Adipurush has stoked nostalgia for Kodi Ramakrishna’s films. What makes them special?

When people say Kodi Ramakrishna’s ‘Ammoru’ had better VFX than ‘Adipurush’, they’re saying that it was a more rewarding experience, writes Sankeertana Varma.
 Visuals from Ammoru and Adipurush
Visuals from Ammoru and Adipurush
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British actor Brett Goldstein has an interesting podcast called Films To Be Buried With, where he invites famous people and tries to get to know them through the prism of cinema. I sometimes pretend to play along. “What is the first film you remember watching?” is usually his first question. As someone with clinically poor memory, I shouldn't know the answer to this question. But I do. 

Any other film would have easily slipped through the cracks in my brain, but the memory of my almost-six-year-old self scared out of her wits is too fundamental to be forgotten. The terror of it all is sure to have exaggerated the experience, but the mental image is so potent that all I need to do is close my eyes, and I am back there. All I can see is light from the screen falling on my dress and my downcast eyes catching a glimpse of the images, and immediately shutting close. Both hands are on my ears, trying to block out the damaru sound that is more sinister than pious. The moans of a goddess, adorned in a shade of blue, somehow reach me. And that's all I remember. If you haven't already guessed, the film I am talking about is Kodi Ramakrishna's Ammoru (1995), starring Ramya Krishnan and Soundarya.

With the release of Adipurush (2023), disappointed fans from the two Telugu states started tweeting about older Telugu fantasy films with better visual effects. And the search term 'Adipurush' on social media sporadically yields scenes from older Telugu films with supposedly better graphics. This inadvertently led to the resurgence of a few scenes from films like Chiranjeevi-starrer Anji (2004) and Ammoru, and a newfound appreciation for the filmmaker behind those films, the late Kodi Ramakrishna. 

I recognise and appreciate nostalgia when I see it, but I disagree that it's that simple. Firstly, the graphics aren't ahead of their time. They simply cannot be. The effect we get from watching them, even now, isn't because of the VFX, but because of everything surrounding it. Starting from the casting to the lighting and sound design, it's all there. The climax of Anji, for instance, works despite Lord Shiva not taking a human form. He seems to be made from blue vapour, built like a box and taking up the whole frame. You cannot touch him, and you shouldn't be able to, anyway. He doesn't feel real, but his rage does. The sound design makes sure of that. 

The filmmaker used the limitations of technology to his advantage. Most of the effects we see in his films, especially Ammoru, are practical and achieved through lighting, makeup and background score. That's another remarkable thing about the VFX in these films, it's used sparingly. The scene at night with Kallu Chidambaram and Sunaina is haunting in its simplicity. By not giving us every detail, it leaves space for our imagination to run amok. As we don't know what to expect when the water starts to bubble and rise, the emergence of a gigantic hand carved out of the water with a child-version of the goddess on it makes all the sense in the world. 

Likewise, the whirlpool detailing in Devi Putrudu (2001) is minimal, but with the simple addition of a flock of birds screeching in panic, it becomes effectively ominous. More importantly, it's palpable. Things onscreen only scathe you when they feel real. Horror works on the principle of plausibility — if it can happen, it probably will.

Evidently, sound plays just as much a part as the visuals in making something believable and memorable. Even if Devi Putrudu is heavily inspired by Indiana Jones and even if it isn't a perfect film, most of us remember the melody that plays to signal the presence of the baby(fetus?)-ghost. It's equally unsettling and melancholic. 

Similarly, in Ammoru, the first time we see Ramya Krishnan, who plays the titular character, we can't actually see her. We see her silhouette, somehow radiating light while still in the dark, and then we hear her anklets. There is a quality to that sound that makes it heard clearly despite the commotion of drums. It suggests that the person wearing them isn't guided by the same laws as we are. The scene immediately after this, in the house, has no visible special effects, but it is striking in the way it is lit and scored. So much care has been taken by the makeup department as well, which is evident in the way our reaction changes to the changing avatars of the goddess. 

Mythological films are often uncomplicated and predictable. Visually, too, they are pleasant and breezy. Ammoru is one of those first films with a decidedly atmospheric cinematic grammar. Even if the narrative beats are familiar, it is heavily coded to feel like a horror film. It probably isn't true for the other films in Kodi Ramakrishna’s filmography, but Ammoru is as far removed from Hindu mythology as any Telugu mythological film has been. It borrows from the oral histories of numerous grama devatalu (village deities) in the rural regions of south India. The folklore of these goddesses is unique and personal to the people living in the village. The rituals around worship are also rarely rigid, as people tend to find their individualistic ways of prayer entirely depending on their lifestyle and livelihood. 

Kodi Ramakrishna doesn't portray most of this in his film, but what he gets right is the interpersonal relationship between the deity and Bhavani (Soundarya). It invokes a maternal bond which the viewer can connect to. Not just that, the goddess, despite her preternatural powers, has limits. Many of the film's plot devices depend on acts of kindness. The origin story of the goddess is predicated by a woman valiantly sacrificing herself for the betterment of her village. When Bhavani is on the brink of death, an older woman's kindness is what catches the deity's attention. There is something to be said about the idea that it is virtue that moves a superpower, and not wool-gathering in the name of rituals and traditions. And when it's time to destroy the villain, the goddess' anger becomes that of a woman's, a mother's. It isn't just a devotional tale — there is also catharsis to be found here. 

Then there are the actors. Ramya Krishnan's screen presence as the blue-bodied deity cuts across belief systems. That's another thing Kodi Ramakrishna did well. He imbued a great sense of strength and power in the female characters he creates. Anushka Shetty as Jejamma in Arundhathi (2009) possesses no powers other than her unwavering bravery, but that's enough to build a myth around the character and turn Anushka into a superstar. 

Kodi Ramakrishna would also edit reaction shots into the narrative rather effectively. For a fake reality to feel real, the viewer needs cues, and they take it from the actors onscreen. Soundarya's reactions in the climax of Ammoru, intercut with the antagonist (Rami Reddy)’s death is what brings the film a sense of closure. The way she looks away in pain at the beheading of the evil man tells you so much about who she is. She is too good a person to rejoice in his destruction, despite everything he's done to her. This is precisely why she can summon a goddess to come to her rescue. 

When I rewatched this set of mythological fantasies directed by Kodi Ramakrishna, I have to admit there were a few hiccups. My worldview has also changed since I first saw them, and they didn't have the same effect on me as they did a few decades ago. A spaceship-adjacent object in a fantastical film like Devi (1999) is more laughable than laudable. 

So is the end of Devi Putrudu, where the Indiana Jones inspiration crosses the line into plagiarism. But I am still moved by the same film's beating heart that takes a mother's tear and turns it into a symbol of love conquering everything, even metaphysics and time. 

This is what a viewer takes home, the intent of the filmmaker to make something honest and lasting. When people say Ammoru has better VFX than Adipurush, what they really mean is that Ammoru is more rewarding as an experience than Adipurush. I absolutely agree. 

Sankeertana is an engineer who took a few years to realise that bringing together two lovely things, movies and writing, is as great as it sounds. Mainly writes about Telugu cinema because no one else would. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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