Remembering Bapu: The Telugu Director Who Challenged Social Norms Through His Cinema

Posted on August 31, 2015 in Culture-Vulture

By P.V. Durga

My first tryst with a Bapu movie was on the Rama Navami of 2005 as an eight year old. For the first time in my life, my mother wasn’t sitting in the hall, waiting to give me the routine tight hug after my return from a class. She was glued to the TV, watching ‘Seetha Kalyanam‘ (1976). I sat down with her, watching the beautiful narrative unfold before me- the story of Lord Ram’s marriage where the characters of Ram and Sita did all the talking with their eyes; they had no dialogues throughout the movie except for the last scene between Ram and Parashuram. And so, my romance with Bapu’s movies began, and no matter how many times I watch them, they never fail to enchant me.


At a time when there were no computer graphics, Bapu (born Sattiraju Lakshminarayana in 1931), recreated scenes from mythology with élan. His attention to detail was so perfect that he would even recreate the sound of jewellery clunking as the characters walked, sat, and moved. “Bapu gaaru“, as he was called, was the epitome of versatility. In addition to being a director, he was a cartoonist, artist, and an illustrator.

Simplicity was his USP. His paintings had plain colour palettes, simple strokes and fuss-free backdrops. Despite having no formal training in art, his paintings were nothing short of poetic. The sheer body language of the characters spoke a thousand words. In fact, a beautiful Telugu girl today is synonymous with a “Bapu bomma” (Bapu’s painting). He even had his own font, which is popularly used today in the wedding invitations of many Telugu households.

It was this very simplicity that reflected in his films too. The “Bapu touch” was evident in every other aspect of his film making. His movies never had elaborate sets, gaudy costumes, lengthy dialogues or complicated background scores. He covered wide genres during this directorial career from 1967- 2011, ranging from mythology to dramas with social messages intricately woven into them. Despite the storylines possessing multiple layers, his crisp style of narration packaged a multitude of elements in the most engaging manner.

Bapu is also accredited with bringing in a completely new genre into cinema- socio fantasies. In which other movie would you find a track which has Goddess Lakshmi questioning her subordination to Lord Vishnu running parallel to the story about how housewives are taken for granted? Watch ‘Mr. Pellam‘(1993) and you will be amazed at how he manages to create sub-plots using mythology as a reference, and connect them to the story without confusing the audience! Through his stories, which were accompanied by brilliant writing (thanks to his creative companion and soulmate, and genius of a writer, Mullapudi Venkata Ramana), he even dared to question and challenge social norms – sometimes through subtle hints, and sometimes, by basing his whole movie on that idea. He touched upon issues such as widow remarriage (‘Vamsa Vruksham‘, 1980), workplace harassment (‘Pelli Pustakam‘, 1991), sexual and dowry harassment (‘Gorantha Deepam‘, 1978), domestic violence and infidelity (‘Radha Gopalam‘, 2005), and many more.

In a time when heroines were seen as mere glamorous additions to movies, Bapu’s movies always had substantial roles for women, and he was a feminist like no other director. He loved taking a dig at the lousy attitude of husbands, and brought it into his movies with a tinge of humor. It was remarkable how a man displayed such great sensitivity in portraying the little issues that women face with their spouses in the privacy of their homes, such as, striking a balance between their children’s and husband’s craving for attention, protecting the children from the wrath of a husband who comes back after a tiring day at work, and handling the “male ego“. Yet, he never resorted to male bashing, and always presented a balanced perspective.

In a scene in Mr. Pellam, a neighbor, who is being made to do all the household work by his wife who is now “emancipated“, asks the heroine as to why she is being a “slave” to her house and family when the time has come for women to conquer the outside world. She gives him a pithy reply by asking as to how one could call working for her own husband’s and children’s well- being “slavery“. Those were the kind of women in Bapu’s movies- tender, yet fiercely protective of their children, and equal in capability to their husbands. He propagated the idea of a woman’s choice with great responsibility and talked in his movies about respecting that. Also, he never objectified them. Bapu proved to the film industry that sensuality is not in the mere physicality. One glance of his doe-eyed, fully covered, saree clad heroines was enough for Bapu to aesthetically bring out all the erotica.

Bapu’s style of film making was poetic. He loved focusing on the profiles and eyes of his leads, and brought out myriad emotions through subtle changes in their facial expressions through those angles. Neither did he succumb to archetypes nor did he perpetuate stereotypes. His heroines wore simple clothes, were well-endowed, healthy looking, and had minimal make-up. Bapu also never believed in the “macho” idea of heroes. There were rarely any muscular heroes in his movies, unless the role demanded one. This made the characters in his movies highly relatable. In fact, it is well known that Bapu would sketch the characters and scenes down to the minutest detail, like the placement of a flower vase. He successfully incorporated subtlety in a medium that was visually intense.

He won several awards throughout his career at the state, and national levels, and won international recognition too. His movie Seetha Kalyanam is a part of the course work at the British Film Institute, and was screened at multiple international film festivals. His art work fetched him many honours too. Yet, he lived a quiet and simple life in his humble Chennai residence as a media-shy person. Whenever he would step out, he would be clad in a simple white kurta and blue jeans, and never talked much.

For having led a life with nothing but his films doing all the talking and publicity for him, and for taking Indian cinema to the international platform, the country woke up to his achievements only a year before his passing, and awarded him a Padma Shri as late as 2013. Most definitely, Bapu deserved more recognition for bringing a new perspective, not just to Telugu but Indian cinema as well.