Suvarna Sundari (1958)

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.

Now what?

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.

Note:

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.

Spoilers ahead:

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).

Spoilers end.

28 thoughts on “Suvarna Sundari (1958)

  1. Nice Post, Madhulikaji! The song Kuhu Kuhu Bole Koyaliya is a raagmalika (literally meaning a garland of ragas) where each stanza is set to a different raga. But the different ragas – Sohini, Bahaar, Jaunpuri and the ubiquitous Yaman – blend beautifully. It’s one of the most difficult songs to sing as well!

    • Thank you, glad you liked the post. Yes, I did read – mentioned in a comment on Youtube – that each stanza is based on a different raag, But I agree, it’s blended really beautifully. Amazing song.

  2. This was a huge hit in Telugu (my mother tongue) but have not watched it as many times as I should unlike Mayabazaar. Time to show it to my kids.
    Thank for your refreshing the memories.

  3. I have always loved the song, Kuhu kuhu bole … and now I find that you thought the movie was entertaining too! Then it definitely deserves a watch. I decided to start with the Tamil version, though, and then I can watch the Hindi version with Nageswara Rao. The Tamil version has Gemini Ganesan in it. I have watched about 30 minutes so far, and yes, it is entertaining, with all those lavish sets for the dancers from Indraloka. Thanks for the review.

    • Glad you liked the review, Lalitha, and glad that it inspired you to watch the Tamil version! If you can, please do come back here and tell me how it ends. I was left intrigued by that.

  4. I remember watching this in Tamil and loving the creepy man in the cave and the giant with the nose. I also remember watching the other Gemini Ganesan/ Anjali Devi mythology/fantasy movies after this but with diminishing returns. The focus on the ‘trials and tribulations’ (Anjali Devi could weep!!) rather than the special effects should have given me a clue that the core audience was not a 10 yr old boy, but the moms and aunties.
    The music was definitely out of the world. We had Kuhu Kuhu in 78 RPM vinyl where you had to flip the side for the last 2 stanzas. This LP played in a loop for hours at home. I wish Adi Narayan Rao had scored more movies – his music for ‘Adutha veetu Penn’ was amazing – this was the precursor Tamil version of Padosan.

    • I totally agree about Anjali Devi “being able to weep”! I watched Devta, which starred her with Gemini Ganesan, and she had so much weeping to do in that! Uff, it was painful. :-(

      I must go check out the songs of Adutha veetu Penn. Thank you for telling me about that!

      • Yes! Devta was exactly what I had in mind when I wrote that comment – or actually the Tamil version ‘Kanavane Kankanda deivam’.
        Also weird how the Hindi versions of the Gemini/Anjali Devi fantasy weepies got crisp names like Devta, Suvarna Sundari, while the Tamil versions would have been the movie poster makers nightmare ‘Manalane Mangayin Bagiyam’, ‘Kanavane kankanda Deivam’, ‘Mangayar ullam mangatha selvam, ‘She sells seashells’ …

        • “Tamil versions would have been the movie poster makers nightmare ‘Manalane Mangayin Bagiyam’, ‘Kanavane kankanda Deivam’, ‘Mangayar ullam mangatha selvam, ‘She sells seashells’ …

          Hehe! :-D

  5. I watched this first in Tamil, and then in Hindi. But of course, it’s been years. The theatrical release (Tamil) was nearly three and a half hours long. I remember that because the theatre showing the re-run had this for the morning show, and did away with their usual ‘noon show’ so they wouldn’t eat into the time of the latest Hindi film which was being shown as the regular matinee, first and second shows. So if you watched only two and a half hours, there’s a whole hour missing somewhere. A pox on the video companies!

    I do remember the film as being frightfully entertaining and perhaps watching it, it didn’t seem as complicated as your review made me feel. (That could also be, of course, due to my addled brains – and nothing at all to do with your very fine review of it.)

    The songs were good in all three languages. I’m not very sure that the Lata story is not apocryphal. Given that she signed on to record the songs, I’m not quite sure when she expected a remake to be made. Both ANR and Anjali Devi were very busy artistes. I have a dirty feeling that this lie has been told so many times that it’s become the truth. I wonder if someone older can throw some light on this issue.

    • Hmm. Yes, you have a point about the Lata anecdote. Very possibly something that has just gone down in film lore, and nobody to refute it (or support its veracity). Couldn’t it be, though, that Lata was just expected to sing the Hindi songs and those would be used instead of the original Telugu songs (if the Telugu film was intended to be dubbed in Hindi)? There was no need then to do a remake. Everybody would accept that ANR, Anjali Devi etc were lip-syncing to one song, but what could be heard was the same tune but a different language…

      It is a complicated film, but the fact is that it’s complicated in a good way – lots happening, and fitting together well. Other than the (admittedly brief) comic interludes, there’s nothing that comes in the way of the main plot, which in itself is fast-paced. So it’s both complex as well as entertaining.

      • Couldn’t it be, though, that Lata was just expected to sing the Hindi songs and those would be used instead of the original Telugu songs (if the Telugu film was intended to be dubbed in Hindi)?

        That’s what I was getting at. Lata was singing the songs – whether the film was dubbed or remade, she was just singing a Hindi song. The tunes (again re-dubbed or remade) were the same across all the languages. So what difference would it have made to her?

        (The reason I’m saying this is, even if she says she asked, I can’t be sure any more. Dilip Kumar, in one of his later interviews, admitted to making up stories about his films and what happened on film sets, because he got tired of journalists asking him to reveal some anecdote about his films. He said, “They didn’t want to hear that nothing happened. So I told them what they wanted to hear.” (If I can find that link, I will send it to you.)

    • I know, that was the one whose end I watched in an attempt to figure out what happened finally. Given what I saw, I think the Telugu version is more long-winded than the Hindi one. The scenes were more stretched out. Also, when I saw the Hindi version, it seemed otherwise complete – no jarring edits that made me wonder “What happened?” (if you’re lopping off a complete hour, it definitely shows). So I have a feeling that the video producers just chopped off the last ten minutes or so, but otherwise didn’t fiddle with the story.

      • The Tamil version available is equally long. I think I shall settle down and watch that soon, and then watch the Hindi version just to see what changes they made. I wonder about YouTube algorithms – I found only one copy of the Hindi version despite searching with various key words.

        Seconding the love for the songs of Adutha Veetu Penn. The movie was , well, not bad. :)

        • Adutha Veetu penn was ‘not bad’ indeed. But I would rather watch it than Padosan notwithstanding my love for Kishore Kumars comedy and RD Burman’s music. As a Tamilian, Mehmood’s ‘ye kya kartha ji’ shtick simply drove me up the wall.

          • I found Mehmood’s act in Padosan very racist, if you ask me. So reeking of every single stereotype perpetrated by North Indians about ‘Madrasis’ as so many seem to label anybody from south of the Vindhyas. :-( The film had some good songs, and Kishore Kumar was very funny in places, but the Mehmood role was ugh.

  6. I hardly come here but had to tell you, this is one of my favourite fantasy films from the south. There is Devata featuring g-Gemini Ganeshan, Vyjantimala,and Anjali. Of course when I saw these films I was in college or just out of college on Doordarshan – the only channel that existed then. Now I am a senior citizen, I wonder how will find the films now.

    • It’s good to ‘see’ you again, Shilpi! I liked this one a lot, too – though when it comes to fantasy films from the South, my favourite so far is the absolutely delightful Maya Bazaar. I loved that one!

  7. This old world charm is hard to resist (except when the WTF element crosses all the sane limits). I would love to watch this movie. I remember watching Devta (1956) some 36-37 years back on Doordarshan in which Anjali Devi was the main female lead and Vyjayantimala was the vamp. It was also a fantasy but definitely a decent entertainer.

    • Do please watch this film if you can. I personally found it much better than Devta, mostly because it’s less melodramatic (as another reader and I agreed, Anjali Devi cries too much in Devta!). Suvarna Sundari I found to be overall more entertaining.

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