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.