If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I cannot resist good music; so much so that there are plenty of films I’ve watched just because they happened to have one song which I like a lot. Many of these films have turned out to be complete duds, not at all worthy of the wonderful song which drew me to it—but I do not, in this case, subscribe to the ‘once burnt, twice shy’ philosophy. I go on doing it, often with painful results.
Suvarna Sundari, which I watched for Kuhu kuhu bole koyaliya, will however remain one of the exceptions. A stellar song, but also a very entertaining film.
The story begins in a gurukul, where Prince Jayant of Malwa (Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, ‘ANR’) is about to graduate and go back to Malwa to be declared crown prince. At the prospect of Jayant’s departure, his guru’s daughter (?) gets all het up and confesses her love for him. Jayant, being a good and upright man who knows his guru’s daughter is out of bounds for him, sternly refuses…
… at which the daughter flies into a rage and proves that she isn’t quite as upright and good as Jayant. She raises a hue and cry and accuses Jayant in front of her father (Niranjan Sharma) and the rest of the gurukul. The guru is furious, and immediately heads for the court to confront Jayant’s father (Bipin Gupta) and dare him to punish his own wayward son.
Fortunately for Jayant, he has a loyal friend who helps him escape before any action can be taken. A fugitive now, Jayant soon comes up against a trio of unscrupulous and somewhat comical ruffians: Khatpat (Radhakrishna), Chatpat (Agha) and Sarpat (Mukri). These three scoundrels have blocked the road and demand money from wayfarers. When Jayant tries to defy them, Khatpat offers a compromise: trek up to a mountain cave nearby and find out what’s causing all the din that emanates from there.
Jayant does so, and (at the risk of losing his life) saves a bearded, bedraggled character who has been trapped there for eons. In return, the (now all glittering and overdressed) character bestows on Jayant three gifts: a flying carpet; a kamandal which can give you anything to eat or drink, in as much quantity as you wish; and an arm rest which can beat up anybody (to whichever extent) all on its own. All three are now for Jayant to command, but he is given one note of caution: the kamandal and the arm rest depend upon each other. If one is destroyed, the other will automatically be destroyed too.
Jayant doesn’t get a chance to use these gifts; he’s barely emerged from the cave when the terrible trio, who’ve been eavesdropping all this while, assault him. They beat him up, bash his head in with rocks, kill him and run away with the gifts.
Fortunately for Jayant, though, they make the mistake of dragging him to a nearby pond and leaving him with his head in the water. Fortunate, because this is a very important and auspicious night: it is Kartik Purnima, and the night when amrit (nectar) flows down from heaven. Into the pond where Jayant’s head has been so helpfully tilted. The amrit brings him back from the dead, and Jayant revives to witness a grand spectacle: a group of apsaras descends from heaven and sings and dances before statues of Shiv and Parvati, the lead dancer (Anjali Devi) praying to the deities to give her a good husband.
Jayant and she fall in love, and the apsara explains that she is Suvarna Sundari, the main dancer at the celestial court of Indra. They are so enamoured of each other that they enter into a gandharva marriage there and then. Suvarna Sundari rues the fact that she must return to Indra’s court, but before she goes, she leaves behind a gift: a golden flute that Jayant need only start playing for Suvarna Sundari to come twirling back into his arms.
He does this, again and again, and Suvarna Sundari warns her husband that he mustn’t pull her out of her duties at court so abruptly. But Jayant isn’t listening, and he once again starts playing the flute—just as Suvarna Sundari is dancing in front of Indra (DK Sapru). The push-and-pull, between the celestial court and Jayant’s flute-playing, makes Suvarna Sundari swoon. It turns out she’s pregnant, and Indra blows his top when he discovers that this female has had the gall to fall in love with a human being!
Indra immediately exiles Suvarna Sundari, and—when she seems happy enough to go off to Earth to be with Jayant—adds two curses to make things even more difficult for Suvarna Sundari. First, Jayant will forget her completely. Second, if she should ever touch him, he will turn to stone at once.
With Suvarna Sundari’s happiness thus blighted, she is flung down to Earth, robbed of all her glittery garments and jewels, dressed in a drab sari, lying in a heap of dry leaves in which she gives birth to her baby.
But the trials and tribulations have just begun. Very soon, Suvarna Sundari (having first been chased by a leopard) starts feeling faint. Stumbling along, she manages to get to a riverbank. She places her baby on the bank and goes forward to drink water, but passes out and falls into the river (fortunately on her back, so she floats off, all unconscious). Her baby is found by a passing goatherd, who takes pity on this seemingly abandoned infant and picks him up.
Meanwhile, Suvarna Sundari is rescued from the river, and ends up being assaulted by the lecherous Khatpat, the same character who (unknown, of course, to Suvarna Sundari) had ‘killed’ Jayant and robbed him of his gifts. Khatpat has fallen out with his companions Chatpat and Sarpat, and they have all gone their individual ways, each carrying one of the three gifts.
Now Khatpat tries to get fresh with Suvarna Sundari, and who should turn up to rescue her from him but Jayant! Suvarna Sundari is apt to go and cling to him, but of course Indra’s curse is in place. Jayant doesn’t recognize her. But he is able to retrieve the arm-rest that Khatpat has stolen from him, and uses the arm-rest’s beat-up-anyone properties to give Khatpat a sound thrashing.
Jayant goes off by himself, and Suvarna Sundari is befriended by a toy-seller who had, along with a bunch of other women, been kept captive by the vile Khatpat (he doesn’t strike me as a potential keeper of sex slaves, but who knows). Unfortunately for Suvarna Sundari, on the one day she goes out to sell toys, she is spotted by Khatpat and again pursued by him.
The result of this is that, to escape the persistent Khatpat, Suvarna Sundari leaves town. Disguised as a man, because Khatpat is keeping an eye on her home and is bound to accost her.
Meanwhile, Jayant has gone his way and had a run-in with a cobra. When the cobra spreads its hood threateningly at Jayant, he whips out that magical arm-rest and gets it to give the cobra a sharp tap on the head, at which the cobra turns into a young woman. A very incensed young woman, who tells Jayant that she is a naag kanya, a ‘snake girl’, and that because he hit her, she’s cursing him to be a woman. And poof, just like that, Jayant turns into ‘Jayanti’ (Shyama, looking lovely).
Jayant is so distressed by this—he, a warrior, the very picture of masculine strength and bravery and derring-do, reduced to being a weak and helpless woman (Jayant’s sentiment, definitely not mine)! He pleads with the naag kanya to temper the curse somewhat, and the naag kanya relents. All right, Jayant will be a woman during the day and will revert to being a man at night. What’s more, if Jayant is touched by amrit, the curse will be completely lifted and he will go back to being himself, day and night.
So that’s the set-up. Our hero is now a woman half the time. Our heroine is disguised as a man. Their child, now about six years old or so (Daisy Irani), has been rendered somewhat rudderless because the goatherd who had looked after him these past few years has died.
Suvarna Sundari was made simultaneously in two languages: in Tamil (starring Anjali Devi and Gemini Ganesan) as Manaalane Mangaiyin Baakkiyam, and in Telugu (starring Anjali Devi and ANR) as Suvarna Sundari. The story goes that plans were afoot to have the film dubbed in Hindi as well and Lata Mangeshkar was called in to record Hindi songs. She watched the film, and is said to have liked it so much that she advised the producer (Adi Narayan Rao, who also composed the music for the film) and the director (V Raghavviah) to make the film in Hindi, not merely dub it. Thus, Suvarna Sundari was remade in Hindi, starring Anjali Devi and ANR in the lead roles, but with an otherwise Hindi-speaking cast familiar to viewers of Hindi cinema.
Suvarna Sundari proved to be a huge hit, grossing record box office returns and running for many weeks in all its three language avatars.
What I liked about this film:
The entertainment factor. It’s a highly watchable blend of fantasy, adventure, romance and songs, and all those curses, magical objects, amrit, celestial/magical beings, people in disguise, and so on make for a good, fast-paced yarn. Never a dull moment.
Kuhu kuhu bole koyaliya. There are plenty of other songs in Suvarna Sundari which are good too, but Kuhu kuhu bole koyaliya is in a class by itself. From the lyrics (Bharat Vyas) to the music (Adi Narayan Rao) to the rendition (Lata and Rafi): not one element falls short.
What I didn’t like:
The ‘comic’ element revolving round the characters of Khatpat, Chatpat and Sarpat. For the most part, these three are involved in a series of somewhat pointless meanderings (and one fairly irritating song, Ram naam japna paraaya maal apna) which detracts from the main story.
But, given that the main story does hold centre stage and this comic side plot is relatively restrained, it’s forgivable.
Suvarna Sundari is available on Youtube on several channels (Cinecurry Classics, SEPL Vintage, and Nupur Movies). Do note, though, that the last ten minutes or so seem to have been chopped off in all of these, leaving the length of the film at approximately 2 hours and 32 minutes.
In case you want to watch the film (and can’t be bothered with trying to piece together what happened in the missing chunk), I did some homework by watching the corresponding section of the Telugu film. Here’s what happened.
Once the kid appears and offers to help, he appeals to the statues of Shiv and Parvati, who of course are his foster parents. After a while (Jayant is turning to stone gradually, the stone ‘creeping’ upwards from his feet), Shiv and Parvati appear, and they tell Suvarna Sundari and Jayant who this child is, their very own son. And then, to help the distressed family further, they tell the kid that if he goes to heaven and fetches a celestial golden lotus, that can break Indra’s curse and make the stone Jayant go back to normal.
This is duly done, and though a furious Indra tries to stop the child, he is eventually defeated and has to submit before Shiv and Parvati. The reunited Jayant (no longer stone), along with Suvarna Sundari and their child, returns to the court at Malwa. Here, Suvarna Sundari’s former boss, the king, and his daughter the princess are there. Jayant introduces Suvarna Sundari and their child to his father, the king and the princess, and (or so it seems), the princess’s hand is given into Jayant’s.
(I am not completely sure about the significance of that last act: is the princess going to be Jayant’s second wife? Or is there some other meaning to this? If anybody knows the original Telugu film and could shed light on this, I would be grateful).