From Mayabazar to Kalki 2898 AD: The everlasting appeal of mythology in Telugu cinema

Filmmakers persist in leveraging India's abundant mythological heritage to craft a wide range of films that resonate deeply with audiences spanning various generations.

BySujatha Narayanan

Published Jul 08, 2024 | 1:42 PM Updated Jul 09, 2024 | 12:30 AM

A collage of stills from 'Mayabazar', 'Bhookailas', 'Kalki 2898 AD', the 'Baahubali' franchise, 'Karnan' and 'Kantara'. (X)

When we think of mythology, the grand, epic tales from Tamil and Telugu cinema often come to mind. By the mid-70s, Tamil cinema began to shift away from this genre, while Telugu cinema continued to dominate with lavish super-hits, spanning from black and white, to colour eras. Telugu cinema’s love for epic storytelling is clear even in their masala superhero films. It’s no surprise that Nag Ashwin’s Kalki 2898 AD is another blockbuster.

The greatest strength of Telugu filmmakers and producers is their ability to effectively draw from the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Let’s not forget that Telugu cinema immortalised Lord Rama and Krishna, on screen, through the late NT Rama Rao (NTR). From then until now, the Telugu film industry has spared no expense on grand sets, star-studded casts, and VFX in these narratives.

NTR’s political success largely stemmed from his renowned mythological roles, with fans even lining up outside his house in Chennai after visiting Tirupati. However, my favourite performance of his is as Ravana in Bhookailas (1958).

Telugu is a highly lyrical and versatile language, making it particularly effective for classical-era storytelling. It often excels over Hindi or Tamil, even with modern actors reenacting the lines.

A-collage-of-stills-from-Kalki-2898-AD

A collage of stills from ‘Kalki 2898 AD’.

For instance, consider this dialogue from Kalki 2898 AD set in Kurukshetra, where Karna, after rescuing him from Arjuna, asks Ashwatthama, “Aalasyam-ayyinda Acharya putra?” (Did it get late, Oh, teacher’s son?) The seamless flow of words in perfect rhythm transports us to the battlefield, despite knowing that the actors are Prabhas and Vijay Deverakonda, with a motion-captured version of Amitabh Bachchan.

Interestingly, Nag Ashwin cleverly includes a sequence set in 2898 AD, 6000 years later, where a child tells Ashwatthama (a stellar Amitabh Bachchan) that the Telugu he speaks is hard to understand, possibly due to a generation gap. It demonstrates the makers’ efforts to bridge the gap between contemporary spoken Telugu and classical Telugu, which benefits the film greatly.

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Hindu mythology in cinema

Apart from the main stories from the epics, even the ‘side stories’ have already been made into super-hit films in Telugu.

Let’s explore the beloved Mayabazar (1957), which tells the tale of the marriage between second-generation characters from the Mahabharata—specifically, Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu and Balarama’s daughter Sasirekha.

Savitri in 'Mayabazar'. (X)

Savitri in ‘Mayabazar’. (X)

Sasirekha plays a lesser role in the core plot compared to characters like Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, or Draupadi, their wife, who significantly influences the course of events. Only the banner of Vijaya Vauhini, led by producers AV Chakrapani and Nagi Reddy, envisioned transforming this relatively minor tale into a grand, lavishly produced, and beautifully executed film.

India’s first motion picture, Raja Harishchandra (1913) by Dadasaheb Phalke, was also inspired by a ‘side story’ narrated to Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata.

Why do filmmakers lean towards retelling epics on the silver screen? Is it because these stories are familiar to the audience, or is it more about how effectively one can portray the epic? Or does it truly relate to our connection with our ancestors and our roots?

Nagi Reddy’s Vijaya Vauhini Studios played a crucial role in pioneering pan-Indian productions by making films in Telugu and Tamil, which were then either dubbed into Kannada or remade in Hindi. For instance, Missiamma (1955) featured Gemini Ganesan and NTR in Tamil and Telugu respectively, with Savitri in the title role in both versions, while Miss Mary (1957) was remade in Hindi with Gemini Ganesan and Meena Kumari.

Mayabazar featured a diverse cast with Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Gemini Ganesan playing Abhimanyu in Telugu and Tamil respectively. Comedians KA Thangavelu and Relangi Venkatramaiah portrayed Lakhnakumaran in both languages. Notably, Savitri, SV Ranga Rao, and NT Rama Rao delivered stellar performances as Sasirekha, Ghatotkacha, and Lord Krishna, respectively, in both versions.

Nearly a decade later, NTR returned to play Lord Krishna in a Tamil film titled Karnan (1964), starring the legendary Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role, directed by BR Panthulu.

A still from 'Karnan'. (X)

A still from ‘Karnan’. (X)

If Mayabazar were made today, it would likely be split into two parts, similar to how SS Rajamouli established the trend with his fictional epic, Baahubali.

Folklore and action

Stories from epics have always been widely cherished in India, partly due to children’s magazines like Amar Chitra Katha (now owned by Rana Daggubati, who coincidentally is also a Telugu actor-producer) and Chandamama (where the original owners were Nagi Reddy and AV Chakrapani). These comics featured standalone tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other ancient ballads and texts, beautifully illustrated.

The iconic image of King Vikram carrying the old ghost (Betal) on his shoulder remains nostalgic. The classic Chandamama story was transformed into a Doordarshan serial in the 1980s, and Telugu director Vittalacharya achieved success with these characters in his films, which enjoyed popularity in both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Strangely though, the first movie to encapsulate an entire epic within a single film belongs to Tamil cinema.

Written by AP Nagarajan and directed by K Somu, Sampoorna Ramayanam (1958) was produced by MA Venu. The film featured NT Rama Rao and Padmini in the roles of Rama and Sita respectively, and marked Sivaji Ganesan’s first appearance in a mythological role as Bharathan. It garnered praise, particularly for the poignant sequence depicting the encounter between Rama and Bharathan, in the forest.

At that time, the film reportedly had two intervals for the audience to refresh themselves and return. In today’s era, it might also have been made as a film with a sequel.

With Kalki 2898 AD, Nag Ashwin has raised the standards of filmmaking in the mythology genre to new heights. He has created a vibrant, video-game-like world that resonates with today’s teenagers.

Kalki 2898 AD truly stands as the epic film of our era. From the opening shot, we are immersed in the Triumvirate world of Shambala (the good), Kasi (the bad), and Complex (the ugly yet utopian).

Across various film industries, mythologies often adhere to similar themes, prominently featuring the battle of good versus evil and the anticipation of a saviour to rescue humanity from destruction.

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'Ammoru' poster. (Facebook)

‘Ammoru’ poster. (Facebook)

Even before Nag Ashwin’s Kalki 2898 AD or Rajamouli’s Baahubali, there was Kodi Ramakrishna’s Ammoru in 1995. The late Soundarya portrayed a devotee of Devi, who is rescued from dire evil forces, by the Goddess herself, played by Ramya Krishnan. The actor’s classical dance skills and acting prowess were crucial for the role, despite being cast against her usually glamorous image during her peak in Telugu cinema.

In the 1980s, Tamil films featured KR Vijaya portraying various forms of Devi in multiple movies. This trend was later popularised by the late Rama Narayanan in the 1990s, who pioneered a new genre combining devotion with comedy and horror, which remains popular today.

Kodi Ramakrishna also directed Anji (2004) starring Chiranjeevi, who didn’t find much success in roles as gods or fantasy characters like his predecessor NTR. However, Anji is notable for its spectacular climax featuring a VFX-created Lord Shiva, making it a must-watch sequence.

In Tamil cinema, AP Nagarajan’s Thiruvilaiyadal (1965), featuring the magnificent Sivaji Ganesan as Lord Shiva, was successful partly due to its anthology format.

Ode to timeless stories

'Thiruvilayadal' poster. (Facebook)

‘Thiruvilayadal’ poster. (Facebook)

This format allowed for various episodes depicting Lord Shiva, ensuring a diverse array of stars could play significant roles (Nagesh’s role as Dharumi being particularly memorable). Audiences flocked to theatres in large numbers, drawn by AP Nagarajan’s films that featured Sivaji Ganesan in numerous mythological roles, ensuring the genre thrived in Tamil cinema during their time.

Sivaji Ganesan’s portrayal in the title role of Thiruvarutchelvar (1967) remains a timeless favourite from this era. However, AP Nagarajan’s films typically lacked the use of VFX during that time. Yet, Nag Ashwin’s Kalki 2898 AD showcases the current high standards of VFX and Artificial Intelligence technology.

However, Nag Ashwin also finds inspiration in Mayabazar, where the talented cinematographer Marcus Bartley ingeniously created a moon within an indoor set using a large black cloth for the sky, notably in the song, “Unakaagave Naan.”

Interestingly, there was a 1936 Telugu version of Mayabazar produced by Vels Pictures, alternatively titled Sasirekha Parinayam, which also enjoyed success in the late 1930s.

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A modern twist to epic sagas 

It’s wise to take a familiar story and infuse it with modern magic. In Kalki 2898 AD, Nag Ashwin incorporates characters from the Mahabharata such as Ashwathama, Karna, Arjuna, and Krishna, alongside futuristic characters, who mirror traits of their mythological counterparts. Speculation on social media suggests Dulquer Salmaan’s character could be Parashuram, Pasupathy’s role akin to Bheeshma, and Shobana possibly portraying Kunti.

Kalki 2898 AD part 2 is anticipated to feature an intense showdown between Supreme Yaskin (played by Kamal Haasan in a role reminiscent of Kamsan and deadlier than his part in the first film); Ashwatthama (portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan delivering his strongest performance), and Karna (with Prabhas in a powerful portrayal, embodying a modern-day hero as Bhairava). Adding Deepika (potentially as Draupadi or Yashoda) promises to make it a blockbuster.

A mix of fantasy and history

Mammootty in 'Bramayugam'. (X)

Mammootty in ‘Bramayugam’. (X)

Kannada introduced Kantara (2022), reviving forgotten folklore, while Malayalam explored the spirit-narrative genre with Bramayugam (2024) recently. Movies depicting folk tales or stories from the two major epics consistently achieve high box office success, regardless of star presence.

For example, Telugu films like Hanu-Man (2024) didn’t feature top Telugu stars, yet they attracted families to theatres and are now set for sequels. While stars can enhance a film’s appeal, their presence doesn’t always guarantee box office success in average mythological films, as seen with Adipurush (2023).

India has a rich tradition of storytelling. Since ancient times, one can envision ancestors gathering around campfires under the stars, sharing tales from epics, adding their twists, or recounting original traveler’s tales. To enrich this narrative, India boasts numerous monuments, artifacts, and temple architectures that vividly depict the lives of our ancestors and the eras they inhabited.

The success of royal sagas like Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan franchise (2022, 2023) illustrates our lasting fascination with delving into fictional palace corridors and historical battlefields.

Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan 2

A poster of Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’. (Instagram)

Folklore tales are also gaining traction, as seen with the upcoming film, Kannappa, starring Vishnu Manchu and several superstars. The good news is that this genre is more accessible today than ever before—thanks to advancements in special effects. Yet, it is the emotional resonance and compelling storytelling that will consistently attract viewers of all ages—children, teenagers, and adults alike—to revisit even an epic film.

Kalki 2898 AD, a film for all

One aspect of Kalki 2898 AD that I deeply admire is how Nag Ashwin avoided bloodshed and gore (suitable for a U-certificate film) while still delivering thrilling, applause-worthy action sequences.

Similarly, Nag Ashwin has artistically portrayed the interval sequence where Deepika walks through fire, symbolising her carrying the divine in her womb. His adept exploration of themes such as equality, paired with his artistic flair and vivid visual storytelling, alongside strong writing, has propelled Kalki 2898 AD to become the quickest multi-crore blockbuster in Telugu cinema history.

Certainly, the stellar cast has significantly contributed to the box-office success of Kalki 2898 AD. They are the reason we bought our tickets to see the film first. But once inside the theatre and the lights dim, it’s the filmmaker who transports us into his/her world and keeps us captivated. And when this world is an epic that offers us a ray of hope, we gladly immerse ourselves in it.

(Edited by S Subhakeerthana)

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