Monday, March 29, 2010

Equal Opportunity Devotion

Tirupati Shree Balaji (1997)
(Hindi-dubbed version of the Telugu Annamayya, aka Bhakti Annamayya)

Finally, I've watched a movie about a male devotee of a male God! Funny that it's about the poet Annamayya (a.k.a. Annamacharya), who I first heard of in a book about male writers who took on female poetic voices to write erotic love songs to the gods.

That was When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others, edited and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Shulman. There's also a book solely of Annamayya's poem's (only a taste of the reputed 32,000 or so -- who did he think he was, Lata Mangeshkar?) called God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati, translated again by Rao and Shulman. I recommend either, as well as Nanditha Krishna's lovely, art-filled Balaji - Venkateshwara: Lord of Tirumala - Tirupati: An Introduction.

The courtesan-poetry business doesn't come up in the movie, but it does deal with the link between spirituality and worldly enjoyment, emphasizing an anecdote from Annacharya's (almost certainly apocryphal) biography: his romancing of two sisters. Considering how many Hindi films I've seen on the theme of marriage and family disapproval, it really stood out to me how everyone in the film was encouraging the match between the pretty twins and the wanna-be ascetic.

Finally, his mother asks pointedly, "Which god has asked you not to marry and renounce the world?" The disguised Vishnu takes her side, and the three get married in a traditional ceremony.

The movie contains lots of beautiful gowns and beautiful temples, which seems appropriate for such a gilded god as Balaji, and won the National Film Award for its music. Besides the aesthetic niceties, I also enjoyed a lot of the theological elements. For instance, there's a nice scene in which our hero, his mother, and his girlfriends argue why women should be taught the Vedas, pointing out the female rishis, and Gayatri and Sarasvati as female gods.

The religious part of the movie is refreshingly uninterested in suffering or sacrifice. Annamayya's conflicts are more internal: what should he do with his life? What path is right for him? The reason he was born in the first place (magically generated from Vishnu's sword), is because of the particular appreciation the gods have for hearing their praises sung in the vernacular, or "folk" languages. (The opening scenes show Vishnu being worshipped in various languages, but not Telugu).

When he occasionally gets distracted from this destiny, the gods gently nudge him back on his way, those experiences seem to enrich his art. It's a nice middle-path view of fate: he has a specific purpose on earth, whether he knows it or not, but he's not punished for going off-task. Losing the path leads back to the path -- as long as he doesn't go so far into earthly pleasures that he forgets the spiritual side altogether, or vice versa.

Speaking of indulging in the worldly pleasures, look at this outfit! And this bed! OMG, I want them RIGHT NOW!

Once Annamayya devotes his life to singing for Vishnu, wives by his side, the jealous temple administrator brings him to the attention of the King (the very cool Mohanbabu) and his new Queen (the stunning Roja, above). In response, they offer the singer a position at court, which he rather grudgingly accepts. Eventually, they get bored with nothing but devotional songs all the time, and start commissioning songs dedicated to themselves. Of course, he's not willing to do that, so the King angrily sends him to the dungeon with the classic line "Torture him til he sings my praises!"

You might want to listen to what you said there, King Babu. I don't think that's going to work.

Happily, it's not a spoiler to say that eventually the gods are going to put everything right.

My only real quibble with the movie is that star Nagarjuna Akkineni is okay -- maybe not quite enough charismatic to score two hot twin sisters -- but he's not a very convincing lip-syncher. That's kind of a flaw in a movie about a singer.

There are loads of Annamayya kirtans on YouTube, for further study. You'll also be happy to know that if you're on Facebook, you can become fans of Balaji and Annamacharya. Despite my frequent frustrations, the modern world does have its moments!


Raj Fans said...

This article is written in extremely poor taste. I dont care for the movie and the circus acts, but Annamayya's works are monumental in Carnatic music and Telugu literature.

Anarchivist said...

I totally agree about Annamayya! It's unfortunate that he, like so many writers, is mostly unknown in the west, where very little of his work has been translated.

That's part of what I personally enjoy about devotional films: they clearly exist to popularize who they're about -- Annamayya, in this case. In so doing, they tend to lure audiences in with sensation (popular songs, romance, comedy) and some eye candy. But then they leave the audience with spiritual messages they can take if they're inclined.

There was much in this movie that was just plain audience-pleasing fun, so it seems fair to take it lightly. But that doesn't mean I have any disrespect in my heart for Annamayya or for Balaji, and I'm sorry that you saw any there.