The contribution of Telugu people in the world of Carnatic Music is indispensable since times immemorial. There are some greatest personalities History witnessed who not only penned the songs, but also composed the tune and sang in the form of “Yaksha Gaanas”. Tallapaka Annamayya, Saint Thyagaraja and Kshetrayya are the names which come first in the mind when this topic arrives into picture. Out of these three greatest music personalities, Annamayya has been the most loved and dearly admired by music connoisseurs as well as normal listeners alike. The unfaltering devotion of Annamayya towards Lord Venkateshwara and his simple use of Telugu language in depicting his feelings of devotion, admiration, contentment, happiness, sadness- in short every emotion a human being can go through is one of the greatest aspects of his compositions.
Telugu Cinema ventured out to make a great Epic named Thyagayya which had Chitoor Nagaiah in the lead. The film was highly popular right from the black and white era and the songs were sung by himself. Though Bapu remade the film during early 80s with Shankarabharanam fame Somayajulu in the lead- the film could not gain viewers appreciation for reasons whatsoever. After nearly 15 years of this film, K.Raghavendra Rao- a director with commercial interests till then decided to make a musical epic on the journey of Annamayya with M.M.Keeravani in Music department. The lead character of Annamayya was to be played by Akkineni Nagarjuna- for the first time he was to appear in the role of a most influential musical devotee Telugu land ever witnessed.
The film begins with a conversation between Lord Venkateshwara (Suman) and his wife Lakshmi (Bhanupriya) about not many people singing in Telugu language in the praise of the Lord. It is when the Lord sends his sword Nandaka in the form of a child to a couple in Tallapaka village in Cuddapah district, who are desperately praying for a child. The child is none other than Annamayya (Nagarjuna). Initially having a very normal life and loving his two cousins Timakka (Ramya Krishna) and Akkalamma (Kasthuri), Annamayya never considers singing or devotion towards lord to be an important thing in life. But he does have the tinge of questioning the wrong happenings in the village and the director makes sure that it is shown in the film In fact , Annamayya’s perception of beauty is just his cousins, and he believes there is nothing more beautiful than them has been created in this world.
Apparently the Lord realizes it is time for Annamayya to understand what his real purpose of life is about and he arrives in the form of a saint to show Annamayya about the real beauty in the World. When Annamayya looks at the idol of Lord Venkateshwara, he is lost for words. He gets into his own admiring world of devotion and completely forgets about his family and his cousins. As if possessed by the tremendous power of devotion, Annamayya leaves to the sacred Tirumala temple by travelling on foot- without informing anybody in his family. It is when Annamayya sings the popular “Adivo Alladivo” krithi spontaneously- in the happiness that he is going to get darshan of his Lord. When he attempts to climb the sacred “Mokalla Parvatham” (A steep hill which occurs at the end of the journey to Tirumala) with footwear on, Annamayya gets serious obstacles. Goddess Lakshmi comes for Annamayya’s rescue- in the disguised form of an old lady, and explains him not to climb the sacred hill with footwear on.
When Annamayya gets the darshan of Lord in the most scared Tirumala hill, he is lost for words. He starts singing the krithi “Podaganti Mayya” in ecstacy and remains in the temple premises- singing in the praise of lord. Annamayya’s family who is obviously worried about his whereabouts come to know about this through Lord’s disguise as a fortune teller (Along with his wives) and they rush to the Tirumala hill. After getting convinced by Lord himself about marrying his cousins, Annamayya gets married and settles in Tirumala hill- singing the praise of lord.
The story takes an interesting turn when the local King of the area Saluva Narasimha (Mohan Babu) comes to know about the songs of Annamayya and asks him to be in his court. When Annamayya refuses to sing in the praise of the King and Queen, saying that his music is dedicated to the Lord alone- the evil Saluva Narasimha subjects him to imprisonment. But with the grace of Lord, Annamayya is rescued again leading to shock of the king. Annamayya’s life takes a different turn with his wives dying at the same moment- apparently realizing that their husband is bonded to them and he cannot become a great poet with their presence and family chores.
Annamayya grows to an old man and yet fights against caste system and human rights through his wonderful compositions. One such composition “Brahmamokkate” is shown excellently in the film. The film ends with Annamayya getting the darshan of Lord and his wives in the Temple’s sanctum sanctorum and leaving his life in the divine presence. The greatest aspect of his life is that- he led his life with music as pulse and sole purpose of higher living.
Akkineni Nagarjuna excels in the title role of the devotional composer- Annamayya. He has changed every aspect of his usual stylish appearance into sober, simple and chaste look. His performance as the 90 year old man requesting the lord to take his life away- singing the song “Antaryami” is one of the best in his career. This film redefined Nagarjuna as an actor and stands as an important career mileston for his acting career.
Suman plays the picture perfect Lord Venkateshwara role and he does it with seamless perfection. SPB’s dubbing for his role is another highlight for the film which also fetched him Nandi award for best dubbing artist. Bhanupriya played the role of Lord Lakshmi and is at her usual graceful best. She gave the dignity and divinity needed for a role of that sort.
Mohan Babu is at his usual best as the evil King who realizes the greatness of Annamayya later in the film. Raghavendra Rao made best use of Mohan Babu’s peculiar dialogue delivery for the film.
Ramya Krishna and Kasthuri are quite adequate as the wives of Annamayya who have little yet important role in the film.
The remaining cast perfomed well in their respective roles as required.
People Behind the Screen:
Raghavendra Rao did a commendable job in making Annamayya as one of the best devotional movies in Telugu Cinema till date. Every frame was captured with utmost care and the locations were selected appropriately. Emotional scenes were particularly handled with the much needed balance and as a director, he excelled in it. The film was written by J.K.Bharavi which was his debut. He did a convincingly brilliant job with the crisp yet fresh dialogues having the period flavor as well. Cinematography by Ajay Vincent is quite good and gave the colourful and historic look to the film.
Music by M.M.Keeravani is another highlight for the film. Every song was recorded with utmost care and the orchestration was done wonderfully by him. The background score elevates the film in several emotional and story turning scenes. This album is still termed as one of the very best for Keeravani in Telugu.
The film earned 8 Nandi Awards – including the best actor (Nagarjuna), best Feature Film and best Director( K.Raghavendra Rao) and two national film awards for best music (Keeravani) and special jury award (Nagarjuna). It also fetched Nagarjuna best actor award from Filmfare South.
The music album of this film is the highest sold Telugu Music Album till date.
It was dubbed in Hindi as Tirupathi Sri Balaji and the original Telugu film was a tremendous hit in Karnataka as well.
Many directors including Hasya Brahma Jandhyala planned out to make Annamayya as a film but ultimately it was K.Raghavendra Rao who got the fortune of making it into a feature film.
S.P.Balasubhrahmanyam sang most of the songs sung by Annamayya in the film. For one song recording (Kalaganti Kalaganti), when SPB finished recording the song and came out of the room, he saw K.Raghavendra Rao becoming emotional and hugged him with tears in eyes. Such was the effect of SPBs brilliant singing for this film.
This film became so influential in Telugu Cinema that the same team (K.Raghavendra Rao, Nagarjuna and Keeravani) came back with Sri Ramadasu (2006) which dealt with the life of great Lord Rama musical devotee Ramadas and the recent Shirdi Sai (2012) in which Nagarjuna played the role of Sai Baba.
There were many doubts about the appearance of Nagarjuna as Annamayya in the film. It was because Annamayya as depicted originally doesn’t have a moustache. But the appearance of Nagarjuna in this film was made convincingly well that he looked almost close to Annamayya in appearance.