Every few months, I go on a rampage, looking for old regional language films with English subtitles.
One of the saddest facts I’ve realized over the past few years—since I became interested in films in languages other than Hindi and English—is that while a considerable number of good foreign language films can be found with subtitles, the same cannot be said for Indian cinema. More modern films can be found subbed (though the quality of subbing is often questionable); but old cinema? Not much hope. About the only Indian language, other than Hindi, for which I have often been able to find English-subbed films, is Bengali. Perhaps the fact that stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak are so popular outside India has had a ripple effect on films by other directors of the same era as well.
Anyway, without further ado: my latest find. A few weeks back, trawling Youtube for subbed films, I came across the Telugu comedy Chakrapani. I’d never heard of this before, but comedy is a genre I am always eager to dive into (perhaps because Hindi cinema itself was so short of outright comedies?). And guess what? This was quite an entertainer.
The eponymous Chakrapani (Chilakalpud Seeta Rama Anjaneyulu) is a very wealthy man, who is also very miserly. He had one son, who has been dead several years; his widow and offspring—three daughters and a son—live with Chakrapani. Chakrapani treats them the way he treats everybody who comes to his home asking for money: telling them to get lost. When the film opens, for instance, some actors who’ve been in a performance that Chakrapani attended come to him asking for baksheesh because it’s festival time (Diwali? I’m not sure). Chakrapani admits that he liked their performance, but why should he pay them?
When two of Chakrapani’s granddaughters—the feisty Malathi (Bhanumathi Ramakrishna) and her younger sister Revathi (?)—plead with Chakrapani to buy them new clothes for the festival, he is equally dismissive. They don’t need new clothes; the ones they have are perfectly fine.
Malathi and Revathi’s mother, a sad and timid woman who keeps wishing that she had died instead of her husband, is busy mending old clothes, much to Malathi’s annoyance. She pleads with Malathi: don’t get Grandpa riled up, listen to what he says.
Malathi, however, won’t take this unreasonable stinginess lying down. When a passing sari-seller displays his wares to Malathi and Revathi, they quickly choose saris for themselves and their sister and mother. When the man asks for his money (Rs 50), Malathi summons Chakrapani’s munshi, Kottaiah (?), and directs the man to him. Kottaiah is as terrified of Chakrapani as Malathi’s mother is, and refuses to hand over any money without his boss’s say-so.
Chakrapani, of course, having come out to see what the hullabaloo is all about, refuses to pay. The man should take back the saris. The girls are better off without them.
At this, the sari vendor laughs and tells the girls to keep the saris. He’s not such a beggar that he’ll take back goods that have been so eagerly chosen. It’s not a gift, he tells the girls: it’s a loan. They can pay him back whenever they have the money.
Since this entire dialogue takes place in front of Chakrapani, it leaves him incensed, since it’s a blow to his pride. Malathi and Revathi are delighted to be able to keep the saris; the sari-seller seems more amused than anything else; and it’s Chakrapani who ends up looking a fool. In a fit of annoyance, he instructs Kottaiah to pay the man.
But things, on the whole, are bad for Chakrapani’s family. The old man has a safe filled to the brim with money, but he flatly refuses to share it. Malathi’s brother Jagannadham (?), who is a college student, has had to mend his sole shirt so many times that it’s embarrassing now. Worse still, the college exams are coming up, and if Jagannadham doesn’t pay up the fees—Rs 50—he won’t be allowed to sit for the exams.
Malathi, in whom he confides, is her usual resourceful self: late that evening, as the absent-minded Kottaiah sits hunched over his desk, doing his work, Malathi wraps herself in a large shawl (rather like Chakrapani wears). With a large stick in her hand—like her grandfather carries—she goes and stands just behind Kottaiah, and pretending to be Chakrapani, demands fifty rupees. Kottaiah, with barely a glance back, hands it over. [This I find hard to believe; Malathi’s voice is nothing like her grandfather’s].
So Jagannadham manages to pay his fees, and when Chakrapani flies into a rage over the missing fifty rupees and accuses Kottaiah of having embezzled it, Malathi intervenes. She says that she was the one who took it by subterfuge. Chakrapani can rave and rant, but the money’s already gone.
Matters, however, deteriorate. Jagannadham is frustrated at his grandfather’s stinginess. His own education is suffering, and his sisters—all three of them now of marriageable age—are mouldering away at home, with Chakrapani not paying a single thought to finding grooms for them. How long will they go on like this, having to depend on a man who, despite having the means, refuses to do anything for his very own family?
Jagannadham is so angry that, in a fit of rage, he packs up and leaves home. This causes his mother to collapse and fall ill. Her frantic daughters plead with Chakrapani to send for a doctor, but Chakrapani is certain that there’s nothing really wrong with his daughter-in-law. He sends Kottaiah to the bazaar to buy her some local medicine, but this proves useless: the woman dies shortly after, and suddenly, Malathi, Revathi and their elder sister Shantha are left all alone to the tender mercies of Chakrapani.
Chakrapani quickly sets about finding a husband for his eldest granddaughter, the quiet and docile Shantha. A priest-cum-matchmaker whom he knows assures Chakrapani of a very good match: a widower named Ananda Rao. The match is arranged, Ananda Rao comes calling, and Malathi indignantly tells Shantha that she should refuse the match: Ananda Rao is so much older than she is!
But Shantha is too timid to oppose Chakrapani. Chakrapani, too, all eager to rid himself of the rest of them, is even more thrilled when Ananda Rao suggests a bridegroom for Malathi as well. A very worthy young man, from a wealthy family. What more could he want, asks Chakrapani. Two girls married at the same time! Half the expenses! Brilliant.
The prospective groom comes to Chakrapani’s home with his father, and it is then that Malathi realizes the truth: this man is mute. Being Malathi and not ready to accept any nonsense, she flares up and throws a fit: she will not marry this man, no matter what. She even tries to push him out of the house, never mind that Chakrapani is getting livid and dancing about in rage.
Shantha manages to hurry Malathi away, and gives her a pep talk: there’s nothing they can do. Staying here in Chakrapani’s house, facing utter neglect—Malathi knows what it’s like. They don’t have even have adequate clothes to wear, their mother has died because of Chakrapani’s neglect, and who knows if Chakrapani will even try to search for another husband for Malathi if she refuses this one?
Reluctantly, Malathi agrees—but, on the day of the combined weddings of the two sisters, Malathi succeeds in giving everybody the slip and runs away. Shantha is duly married off to Ananda Rao, while Malathi, still clad in all her bridal finery, boards a train. Here, she ends up sitting next to a veterinarian and his wife; the wife starts chatting with Malathi, and feeling sorry for the girl, insists that her husband buy Malathi a ticket (she’s travelling without a ticket)—to their destination. Malathi will come and stay with them.
When Malathi arrives at the home of her new friends, it’s to find herself being stared at, goggle-eyed, by her hostess’s brother, Venkatachalam ‘Chalam’ (Akkineni Nageswara Rao, ‘ANR’). Even before Malathi has had a chance to be given a cup of coffee and be shown to what will now be her room, Chalam has fallen head over heels in love with her.
Within a few days, he’s been able to convince his sister to broach the topic of a match, and Malathi—who is not averse to it—shyly agrees. They get married, and shortly after, Malathi’s new sister-in-law and her husband are obliged to leave home and go far away: the husband has been transferred to another place. Malathi and Chalam now have this great big mansion all to themselves, and suddenly no means of keeping afloat (Chalam being unemployed).
Egged on by Malathi to work, Chalam becomes an insurance agent (and a none too successful one at that) and Malathi decides to let out part of their house to a tenant: a school teacher named Manorama, who pretty much rivals Malathi in resourcefulness.
Meanwhile, back home, two important developments have taken place. Firstly, Chakrapani has, belatedly, realized that his wealth, all one lakh rupees of it, is just sitting there in his safe. He laments the fact that Jagannadham has left home and gone away who knows where, but decides that all is not lost. He will bestow all his wealth on his first grandson.
… which is cause for much excitement in the home of Ananda Rao, because Shantha is pregnant. Ananda Rao spends most of his time prostrating himself before the idol of Hanuman at home, shouting “Jai Bajranga! Jai Bajranga!” and praying for a baby boy.
Does Shantha give birth to a son who inherits all of Chakrapani’s money? Or will Malathi, aided and abetted by Manorama (and kept informed of the situation back home by her younger sister Revathi) be able to get a foot in the door—never mind if she isn’t even pregnant? There is also the fact, though the rest of the family doesn’t know it yet, that Revathi has, in the meantime, gone and fallen in love with a homeopath who is summoned to attend to her when she faints while at Shantha’s house.
Much plotting and scheming ensues, and—as we all know, about what happens when we learn to deceive—one lie leads to another, until Malathi is going bananas trying to juggle everything in the mess she’s got herself into.
What I liked about this film:
Bhanumathi and ANR, both of whom have great comic timing and who play characters too that are funny. Malathi, especially, is a spunky character, and one with few compunctions about her means of getting what she wants—whether it’s a new sari or revenge on the grandfather whose neglect has been so much a part of life for her. She’s feisty, resourceful, quick-thinking, and yet not the irritating tomboy too many such filmi heroines tended to be, at least in Hindi cinema (I will admit I haven’t seen enough non-Hindi Indian cinema).
I also especially like the last 45 minutes or so of the film, where the plot begins to get good and complex, à la PG Wodehouse. One imposture leads to another, until the air is thick with intrigue (and, worse, the people playing puppets to Malathi-and-Manorama’s puppeteering refuse to co-operate). The shenanigans are a lot of fun, the coincidences, the subterfuge, and the hurried improvisations really funny at times.
What I didn’t like:
The unevenness in the pace of the film. The last 45 minutes, as I mentioned above, are delightfully fast-paced, with everything suddenly happening at breakneck speed. In contrast, the first hour and a half of the film is slow. The plot takes its own sweet time getting built up, and there are digressions—a precocious maid, for instance, in Chakrapani’s house—that don’t add to the story. A little stricter editing in the first three-quarters of the film, and I’d have liked it much better.
Chakrapani is available, with English subtitles, on Youtube, here.