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best movies, yet box office failures

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by Srinivas Kanchibhotla

Here is the start of a series that throws light on some of the box-office failures that deserve to be ranked as some of the best movies of Telugu industry. With it, want to highlight the efforts that went into the making of the movie, so that our current generation would never ever forget these long and forgotten gems.


No matter how prosperous the industry has become, no matter how many hits the industry has churned out, no matter how many continents the telugu movie print is distributed to, the eternal questions loom large - is art, in particular the movie medium, the torch bearer to a social and cultural change? Does art have any bearing on the day to day life of the common man? Are movies meant to engage the minds while trying to entertain the hearts? The answers to the aforementioned varied with each passing decade. While a good part of 50s, 60 and early 70s answered with a resounding yes, the voice weakened duly and slowly with the passage of the time, and by the time the movies became the hero's medium, the answer turned into a resounding no. The pro and against arguments were equally vociferous - while the producers harped on the economics factor, the audience held on to the lack of choice argument. After the din has subsided at the end of day, neither were there any social movies in good numbers the industry has produced, nor were there any tasteful movies in moderate numbers the audience attended to in droves.

Knowing the equation fully well, it was certainly laudable of Chiranjeevi to invest his money into a venture, the monetary returns of which, he knew, could never come close to the expectations. He traded his coffer returns to the artistic satisfaction of having produced a movie, that would very well go down into the annals of telugu film history as an important movie with a message, particularly during an era, when the hero would be frowned upon for not changing his costumes for each stanza of a song. The story, the direction, the lyrics, the score and the acting - each department would stand on its own and hail the collective critical success of the movie. Rudra Veena fetched Chiranjeevi (and Prod. Nagendra Babu) 4 national awards - best regional feature film, best musical score (Illayaraja), best male playback (Yesudas), the Nargis Dutt award for national integration.

Social movies are tricky to be translated into the film medium. They have to preach something or pass on a message without actually appearing to be doing so. The age old problems of untouchability, alcoholism, collective effort for a better future, have been tackled before to varying degrees and to varying results. What Balachander and Ganesh Patro tried to do with Rudra Veena was unique in that they made Rudra Veena as much about an artist's inner struggle in trying to reconcile between his social aspirations and artistic delights, as it is about his noble intentions to try rid of the society of its evil in any and every which way he can. Music is the medium that the lead character, aptly named Suryam, chooses to express his ideas and ideologies in. He weaves his music around the ills plaguing his immediate surroundings, soothes his soul with his tunes and tries to keep his feet firmly grounded without getting too carried away in his search of salvation, the artistic way.

Rudra Veena, in the way an artist tries to defy the soceital norms and make his music more in tune with the world, is similar in its approach to an old ANR movie - Sarada Picture's jaya bhaeri (1959). Both of the movies try to glorify the ways and means of making art answerable to the society than have it remain non-committal, uninvolved and uninspiring. While jaya bhaeri restricts itself to the redemption of the artist, Rudra Veena goes one step forward, makes the lead character an idealist and a more responsive member of the society, who mirrors the wishes of the downtrodden in his tunes. The age old battle between conservatism and liberalism is given a new twist in it, socialistic seeds seep into the open mind of the protagonist. The pillars of conformistic conservative values are shaken at their foundations, when the artist reflects plight of the weak and references the indifference of the artistic elite in the traditional tunes. The rift between Suryam and his father (assayed by Gemini Ganesan), on a more metaphorical level, could well be between the art trying to be apathetic and the art trying to be more reflective.

While Balachander and Ganesh Patro handle the prose word, Sirivennala steps in to infuse life to Illayaraja's tunes, illuminating them with his scintillating words. Sirivennela covers the whole spectrum of emotions from a light hearted lyric (ranDi ranDi daya caeyanDi) to an equally potent outpour (ceppaalani undi gunDe vippaalani undi). The lyric of "ceppAlani undi" sums up the character's feelings aptly and the way Sirivennela blends his lyrics with Sri Sri's kavita jaya bhaeri (naenu saitam), makes it a true homage to true praja kavi Sri Sri. Illayaraja won his third national award for best music director (the first was awarded for Sagara Sangamam and second for Sindhu Bhairavi) displaying his inimitable range in Rudra Veena - from traditional (tulasi daLamulacae) to folk lore (tarali raada tanae vasantam), from complex (lalita priya kamalam) to lucid (cuTToo pakkala cooDaraa). It is quite a shame that Sirivennela was passed upon for best lyrics at the national level for Rudra Veena, inspite of rich "bhaava gaambheeryata" and "bhaasha paTutvam" that he demonstrated in the same.

The movie came and went. Audience turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to it. It rather Chiranjeevi bash up hundreds of goons, gyrate to mindless of tunes and regale them with "more of the same" movies. Chiranjeevi obliged and Rudra Veena remained his last sensible movie as an offering on a more personal level.

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