Paluvayi Bhanumathi, who was truly among the most multifaceted film personalities of South Indian Cinema. The ‘Grande Dame’ of Tamil and Telugu cinemas, at her peak she was an actress, writer, director, producer, studio owner, music director and singer! In her own words Bhanumathi recalled, “People in the film industry call me high-spirited and a woman who tried to get what she wanted and often succeeded. Their assessment was correct,”
Bhanumathi was born in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh in 1924 and was encouraged to take up training in carnatic music by her father B Venkatasubbiah, himself a well known musician in those days. Later, she also had training under two other ‘vidwans’. She became adept at both Carnatic as well as Hindustani Music.
She made her film debut as a teenager in C Pulliah’s reformist melodrama, Varavikrayam (1939). The film saw Pulliah taking on the social issue of dowry as against his usual mythologicals. Bhanumathi played the eldest daughter Kalindi, whose father borrows money to get her married against her wishes to the thrice married Lingaraju. She commits suicide before the marriage. Her sister then marries Lingaraju and takes him and his father to court thus salvaging the family honour and avenging her sister.
More film roles began to follow. However Bhanumathi fell in love with the assistant director of one of her films, Ramakrishna Rao, married him and decided to quit films.
It was stalwart BN Reddy who convinced her to make a comeback and Bhanumathi made her first major impact with Vauhini Pictures’ Telugu offering, Swargaseema (1945). The film looks at the metamorphosis of a rural street entertainer Subbi (Bhanumathi) into the urban seductress and stage star Sujatha Devi who breaks up the marriage of the man who discovered her. Allegedly based on the Rita Hayworth starrer Blood and Sand (1941), the film saw Bhanumathi give a tremendous performance capturing the graph of the village beauty to sexy star perfectly with subtle changes at every stage in speech, attitude, gesture and make up. The classic hit seduction song sung by her – Ooh Pavurama, in fact, has shades of Rita Hayworth’s humming from Blood and Sand. Swargaseema made Bhanumati into a major star.
Bhanumathi went on to give legendary performances in other films made by Vauhini and those by SS Vasan’s Gemini Studios. She then branched out and owned her own studio with husband Ramakrishna Rao-Bharani Studios and Production Company-Bharani Pictures, both named after her son. Bharani Pictures maiden venture was Ratnamala (1947) with Bhanumathi essaying the title role of a woman tricked into marrying the infant prince Chandrakantha. Bharani Pictures went on to do many popular films with Bhanumathi as star including Laila Majnu (1949) (with A Nageshwara Rao and Bhanumathi and a happy ending!), Prema/Kathal (1952) including story by Bhanumathi, Chandirani (1953) – a trilingual in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi and Bhanumathi’s directorial debut and also as co-Music Director though the Hindi version did not click, Chakrapani (1954), which she made as a rejoinder to losing the title role in Missiamma (1955) and made her debut as an Independent Music Director. Her compositions included the hit song Ananda Dayini and Vipranarayana (1954), and yet again she was paired with A Nageshwara Rao.
Bhanumathi was an extremely versatile actress who was equally adept at social dramas, mythologicals, comedies as well as adventure and swashbucking films, particularly those where she was paired with MGR. She acted opposite all the top heroes of her day in Tamil and Telugu cinema – MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, A Nageshwara Rao and NT Rama Rao. Special mention must be made of her Tamil films with MGR. She was often cast as the Damsel-in-Distress in these films with MGR cast as a Robin Hood like vigilante – Malaikallan (1954), Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (1955) and Madurai Veeran (1956) etc.
Malaikallan was the classic MGR film about an outlaw who robs the rich to feed the poor while maintaining a double identity. In the film MGR established his political persona of a superman imposing his own brand of justice. The film was remade in Hindi as the Dilip Kumar-Meena Kumari starrer Azad (1955). Talking of Hindi, Bhanumathi did try her hand in Hindi films too like Nishan (1949), Mangala (1950) and Shamsheer (1953), the last opposite Ashok Kumar.
Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum was one of Modern Theatres’ best films and was based on the Alibaba legend. The first South Indian film in Gevacolor, it is mainly remembered for MGR’s swashbuckling stunts and Bhanumathis’s popular songs and dances like Unnai Vidamatten and Azhagana Ponnutham. Incidentally, Waheeda Rehman plays a small role of a dancer in the film dancing to the song, Salaam Babu!
Madhurai Veeran was based on the legend of Madurai Veeran. A megahit, it was written by noted DMK rationalist poet, Kannadasan, and is an early example of the political appropriation of Tamil folk ballads.
Some of Bhanumathi’s well-known films with Sivaji Ganesan include the Tamil films Rangoon Radha (1956), Ambikapathy (1957) and Makkalai Petra Maharasi (1957).
One of Bhanumathi’s most famous and applauded roles was in the Tamil film, Annai (1962). She gave a brilliant performance as a possessive woman, who would not give up her hold on her adopted son to his real mother even after he had grown up. The film was redone in Hindi as Laadla with Nirupa Roy, but failed to have the same impact as the Bhanumathi version.
Bhanumathi continued playing character roles in the 1970s and 80s. One of her last major films was the Telugu film, Peddarikam (1992), the story of two feuding families. One is led by the Patriarch NN Pillai and the other by the voluble Bhanumathi. Trouble brews when the youngest son of the former falls in love with the granddaughter of the latter. The film was known mainly for the performances of the two egotistic family heads! The film was remade in Hindi as Hulchul (2004) by Priyadarshan.
Bhanumathi based her music on C Ramachandra, Arabian folk and even Pat Boone! Being a trained classical singer, she is best remembered for her brilliant renderings of Thyagaraja’s kirtis and Purandaradasa’s bhajans. She also served as Principal of the Government College of Music in Madras (now Chennai), in the mid 1990s.
A compilation film, Chitramala (1985), features her songs and dances, She also wrote her autobiography, Naalo Neno (1993), which won her awards. Bhanumathi, in fact, received several awards and felicitations in her lifetime including the Padma Shri. Her collection of short stories about mother-in-laws, Attagari Kathalu, won her the Sahitya Academy award in 1966. In 1994, the London Doctors Association honoured her as a ‘Great Artiste.’
Suffering from chronic diabetes, Bhanumathi passed away in Chennai on December 24, 2005. It is indeed a tragic state of affairs that Mumbai, (which considers itself the film capital of India) barring one daily, failed to even carry a report of Bhanumathi’s death. This, when she was known as a one woman industry long, long before Amitabh Bachchan was called as a one man industry!