Celebrating KV Reddy, the renaissance man of Telugu cinema

As we mark the legendary filmmaker's 112th birth anniversary, let's understand his oeuvre through his seminal hit 'Pathala Bhairavi'.

BySwaroop Kodur

Published Jul 01, 2024 | 12:32 PM Updated Jul 01, 2024 | 3:50 PM

Remembering KV Reddy on his 112th birth anniversary

Not many filmmakers in Indian history can boast about making their debut feature during a World War, scoring a consummate hit nevertheless and going on to etch a most enviable career of all time. While at it, they also managed to create one of the country’s biggest matinée idols in the form of a certain Mr. Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR), with a film that is still recalled as the founding stone of mainstream Telugu cinema—the 1951 classic Pathala Bhairavi.

Kadiri Venkata Reddy, popularly known as KV Reddy, the director behind that film and many other gems is often hailed as a pioneer by pundits, cineastes, and fellow filmmakers alike on several fronts, and one of them is lending Telugu cinema its present-day identity and character. But the fact that he pulled off not one but many visual spectacles nearly seven decades ago remains an incredible achievement to date.

Stalwarts like Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, SS Rajamouli, and Kalki 2898 AD‘s Nag Ashwin, among countless others, credit him as a bona fide “renaissance man” whose craft was well ahead of his time and whose creative vision has gloriously withstood the test of time.

From helping underdogs beat the odds against a mighty villain to employing spellbinding visual effects, from narrating folk and mythology stories with great gravitas to using music, poetry, and the spoken word to a mesmeric effect, and from raising the bar for scale and stature in cinema to delivering mas hits (even before they were in vogue) consistently, almost everything we associate with the Telugu film industry today is potentially the result of KV Reddy paving the way many decades ago.

And he did so when the industry was still very much developing and quite unsure of its way ahead.

In this vein, a film like Pathala Bhairavi becomes the perfect case-in-point to understand and reflect upon just how distinctive KV Reddy was as a filmmaker.

A breakthrough success, the 1951 film is a daring dream realised through courage, sincerity, and the sheer will to go against the grain and fittingly, its ethos, techniques, and just about everything still echo loudly in Telugu cinema.

KV Reddy would, of course, famously go on to peak further with marquee films like Mayabazar (1957), Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961), and Sri Krishnarjuna Yuddamu (1963), but it won’t be incorrect to say that Pathala Bhairavi truly marks the beginning of something special. And what better occasion than his 112th birth anniversary to revisit this rollickingly fun film?

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A flair for something different

Renowned Telugu filmmaker the late KV Reddy

Renowned Telugu filmmaker the late KV Reddy. (Supplied)

But before we get there, it is fascinating to note that KV Reddy was a man of a very clear method right from the very beginning. Despite no prior knowledge in filmmaking (having served only as a cashier and a production manager until his debut), he made in-roads with films like Bhakta Pothana (1943), Yogi Vemana (1947), and Gunasundari Katha (1949), and proved that he had something new up his sleeve every time he showed up to direct.

If he could deliver a big hit with a biographical drama of a 15th-century poet/saint in Bhakta Potana (his debut in 1943), he could also attempt an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” for his third feature, Gunasundari Katha and still manage to enthral the masses.

Understanding the pulse of the audience, as it were, is often highlighted as a key trait of a modern-day filmmaker but KV Reddy possessed the quality well before any of it was part of the zeitgeist. Also, it helped that his shrewdness and quest for perfection impressed the producers to continue entrusting him with new projects.

Popular lore says that he was so measured and foresighted about shooting his debut that he would time each scene before the shoot to near perfection, ensuring that the makers didn’t have to expose more film stock than what was necessary.

NT Rama Rao and SV Ranga Rao in a still from Pathala Bhairavi

NT Rama Rao and SV Ranga Rao in a still from ‘Pathala Bhairavi’. (Supplied)

Singeetam Srinivas Rao, who would serve as his associate in the following decade, relays in a video that the same practice was retained by KV Reddy on almost all his projects and that it was, in fact, polished even further.

“My job as his chief associate (during the 1954 Telugu film Pellinati Pramanalu) was to be in charge of the script, produce its fair copy, type out all the shots, and also time each of them with a stop-watch. That’s how we estimated the total amount of footage required,” recalls Singeetam in one of his YouTube musings.

So, the penchant to try something new couldn’t be broken, and serendipity, as it often does, knocked on KV Reddy’s door with this rather enterprising project titled Pathala Bhairavi.

In the background, the once fledgling Vauhini Studios (run by legendary filmmaker BN Reddy and KV’s childhood buddy Moola Narayana Swamy) would merge with Vijaya Productions to give rise to Vijaya-Vauhini Studios. Their first venture, Shavukaru (the 1950 film directed by LV Prasad), would be a critical success but a commercial disappointment meaning that they now sought the services of KV Reddy.

And together, they forayed headlong into the folklore genre which, although pretty popular at the time, was waiting to be reinvented and seen with a fresh set of eyes. Eventually, what they produce is a trendsetter for the ages.

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Setting new standards with Pathala Bhairavi

NTR played Thota Ramudu in Pathala Bhairavi

NTR played Thota Ramudu in ‘Pathala Bhairavi’. (Supplied)

What does it mean to set new trends though? Is it to scale up the production and the overall grandeur of things? Is it to test a new style of filmmaking and introduce something fresh to audiences? Or is it also to imbue something well-known and well-loved with an idiosyncratic gaze and sensibility?

The answer is certainly a combination of all these, and a few more, factors but it must be reemphasised that KV Reddy truly knew what the audience “would” (not will) like to watch when they visited cinema halls.

His job potentially began at the blank paper as a screenwriter but he often referred to popular stories from the West (an avid reader) and used certain themes and ideas to weave extremely local and intimate stories through them.

Pathala Bhairavi, for instance, not only reinterpreted the folklore films of the 1930s and 40s but also lent the swashbuckler movie a whole new mould. Similarly, Thota Ramadu, the character that NTR played, could wield the sword and overcome opposition, the sword-fighting and the heroism were only a part of a larger story that had a romance/love track as its nucleus.

A bird’s eye view tells us that this Telugu movie isn’t all that different from the Hollywood swashbuckler film—the action, the villainy, the damsel in distress, and whatnot—but what separates it ultimately is KV Reddy’s extremely rooted universe in which poetry, language, culture, and traditions are in focus as much as anything else.

Ghantasala’s score is another blend of inspirations that the Telugu audiences hadn’t encountered before. The film’s narrative resemblances with the Aladdin folktale might not have been apparent back in the day but the use of a Hammond Organ (played by Master Venu) to create that Arabian Nights ambience is striking, especially when juxtaposed with all the folk songs spread across the film.

The costume design, too, has a certain Persian touch to it. Thota Ramudu wears the classic Aladdin-esque harem pants paired often with an oversized shirt/blouse and the trademark waistcoat. Kings, princes, and heroes, in general, of mythology-based films largely looked a specific way but KV Reddy doesn’t try to achieve authenticity as much as he tries to dazzle the audience with a new kind of visual experience.

Bhakta Potana Poster

A poster of ‘Bhakta Potana’. (Supplied)

‘Ordinary’ is another operative word in the case of Pathala Bhairavi because the protagonist is the classic underdog, the ordinary guy from the streets who must punch above weight.

It’s a neat little subversion of expectations because heroes of the fantasy world were accepted to be Gods or mythological figures (like in Mayabazar and Sri Krishnarjuna Yuddamu), Kings or Princes (as in Jagadeka Veeruni Katha) who were full of valour, or extraordinarily saintly (Bhakta Potana) whose devotion to both the almighty and art was a strong feature of their personality.

Thota Ramudu, the son of the palace gardener, is however different – he disobeys not just his mother but the King himself, and at no point does he doubt himself to be worthy of the princess’s hand.

In a conventional sense, he is also someone who must come of age (as the modern-day hero often does) and deduce that his naivete cannot help him survive in a world riddled with cruelty and challenges.

These motifs are still very much prevalent in Telugu films. The scene in which Thota Ramudu pranks his mother dressed as a King gets a hat-tip in Vijay Bapineedu’s Gang Leader (1991) when Chiranjeevi’s character pokes fun at his grandmother by posing as her deceased husband.

Thota Ramudu effortlessly evading the palace security to meet the princess in her room is seen in several films, including SS Rajamouli’s Sye (2004), when Nithin’s Prithvi sneaks into Indu’s (Genelia D’Souza) room. Coincidentally (or intentionally) Rajamouli’s female leads are named Indu, after the princess character in KV Reddy’s Pathala Bhairavi, more than just once.

Similarly, as author Mukesh Manjunath points out, blockbuster films like Okkadu (2003) derive a lot of the essence of Pathala Bhairavi and at one point, the hero (Mahesh Babu) and the villain (Prakash Raj) even pause their fight to discuss Pathala Bhairavi for a brief moment.

In his book, ‘The Age of Heroes—The Incredible World of Telugu Cinema“, Mukesh Manjunath points out how a lot of the structuring and conceits seen in KV Reddy’s Pathala Bhairavi have prominently shaped Telugu cinema.

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A filmmaker with sense and sensibility

SV Ranga Rao in Mayabazar

SV Ranga Rao in ‘Mayabazar’. (Supplied)

In hindsight, one might look at KV Reddy’s oeuvre and opine that his brand of filmmaking—the structure, the characterisation, the style, etc—could be easily adopted and rehashed. Yet, despite the luxury of reference, not many big-ticket Telugu films have managed to strike a chord that some of his best work could.

Film analysts have often credited his simplicity, in that he never made films in the suspense or mystery genre but stuck to his inclination towards the family drama, as the chief contributor to his faring. And KV Reddy was a big-ticket filmmaker all the way, never shying away from taking things up a notch from his previous attempts.

Pathala Bhairavi would, of course, be followed up by other seminal films like Mayabazar and Sri Krishnarjuna Yuddamu but he proved time and again, with Donga Ramudu (1955), Pellinati Pramanalu, and a few others, that he had a palate for all kinds of drama, be it a mythological exploration or a satirical take on issues like dowry.

He was also a star-maker, mind you, who made left-field decisions at every turn. Comedians such as Relangi and Valluri Balakrishna grew in popularity following the success of Pathala Bhairavi and forged credible careers of their own, as did the production house Vijaya-Vauhini Studios, which went on to back hits like Missamma (1955), Gundamma Katha (1962), Bhairava Dweepam (1994), and also Hindi films like Ram aur Shyam (1967) and Julie (1975), among others.

Not to forget the fact that his producers first wanted him to cast Akkineni Nageswara Rao in the role of Thota Ramudu but he went against the grain and picked NTR (having witnessed his intensity during that now-famous tennis game) as his leading man and etched a whole new chapter in film history.

(Edited by Y Krishna Jyothi)

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