Today, contemporary Telugu cinema has very little time to ponder and think about the early times of Telugu cinema, from the days of films being in Kolhapur and Calcutta, to creating a strong base in Madras (now Chennai.)
Many have been the founding stalwarts of Telugu cinema, who distinguished themselves with their monumental contribution to the development of the art and craft of making films.
In an era of male domination, where the technicians involved in acting, direction, music direction and studio production and producing were all men, there was a great lady who distinguished herself in all these crafts and created an indelible mark on the canvas of Tollywood forever as the ‘only’ multifaceted personality.
Dr. Bhanumathi: A self made woman
Dr. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna (1925-2005) is this empress, who achieved mastery over all the 24 crafts of filmmaking with her sheer effort. A trained carnatic musician, a peerless singer, the first ever Telugu film woman director, a studio owner and producer of classic films, a short story writer and a great administrator—Dr. Bhanumathi has done it all.
Dr. Bhanumathi was a witness to the development of Telugu cinema from its early stages, as she made her debut in 1939 at the age of 14, as the lead actress of Vara Vikrayam. This movie was a telling statement about the dowry system and was directed by C. Pullayya.
We relive five gems from Dr. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna, on her 94th birth anniversary on September 7th, 2019.
The Hall Of Fame
- Malliswari (1951) (Telugu)
The Telugu classic by director B.N. Reddy was a great musical, which was set in the Vijayanagar empire era of the 15th century, starring Dr. Bhanumathi and N.T. Rama Rao as the leads. The movie told a simple love story of a young couple who are separated due to their financial status. Bhanumathi played the role of the protagonist Malliswari, also known as Mallamma, who accidentally ends up as the chief lady attendant of the Empress of Vijayanagar empire, Tirumala Devi. The film displayed the phenomenal acting and singing skills of Dr. Bhanumathi with the music of legendary S. Rajeswara Rao.
The movie is still considered the magnum opus of Dr. Bhanumathi and her admirers consider the singer-music director combination of Bhanumathi and S. Rajeswara Rao as the best of the era.
- Vipranarayana (1954) (Telugu)
The film is a historical one set in 9th century Tamil Nadu and tells the story of a foremost devotee of Lord Vishnu, Vipranarayana, who falls from grace due to a beautiful courtesan, but rises to be one of the great poet devotees of Vishnu. Dr. Bhanumathi played the role of a courtesan and sang beautifully, under the direction of her husband and famous director Ramakrishna. The movie is still one of the classics and Dr. Bhanumathi’s skills as an actor and singer shone brightly again. Dr. Bhanumathi produced this movie under her own production banner, the Bharani Pictures.
Again, it was the combination of Dr. Bhanumathi and S. Rajeswara Rao which gave classic songs in this movie.
- Chandi Rani (1953) (Telugu, Tamil and Hindi)
Dr. Bhanumathi was a daring and domineering personality whom even the great thespians of the time, Dr. M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganeshan, held in high respect in Tamil for her genius. She became the first woman director in Telugu with a trilingual, Chandi Rani, which she produced under her home banner. She also acted in this movie in a double role. The film had many firsts for this lady—she was the first South Indian actress to star in a double role, the first woman director from the South who directed a film in three languages and the first lady producer to direct a film.
This folklore fantasy was a smashing hit in Hindi too, with N.T. Rama Rao and Dr. Bhanumathi regaling their fans. The songs by C.R. Subbaraman were chartbusters.
- Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (1955) (Tamil and Telugu)
The famous Arabian Nights fable was made in Tamil in 1955 as Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum and dubbed in Telugu as Ali Baba 40 Dongalu. Dr. M.G. Ramachandran and Dr. Bhanumathi acted in the roles of Ali Baba and Marizana and the movie was a thumping success in both languages.
With this movie, Dr. Bhanumathi achieved another personal milestone of becoming the first actress who acted in the first color film of the South. This movie was made in gevacolour, with its processing done in London.
- Palnati Yuddham (1966) (Telugu)
The movie told the real life story of the Battle of Palnadu, which involved a caste feud between the Kapus and the Reddys in the coastal belt of Andhra Pradesh. The film starred Dr. Bhanumathi as the lady warrior politician Nagamma (Reddy caste,) who hatches a plan for the war. Dr. Bhanumathi displayed great skills as an actress, with her range of emotions of a lady ascetic who turned a warrior due to her preceptor’s order to fight N.T. Rama Rao’s character, Brahmanaidu (Kapu caste.) Dr. Bhanumathi’s role is remembered till today by her fans.
Dr. Bhanumathi won the National Award for Best Actress for this movie in 1967, when the Award was not officially designated as the Best Actress Award, but given as a certificate of merit to the best actress across the Country.
Dr. Bhanumathi, the administrator
The multifaceted personality she was, Dr. Bhanumathi was appointed as the Director Principal of the Tamil Nadu Government College of Music by the then Chief Minister and her colleague, Dr. M.G. Ramachandran. She held the post for a full term of three years, during which she conducted great reforms in the music curriculum. Her term is remembered for her administerial skills.
The amount of respect and adulation Dr. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna received as an administrator and actress is unparalleled in the history of South Indian cinema. Dr. Bhanumathi was also a great humanist who ran schools in Chennai under her name, free of cost for poor children. She did so for more than 50 years and these schools still remain today.
Many in Telugu also know her as a great short story writer who was distinguished in the genre of humour. Her anthology of short stories Attagari Kathalu won the State Sahitya Academy Award of Andhra Pradesh in 1966 for best short story writing.
The Government of India issued a honorary stamp in her name in 2013 as part of the Great Indian Personalities Of Indian Cinema stamp series, as a part of the centenary celebrations of Indian cinema.
The only award Dr. Bhanumathi missed receiving was the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for her immense contribution to Indian cinema as an actress, singer, music director, director, story writer and producer.
Dr. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna will always be remembered as an inimitable personality who lit the Telugu industry with her glistening versatility.
She is rightly called the One and Only Bhanumathi!