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The Renaissance man who created a rainbow of realistic cinema

By DECCAN CHRONICLE | Srikanth Godavarthi

19 March 2023

'Maa Bhoomi' was a watershed milestone in Telugu film history, 43 years after it was released on March 22, 1980

Hyderabad: "Bandenaka bandi katti padaharu bandlu katti, ye bandle vasthav koduko naizamu sarkaroda. (Cart hitched to cart in a caravan of 16 carts, in which cart will you arrive, you ruler of the Nizam state)," a young 30-something Gummadi Vittal Rao (later to become Gaddar) sings in ‘Maa Bhoomi’ while dancing to the sounds of his anklets, an anthem for rebellion that evokes Telangana's tenacious peasant struggle of the early 1940s, revealing the oppressive feudal system during the Nizam's reign and the militia Razakars.

While ‘Maa Bhoomi’ is not B. Narsing Rao's debut film as director, it remains one of his most potent and stinging indictments of oppression and feudalism, 43 years after its release on March 22, 1980, which marked his entry into the canons of Indian cinema as well as a watershed moment in Telugu cinematic history, inspiring 'Red' films in the years that followed.

When it was released, the film played at Sudarshan Theatre for over a year, which no other film had done since ‘Sholay’ (1975) or ‘Sankarabharanam’ (1980), while also immortalising Krishan Chander’s Urdu novel ‘Jab Khet Jaage.’

“Maa Bhoomi was about the peasant movement against feudalism in all its manifestations, including the zamindari system, vetti chakiri (bonded labour), and the core issue of land, but exploitation of one by another, enslavement of one race by another, and slavery, sexual exploitation, and forced labour as a societal evil have existed throughout history in nearly every country on the planet, cutting across racial, regional, cultural, and religious divides,” says Narsing Rao, a commanding presence at 6.5 feet, who is a filmmaker, artist, photographer, and scriptwriter, among other things.

Narsing Rao's body of work in cinema pioneered realism in the mainstream. His filmmaking career lasted a little over 10 years, yet he left an indelible influence on cinema during that period. Although he was born into an affluent feudal family, Rao's films, like Bimal Roy's, questioned the institutions that remained wedded to Telangana's feudal past or dealt with social concerns that struck a deep chord with audiences, as evidenced by his critically acclaimed body of work from ‘Maa Bhoomi’ (1980), ‘Rangula Kala’ (1984), ‘Daasi’ (1988), ‘Matti Manishulu’ (1989), and ‘Harivillu’ (2003).

A profound sense of empathy for the exploited permeates Rao's artwork. From ‘Maa Bhoomi’ to ‘Daasi,’ every one of his films is typified by human relationships, injustice, and feudal oppression. They represent the same fundamental conflict in terms of the individual(s) struggle against established feudal systems.

The sexual exploitation of domestic helps by their feudal masters served as inspiration for Rao's portrayal of the perils of feudalism in Daasi, which is regarded as one of the seminal works of art cinema. In ‘Daasi,’ Kamalakshi (Archana) symbolises everything that was wrong with feudalism and mirrored the culture of bonded sexual servitude within the walls of the lofty fortresses of the feudal lords known as Gadis.

“A number of prominent theatre artistes of the time came together for ‘Maa Bhoomi’. Sai Chand, Shakuntala, and Rami Reddy were among the actors who had never appeared in front of a camera before, yet they all did an outstanding job. Gaddar, a highly talented and a great performer, used to work as an artiste in the government's field publicity department at the time.  Archana's performances in ‘Daasi’ and ‘Matti Manshulu’ were magnetic and captivating, particularly in ‘Daasi’, by managing to bring tears from only one eye without the aid of glycerine,” recalls the 78-year-old filmmaker, known as Telangana's ‘Renaissance Man’.

If ‘Maa Bhoomi’ captured the unbridled oppression of feudalism, ‘Matti Manushulu’ showed the migration and exploitation of construction workers from Palamuru (Mahbubnagar) in urban settings. Rao's directorial debut, ‘Rangula Kala,’ in which he played the lead protagonist Ravi, a bearded idealistic painter troubled by the “inner conflict inside him” who is striving to make a livelihood while forging his own contemporary style and refusing to surrender to the vicissitudes of the capitalist economy.

“All films were done with the faith that we can uplift the downtrodden and the marginalised. It is essential that all films, whether they are commercial or artistic, keep you captivated long after you leave the theatre. I am strongly rooted in the culture and land that I call home in my stories,” Rao says.

Rao's films sought to capture the struggles of people's lives without exaggeration or dramatisation. He says that the human condition is reflected in even the smallest aspect of these people's lives.

“I am moved by societal inequities and human suffering. Suffering can take many forms and impacts everyone from landless farmers, a housemaid, daily wagers, or an artist. I've made films for personal gratification, in addition to pursuing other interests such as poetry, painting, photography, and music. All of these are things I don't want to give up in order to become a busy commercial filmmaker,” Rao says.

Rao immersed himself in other muses after creating a rainbow (‘Harivillu’) of five masterworks of realistic cinema and raising Telugu filmmaking to a new level.

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