of ordering Shyamchi Aai, but then I remembered you’d once told me that you didn’t like it much and that it was depressing. So I’ve ordered another one, which Samir (I think) had once mentioned on my blog – it was remade as a Hindi film which I particularly like. :-)

  3. This is a film after my heart. I just love these fantasy films and down south they appeared to specialize in them. Long long ago, during the days of good old Doordarshan when showing black and white films were not taboo as they appear to be now on most movie channels, I used to avidly watch these films. Most of the films were from the south and quite enjoyable. These were the dubbed Hindi versions or perhaps they were shot simultaneously in 2 languages I do not know. These films had high production values with impressive sets. There was one film I really enjoyed, it had Gemini Ganesan in the lead. His heroine was either Anjali devi or Savitri Ganesan I do not remember which one of the two. Gemini Ganesan suffers some kind of curse and from a handsome young man he is transformed into a sick and ugly man. The film goes on to narrate how with help of his wife he gets back to his former glory. I have unfortunately forgotten the name of the film. I actually quite liked Gemini Ganesan.— Shilpi

    • I now regret never watching any of the regional language films that were shown on Doordarshan back in the 80s and 90s – I think I was under the (obviously mistaken) impression that they weren’t dubbed in Hindi or subtitled, so I didn’t see any point in watching them. Now I have so much catching up to do!

      As far as Pathala Bhairavi is concerned, it was dubbed in Hindi (also in Tamil). So was Chemmeen.

      Shilpi, that Gemini Ganesan film sounds fabulous! If you remember which one it was, do tell me. I’d love to watch.

        • Oh, Shilpi. Now I want to watch this film! It looks so good (and it sounds so good). As it is, Vyjyanthimala is one of my favourites. And Kaise aaoon Jamuna ke teer is one of my favourite classical songs. :-)

          That bit about a woman’s chastity being vital to her husband’s well-being reminds me of Chemmeen

  4. Madhuji,
    Lot of us like to watch fantasy movies once in a while. Thank you for the review.
    I would like to watch all the three versions before I do a piece on songs from movies having three or more versions. Song from ‘Paataal Bhairavi’ will be part of this episode.
    I think, the Tamil film ‘Kanavane Kann Kanda Deivam (1955), Cast – Gemini Ganeshan, Anjali Devi, Lalitha, music A RamaRao was the movie ‘World of Cinema’ was referring to. This Movie was remade in Hindi as Devta (1956), Cast- Gemini Ganeshan, Anjali Devi, Vyjayanthimala, music C Ramachandra.
    There is one famous ‘hiccup’ song, sung by P Susheela ‘Unnai kann theduthe’ and the Hindi version was sung Lata Mangeshkar – ‘Zalim tere aankhon ne kya cheez pila di hai’.

    • Thank you, Venkataramanji! Shilpi (World of Cinema) has also confirmed that it is, indeed, the film that was made in Hindi as Devta. I see that Induna have Devta in their catalogue, but I don’t think Kanavane Kankanda Deivam has been subtitled in Hindi – can’t see any entries for that. I guess I’ll have to be content with Devta.

    • Venkataramanji,
      I think Asha Bhosle was the singer for the hiccup song. A curious think about the Tamil film, Hemantha Kumar was one of the music directors. In the hiccup song, the hiccups were supposed to be Bhanumati’s.

  5. Your asides are so funny that quite often I just read the review for your take on the movie or the situations and your fantastic sense of humour than the review of the movie itself. Please keep them coming because we just cannot get enough of them :)

  6. What better place to post this than here, where we are talking about regional cinema on DD. Onir, the director of My Brother Nikhil and I Am recently petitioned DD, along with 52 of his peers from different languages (28 of whom are National Award winners) to telecast films that have been honoured. And finally, the mandarins have unbend enough to do so.
    From a news report:
    Starting June this year, DD will telecast National Awardwinning films in all languages and films that have been screened at 20 international film fests since 2000 in the ‘Best of Indian Cinema’ slot. When contacted, Onir said: “The money is three times more, and for the first time, DD will screen U/A films. Onir is also planning a press conference in the capital along with 15-odd filmmakers to demand exclusive theatrical space for Indie films.
    Will be a good time for those in India who are inquisitive about films in other languages. (I want to be there!)

    • Thanks for sharing that, Anu! That does sound like lovely news – I must remember to check it out. Since I don’t watch TV, that might take a bit of effort, but I’m sure it’ll be well worth it. I believe there’s also going to be a film festival of some really old (1930s) films – Himanshu Rai/Devika Rani ones included, beginning in Delhi on April 25th or so.

      WDIGTT??!

  7. Thank you Madu for the wonderful review. N T Rama rao is good in the beginning but later when he became papular he started over acting, loud and artificial . The princess
    Uncle is ‘Relangi ‘ a very papular comedian and the disciple of Mantrika is ‘Padmanabham ‘ another ace fun star of Telugu . There is a very papular song ” prema kosa my vallalopadene papam pasivaadu”( even to day love victims are teased by this song)

    • Thank you for identifying Indu’s uncle and the magician’s disciple for me, Epstein! Will add those into the post.

      I loved Prema kosa too – such a beautiful song, so well sung. Veyr romantic! I can imagine why it would have such lasting power. :-)

  8. Madhu
    It is not ‘Padmanabhan’ what you have added in the post ,it is ‘Padmanabham.’
    ‘Padmanabhan ‘ is Tamil name. ‘Padmanabham’ is Telugu name . That ‘n’ and ‘m’ make all the difference.

  9. Actually the name of the actor who enacted the role ‘anji’ ( friend of Ramu) is Bala Krishna. After the release of Pathalabhairavi his real name was forgotten and he became famouse as ‘anji'( shortened form of lord Anjineya)

  10. Two reasons why I love this film: 1. SV Ranga Rao. 2. SV Ranga Rao . NTR was the hero yes, but SVR was THE MAN. His portrayal of the vile, bearded Nepala Mantrikudu captured my imagination so much that he instantly became one of the greatest actors in my view, deserving every acting award on earth. I don’t think any of the current crop of actors in the industry can make a villain’s character seem so admirable.

    • I haven’t seen any new Telugu films, so I can’t comment on the current crop of actors, but yes, I certainly agree that SV Ranga Rao was superb as Nepala Mantrikudu. So deliciously, believably evil.

  11. The film was shot separately in Tamil, like most of the Tamil-Telugu films that released during that period. It also marked the debut of Savitri.

  12. PATALABHAIRAVI Telugu ,Tamil bilingual versions made.hindi movie is also separately made with few songs in colour .playback by talat,geetadutt & durrani GM.There is no dubbed versions .all are made separately .

  13. Hi Madhulika,

    Stumbled upon your lovely blog very recently, and I’ve been devouring your reviews since. :) Awesome writing and asides.

    Sorry for commenting on an old entry of yours. This is one of my all-time favourites in this genre. I am a big fan of the NTR of the ’50’s. And he was utterly dashing in this movie. One of my favourite scenes with a strong undertone of sexual attraction is when Thota Ramudu is brought in front of the King (probably for the first time in the movie ?) and Indu is slowly applying lime on the betel leaf. Her slow, light, deliberate hand movements as she caresses the leaf with the lime, and her being transfixed by NTR was just ooh, IMO.

    IMO, there wasn’t anybody in the South Indian Film Industry who was a patch on NTR in the mythological genre. Whether it was in this movie, or as Lord Krishna in “Maya Bazar”, or as Ravana in “Bhookalias” (among many others).

    If you are interested, may I recommend other good Telugu movies of that era ? You could try “MIssamma”, “Kanyasulkam”, “Mayabazar”, “Pelli Chesi Choodu” among others.

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