In 1979, January, history was made when ‘Sankarabharanam’ (Jewel of Sankara) released. Directed by the much respected and admired director of films like ‘Siri Siri Muvva’ and ‘Seetamahalakshmi’ who was, in later years, destined to roll out one award-winning classic after another, K Viswanath, the film went on to adorn the crown of Telugu cinema and became a blockbuster hit.
When ‘Sankarabharanam’ first released, it opened to lukewarm response. And to repeat Viswanath – Anyone who came out of the theatres had one common thing to say, “The film is good, but commercial success is doubtful.” And then the film rose like a phoenix – ran for 216 days at Royal theatre in Hyderabad, was a runaway success in Tamil Nadu (not the dubbed version mind you – but the original Telugu film) and also the film dubbed into Malayalam (surprisingly the songs were left untouched and the film released in Kerala with Telugu songs and received amazing response from Malabar) was a success. Surprisingly the film was released in Bombay and you had the Marwadis and Gujaratis watching it and enjoying the film, making it a hit there too.
Obviously neither the producers Purnodaya, then headed by the Edida Nageswara Rao, nor the director felt the need for dubbing the film, for the way it was being lapped up albeit in Telugu, by audience all over India. Not until 2014, when a fan (or would rather call him a devotee) Rathnam from Chennai, along with his partners decided that it was a matter of serious breach that such a great movie, adored my millions of Tamilians all over, was not dubbed into Tamil. He spent Rs 50-60 lakh to not just dub the film into Tamil (songs included), but also digitally restore and colour correct the film. And the result is an experience that goes beyond expression, especially when you watch it on the big screen. One was witness to the euphoria when director K Viswanath with the help of his well-wishers Hariharna and Ramana (music lovers and self-confessed devotees of the film) screened the Tamil dubbing at Prasadz Multiplex for the benefit of Hyderabadi Tamil audience. The audience were spell bound. Old and young together revisited the magic and were ecstatic to watch the enhanced version. Viswanath in an interview following the screening remembered fondly the many memories and anecdotes attached to the movie that enjoys a special place in his heart. He relates the words famous yesteryear actress Bhanumathi said after watching the film. “She is a difficult person to please. After watching the film she said that she watched the film in ‘Tulyaavastha’ and went on to explain that it is a state where one gets immersed in what he is doing oblivious to the surroundings and she was in such a trance while watching the film.” Tamil legend and former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran had said that he would prostrate in front of only two people – one is his mother and the other is the maker of Sankarabharanam movie.
There had been many awards, national and international recognition to ‘Sankarabharanam’s credit, but it is the praises and admiration that have remained memorable to the director. He says, “There was a person who watched the film 95 times and had sent the counterfoils of the tickets to prove his love for the film, there was an incident that happened when Hindi actors Asrani and Shakti Kapoor were coming to Chennai for the film’s success meet, in a train. There was a third man in the compartment, a businessman who had no clue that here were two popular Hindi film personalities. Finally when they enquired if the man never watched films – he had said that he only watched one film – Sankarabharanam in his life. Asrani, himself, related this incident on stage. Gujaratis from Mumbai made the film successful in Minerva, an otherwise Hindi dominion. Till day, not just me, but anyone else associated with the film is treated with respect and the eyes open up in admiration at the mention of the film. It is divine blessing to have been able to make such a film. There are thousands of anecdotes related to the movie that in itself can be a thesis material. And even today I am filled with contentment when someone comes up to me and talks in praise of the film,” admits the legendary director.
The powerful film has had strong impact on the audience even as the music schools in Chennai were filled up with students wishing to learn music. A successful business man Pranlal Bhogilal, Managing Chairman for Lakshmi Starch Limited from Mumbai went to watch the film, leaving his work behind, refused help in translation and after watching it in rapt attention was enthralled – I understand it amazingly well, he had said.
It is indeed divine intervention for the way things worked out for the film. Viswanath toyed with the idea for a long time after which he made ‘Siri Siri Muvva’ and the landmark film finally took shape on a ghat road. He was sure of his cast and did not want known faces. JV Somayajulu was a reference – he was given a haircut and was subjected to a screen test to play Sankara Sastri and the rest is history. JV Somayajulu even has a mention in the list of 25 best performances in Indian cinema compiled by Forbes on the occasion of 100 years of Indian Cinema. And the same was the case with dancer Manju Bhargavi chosen for the role of Tulasi, who was until then doing minuscule roles, Rajya Laksmi who plays his daughter and child actor Tulasi who plays the boy and student to Sankara Sastri.
There is a reason why one never tires of watching the film. K Viswanath agrees – the film reveals itself in a new light each time you watch it. And each aspect was planned to the T. Nothing was accidental.”
The film was shot in carefully chosen locations in Annavaram (temple, lake, the shoot for the song, ‘Saamaja Varagamana’ and the river scenes at Godavari near Kovvuru, Rajahmundry. And Balu Mahendra’s camera captured the locales beautifully well. In fact Balu Mahendra worked for lesser than half the film, when he got the opportunity to direct a film. He went upto the director and said to him that he is ready to forgo the chance since he had to complete the film. However Viswanath who believed that the opportunity comes knocking but once, allowed him to go and finished the rest of the film with the help of his assistant.
The scenes where Sankara Satri’s daughter is neck deep in water as she learns the Saptaswaras (just like how in olden days music students rehearsed and if there was no water body, they would actually hold tight a water pot early morning to get the notes right), the scene where the zamindar forces Tulasi picturised poignantly with music creating the intense drama (The director actually listened to the background score many times to line up the scenes accordingly and the result is for all to see), the small bit when Sankara Sastri listens intently to his daughter singing and nods his approval at a difficult note before exploding in anger when she falters, the way hero’s grandmother adjusts her pallu at the mention of her husband, the costumes, the outstanding music by KV Mahadevan, powerful lyrics by Veturi Sundararamamurthy, dialogues by yet another gem of Telugu films Jandhyala and songs rendered by the timeless voice of SP Balasubramaniam ably supported by the flawless rendition by Vani Jayaram and S Janaki – each and every aspect and attention to detail is what makes the film a delight to watch.