Stories of saint-poets and exemplary devotees (bhaktas) have been an important part of popular Hinduism for a long time. In the last century, cinema along with radio and television became a powerful new vehicle for circulating such stories. What is less known is the way in which cinema presents the same stories in new ways. This article attempts to demonstrate that paying attention to this aspect is equally fascinating and instructive, especially because cinema has become our collective aural and visual archive that we dip into, to understand the past and to shape our present.
Among the Telugu-speaking populace, Ramadasu is a parama bhakta because of his kirtanalu that are part of the repertoire of many classical Carnatic musicians and movies. He is widely recognised as the one who built the famous Bhadrachalam Rama temple. Born as Kancherla Gopanna in 1620, Ramadasu was the nephew of two Brahmin ministers, Akkanna and Madanna, who served under the Golconda Qutub Shahis. Most accounts indicate that he became a tehsildar (tax collector) of Bhadrachalam with the help of his uncles and the patronage of Mir Jumla, another minister. During his time as a tehsildar (1650-65), he built the temple utilising part of the revenue he collected as taxes. For this crime, he was imprisoned in 1665 by Sultan Abdullah and after 12 years was released in 1677 by the then Sultan, Abul Hasan Tanashah (1674-99), popularly known as Tani Shah in Telugu. During his long and arduous imprisonment, Ramadasu is believed to have written several kiratanalu in praise of Rama. Legend has it that at the end of 12 years, Rama and Lakshmana appeared in disguise before the Sultan and repaid the money. When the Sultan realised that who had appeared before him, he became a repentant man. Not only did he free Ramadasu, but also offered the revenue from the Bhadrachalam jagir as a gift to the temple in perpetuity. Another interesting element of his life story is that he was initiated into Ram bhakti by a Sufi guru, Kabir. Along with the songs, these details with some variations have been in circulation orally for a very long time. A stage adaptation done by Dharmavaram Gopalacharyulu was popular in the Telugu regions in early 20th-century.
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There has been a long tradition of devorional films in Telugu, especially those featuring the stories of saint-poets. It is not surprising therefore that two Telugu films documented the life of Ramadasu. One in 1964 by veteran actor Nagayya, and the second in 2006, starring Nagarjuna. In his memoirs, Nagayya records that the idea for the film first came from the Hyderabad Prime Minister Mir Laik Ali and media personality Sri Eswar Dutt. In 1946, Nagayya was invited to Hyderabad and given a tour of all the places associated with Ramadasu. The Nizam’s government wanted to finance the film in order to promote Hindu-Muslim unity in the wake of the Razakar violence. But the fall of the Nizam’s state and its integration into the Indian Union, put a brake on this project. Nagayya revived the project much later on his own and completed the film titled as Bhakta Ramadasu. A considerable part of the plot delineates the characters of Ramadasu and Sultan Tani Shah, besides establishing the social and political setting. The Sufi fakir, Kabir, plays a pivotal role in initiating Ramadasu into Ram bhakti and performing miracles that emphasise his spiritual powers. The film’s dialogues are in Telugu with many Hindustani language songs, through which the film attempts to capture the polyphony that characterised that period. It presents a secular and syncretic history that emphasises harmonious coexistence.
Nagarjuna’s Sri Ramadasu, directed by senior filmmaker, K. Raghavendra Rao, on the other hand, underplays the character of Kabir, does away with the songs in Hindustani and instead introduces new, fabricated mythological elements like Vishnu’s descent to earth to supervise the Bhadrachalam temple construction. This invention allows the film to marginalise the presence of Islam and Muslim rule as insignificant episodes in a long history that connects Ramadasu to a classical and mythical Hindu past.
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Nagayya’s famous saint trilogy where he played the roles of the 15th-century saint-poet Potana; the 18th-century saint-composer Tyagayya; and the 17th-century poet-philosopher Vemana; had cemented his position as a star of devotional films. Nagayya’s portrayal of Ramadasu is a psychological one that depicts the individual’s movement along the path of bhakti. During his imprisonment, Nagayya portrays the devotee moving through various stages—from complete faith to waning hope, from anger at his utter helplessness to despair, and from resignation to a reawakening of hope. In total contrast, Sri Ramadasu has all the features of a contemporary hero-centred Telugu film—romantic songs, mandatory comic scenes and even a fight sequence. The devotee himself is now responsible for protecting God. Indeed, Nagarjuna’s Ramadasu is introduced in the film as someone who saves a Rama idol from falling to the ground during a ceremonial procession. In contrast to middle-aged Nagayya’s rounded figure, Nagarjuna’s muscular body is presented as a spectacle in the film. Furthermore, Nagarjuna’s Ramadasu is a strident anti-establishment figure. As an administrator, he is initially shown opposing feudalism. However, once the turn to bhakti happens, his socialist agenda is forgotten and abandoned.
Instead, the priority shifts to the construction of the temple, which now acquires urgency and fuels a passionate commitment among the people. But after the temple is built, the Sultan arrests him for misappropriating the state’s revenues. At this, Ramadasu launches a powerful rhetoric about Rama as a perfect God and warns the Sultan about the inevitability of Rama temples being built in every village. Needless to add, this militant style of putting Muslim rulers in their place and the attempt to secure the cultural rights of the Hindu majority (pictured as suffering from minority-appeasement policies), is inspired by the current discourse of Hindutva.
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Several other visual and aural elements in the two films present completely contrasting perspectives and demonstrate that the story of the same devotee’s life can be presented so very differently. This also draws our attention to ways in which cinematic technology and contemporary politics mediate religion for all of us as we move between being spectators and devotees.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Saints On Screen")
(Views expressed are personal)
Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda is an author of Deities and Devotees: Cinema, Religion and Politics in South India, and teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies, EFL University Hyderabad