Sye Raa, Chiranjeevi’s historic flick on the life of freedom fighter Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy is all set to hit theatres on October 2. Ahead of the release, like many other biopics, the film is already mired in multiple controversies. The legal heirs of Narasimha Reddy claim that they haven’t been adequately compensated for the use of their family history, houses and other articles for the film. They have also demanded to watch a premiere show to ensure that "history isn’t distorted".
Talking about history, there is very little available in the public domain about Narasimha Reddy, hailed as the 19th century hero who led the first rebellion in Andhra Pradesh against British rule in 1846. Narasimha Reddy was a descendant of a disposed polygar family, a powerful feudal class of chieftains who looked after administrative matters in villages across the south.
What made a man from a prominent family in Koilkuntala taluk in AP organise an army of 5,000 villagers and rise up against the tyranny of the British?
TNM talked to a couple of historians and the kin of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy to know more about the unsung hero and why Narasimha Reddy is still a respected figure of Renaadu.
Why did Narasimha Reddy rebel?
The trailer of Sye Raa shows Narasimha Reddy as a patriot of 'Bharat', but historians say that the 1846 rebellion wasn’t about nationalism. The war was a challenge that the chieftain of Koilkuntala threw at the British after the latter tried to remove the privileges accorded to the polygars and also attempted to acquire their estates.
Majjera Narasimha Reddy, also known as Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, was the youngest of three brothers who were related to the polygar of Uyyalawada through their father's side of the family.
K Venugopal Reddy, history professor at the University of Pondicherry, in his book Dominance and Resistance: A study of Narasimha Reddy’s revolt in Andhra Pradesh writes how Narasimha Reddy, though born into a poor family, was the heir of an oppressive system that was in place before the British rule. The polygars, for a long time, didn’t consider the Britishers to be a threat until the latter usurped their land and they were robbed of their ceremonial titles.
Narasimha Reddy and his family lived off a paltry sum by way of pension which was provided as relief to the families of disposed rajas and polygars.
“Their (polygar) faith in the goodness of the government was shaken by the new regulations pertaining to their inheritance, leaving the families in anxiety…The village chieftains, who were everything for the village community, were clearly upset with the discontinuances in their ancient privileges,” Venugopal writes.
However, the makers of Sye Raa have taken the liberty to distort history by depicting Narasimha Reddy as a patriot who put his motherland in front of everything else. As Venugopal points out, nationalism wasn’t a concept in the early 19th century when the major issue among the people was agrarian distress. However, Chiranjeevi in Sye Raa comes across as an aggressive patriot, who is seen screaming "Bharat Mata ki jai" a couple of times in the trailer.
As Vishnu Priya rightly points out in her article published on Feminism in India, “It was in only in 1873, the notion of Bharat Mata was put forward through a play of the same name by Kiran Chandra Bandhopadhyay. Later on, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya wrote a hymn named Vande Mataram in 1875 as a filler in his journal Bangadarshan.” Clearly, neither Bharat Mata nor patriotism was the driving force which led to the rebellion of 1846.
Narasimha Reddy's capture
Speaking to TNM, Andhra based historian Nagi Reddy opines that the polygars were the most suited to wage a war against the Britishers in Andhra then. While their ambition was to retain power and property, the peasants had long-standing grievances against the British. However, despite differences, people like Narasimha Reddy had close bonds with the villagers.
“Motives would have been selfish but the war was majorly fought against fiscal oppression which affected all classes equally. Around 2,000 peasants were killed in the 1846 battle. Narasimha Reddy turned into a terror for the British after he killed a British forest guard and the Englishmen offered a prize money of Rs 1,000 for his head. Reddy took refuge at the Nallamalai hills for a long time until he was captured and hanged to death in 1847. Along with Reddy, his 16-year-old son was also captured, which put an end to the year-long battle,”Nagi Reddy says.
Narasimha Reddy was hanged in public and over 2,000 people gathered to witness the awful event. History has it that his skeleton was displayed in Reenadu village inside a cage until 1887.
How kin remembers Narasimha Reddy
“Most of the folklore surrounding Narasimha Reddy in Uyyalawada is through the Suddula vallu or the traditional storytellers,” Gopala Reddy, a fifth generation heir of Narasimha Reddy tells TNM. Gopala Reddy is one among the members of the 22 families that claim to be the heirs of Narasimha Reddy. All the families are settled in and around Uyyalawada.
Gopala Reddy recollects how all of them had met actor and producer Ram Charan in Hyderabad before Sye Raa was shot, and claims that the film, in most parts, is an original depiction of the happenings of 1846-47.
“Narasimha Reddy was a great warrior and most of his heroic feats are popular today in Uyyalawada as folklore. Before the movie was shaped, a book was also collated by local historians on Narasimha Reddy’s life. The movie is based on these stories and snippets from the book,” Gopala Reddy shares.
Uyyalawada Vishwanath remembers Narasimha Reddy as the ‘sun of Renaadu village’. “My forefather Budda Vengal Reddy (a famous philanthropist) and Narasimha Reddy were friends. They were known as the Sun and Moon of Renaadu,” Vishwanath says.
Though the kin claims that they have not yet been paid the royalty amount of Rs 25 crore, they are happy that Narasimha Reddy is finally getting his due for leading one of the first uprisings against the British.