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September 5, 1997


The Saint


Nagarjuna as Annamayya. Click for bigger pic!
If Telugu cinema has an angry young man, then it should be Nagarjuna -- the tall, hunky hero whose trip in life appears to be to bash up the baddies, if you judge by films likeShiva.

He's also a cool young man -- very grunge, suave, with it, at ease surfing in Mauritius, Tabu in tow, for Jab Dil Pe Koi Aati Hai.

The saint as a young man. Click for bigger pic!
But a Nagarjuna with close cropped hair and caste mark on forehead, clad in saffron, holy beads round his neck and playing a saint to the hilt? All of Andhra Pradesh took a double take when Annamayya hit the marquee -- and went again and again to the theatres, perhaps not believing the evidence of their eyes the first time round.

Or perhaps because it was a good film.

Or perhaps because Nagarjuna's portrayal was stunning enough, in an unfamiliar persona, to merit a second visit.

Nagarjuna with Kasturi and Ramya Krishnan in Annamayya.
Whatever, now the film is a big time hit in neighbouring Karnataka as well.

Annamacharya -- or Annamayya -- was, legend has it, a poet whose muse was Balaji, the lord of the seven hills (Tirupati, to give it the more familiar name). Annamayya's curriculum vitae includes an estimated 32,000 kirtanas and krithis. Mostly on the subject of the deity he adored, but a few also casting a rebellious, iconoclastic look at prevailing social evils (we refer, here, to the period 1408-1503).

Discrimination against women was a favourite theme -- though in the event, Annamayya did marry two women, his own nieces -- and legend, again, holds that the chief guest, if incognito, at the wedding was none other than Lord Balaji himself. More factually, Annamayya was the court poet of Narasimha Raya of the Penukonda satrapy.

Click for bigger pic!
More from the realm of legend, which holds that Annamayya, on being appointed court poet, was asked to come up with a ditty celebrating his earthly patron -- and promptly refused. When you refuse a king, you get bunged in prison, which is where the saintly poet found himself -- till the ubiquitous Balaji intervened, in miraculous fashion, to procure his release. The king not only repented but, to no one's surprise, became a staunch devotee of the patron deity of Tirupathi. Interestingly, history meets legend when the king got the poems of Annamayya inscribed on copper plates for posterity -- said plates being still very much in existence at the Thirumala Devasthanam treasure house.

Annamayya, thus, ranks among the immortal names in Telugu literature and religion -- and thus provided obvious inspiration for film producer V Doraiswamy Raju who, just incidentally, happens to be a member of the Tirupati Devasthanam. Raju roped in K Raghavendra Rao to direct and, in a casting coup of epic proportions, also roped in Nagarjuna to star as the poet while Suman, another of the commercially viable heroes in Telugu cinema, plays Lord Balaji.

Click for bigger pic!
Vincent's cinematography and M M Keeravani's (known to Bollywood denizens as M M Kreem, the composer of, among other films, Criminal) music are other major credits, while most of the songs in the film are Annamayya's original compositions.

Unit members of VMC Productions talk of how they had to erect a replica of the Tirupathi shrine, as photography/cinematography is prohibited within the environs of probably the most popular, and certainly the most cash rich, temple in India today.

Click for bigger pic!
"Also," says producer Raju, "the temple today has several modern amenities, electric lights and such all over the place, which would have detracted from the authenticity of the period we were looking to recreate. So we preferred to do the shoot on a set, erected at Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad."

While authenticity of locale might be a talking point, it is Nagarjuna's hugely realistic -- seasoned critics have tended to use superlatives -- performance that has wowed the down south audience. And, in the process, indicated that there is more to Nagarjuna than mere youth, and anger.

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