From mythology to modern times: The role of classical music in Telugu cinema

In recent times, popular films like 'Mental Madhilo' and 'Arjun Reddy' have brought back Carnatic music to Telugu cinema.
From mythology to modern times: The role of classical music in Telugu cinema
From mythology to modern times: The role of classical music in Telugu cinema

Telugu cinema, like several other film industries, owes its roots to theatre. Telugu films had served as a natural yet glorified extension of the content that common people saw in the stage plays, which was significantly intertwined with mythology and devotion. Music was an intrinsic element of these narratives.

The Telugu film industry then gradually widened its repertoire to narrate stories that highlighted the concerns of the people, which were termed 'social films', while fantasies and folklore also remained the popular choice of filmgoers.

The role of music in these films evolved considerably over the years, so much so that it became one of the significant factors for ensuring moolah at the box office (and it still is). A gamut of musical forms have existed in Telugu culture for centuries, including the likes of Oggu Katha, Yakshaganam and Hari Katha besides classical music (Hindustani and Carnatic). However, not all of them were given similar status, and classical music dominated a major chunk of Telugu cinema. The classical song in Telugu movies was commonplace in most of its narratives till the ‘60s, regardless of the genre.

However, with Telugu cinema's consistent commercial evolution, the role of classical music in Telugu cinema drastically reduced. Though we had K Viswanath's Sankarabharanam, K Balachander's Rudraveena, Vijaya Krishna's Sankeertana and several other films made by Bapu and his counterparts in the ‘80s, it's fair to say that classical music wasn’t an integral part of mainstream Telugu cinema in those years.

With the partial use of MS Subbulakshmi's rendition of the Annamacharya kirtana 'Deva Devam Bhaje' in the 2013-release Attarintiki Daredi, the classical song found its way back in the industry with a twist. In the film, the placement of the song marks a juncture where the female protagonist, a dancer, is performing to the composition and it's smartly interspersed with the entry of actor Pawan Kalyan, who is symbolised as a modern-day Rama (as someone who stood for dharma). The song could very well pass off as an attempt to 'elevate' the hero's character here, but the smart use of classical music does wonders to the sequence.

And it's not surprising that this attempt triggered several commercial Telugu filmmakers in the later years to utilise a classical song in crucial sequences of their movies. Not always has the effect of the classical song in the film been profound though. Say, in the horror film Geethanjali, the Patnam Subramania Iyer composition “Raghuvamsa Sudha”, found a place in the narrative as an establishing sequence for actor Anjali and her interest to uphold classical traditions. The impact of the song in the narrative is fleeting to say the least, although singer Sreenidhi Tirumala does a neat job with her rendition.

A few years down the line, it took another commercial outing to change the popular diktat. The film was the Vijay Deverakonda starrer Arjun Reddy made by director Sandeep Reddy Vanga. The entry of the film's female protagonist (Shalini Pandey) in a medical college coincides with the Ashtalakshmi stotram “Sumanasa Vandita” that's played on the radio. The terrific rendition of the hymn by Bombay Jayashree beautifully complements the 'love at first sight' moment of the protagonist played by Vijay Deverakonda. Note the fact that the first stanza of the hymn is an ode to the beauty, speech, and serenity of Goddess Lakshmi and placing this song in the entry sequence of the heroine creates a poetic effect on the viewer and the protagonist alike.

A similar emotional trigger was generated when the opening line of the famous Tyagaraja composition, “Manavi Alakincharadate” was used in the film Mental Madhilo's soundtrack. Its similarity to the classical composition is only restricted to the use of the words “Manavi Alakincharadate” though. The song (in the film) works well as a plea from the male protagonist to make the woman in his life understand his plight.

However, Pawan Kalyan's Agnyathavaasi through “Swagatham Krishna”, made a similar attempt to cash in on the classical song but didn't make that big an impact. Even the sequence where “Swagatham Krishna” is used in the film is very similar to that of “Deva Devam Bhaje” in the actor's earlier film Attarintiki Daaredi. The female protagonist Keerthy Suresh is learning classical music and there comes the saviour who's described as a modern-day Krishna (it was Rama in Attarintiki Daredi). The absence of any emotional context to the sequence dilutes the impact of a neo-classical twist to the number by composer Anirudh Ravichander. Similarly, the use of

“Rangapura Vihara” in the climax sequence of the Nagarjuna, Nani-starrer Devdas has no relevance to the film whatsoever.

It was re-packaging which was the need of the hour and that Needi Naadi Oke Kadha did to good effect. The underlying philosophy of Annamacharya's “Nanati Bratuku Natakamu” was wonderfully used in the film to empathise with the ambiguous emotional state of the lead protagonist (who's at crossroads in his career). This composition made its way to another Telugu film, the recently released NTR: Kathanayakudu, where the song captures the plight of a father who loses his son to a medical illness. The song's placement proved to be reasonably impactful here (though the film wasn't as successful).

NTR: Kathanayakudu also had reworked the Tyagaraja composition “Bantureeti Koluvu” to strike a connection with the multi-faced personality of someone named after Rama, his dimension as an ideal husband. Though the song sounds a desperate bid to enforce the 'holier than thou' image of the protagonist, the terrific vocals by Chitra and Sreenidhi apart from the poignant lyrics by Seetharama Sastry, ensure a rescue act.

This 'classical song in a commercial film' trend may upset purists but it’s still a way to make the form more accessible to people. Now if only the music isn’t used to just glorify the hero!

Srivathsan, a journalist by profession and an explorer by choice, finds purpose to his life through the books he digs into and the stories he writes. A walk in the park with music gives him a sense of calm while catching movies at the theatres week after week is a ritual he can't get enough of.

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