Fondly known as ‘Ashtavadani’, meaning someone who can perform 8 tasks simultaneously, Bhanumathi Ramakrishna was a multi-talented actress. Being a successful actress had eaten into her well-deserved recognition in other fields such as literature and music, where she was equally talented.
It was her love for and talent in music that enabled her foray into movies. She kept her singing talent alive throughout her movie career where she gave voice to all her songs. She also ventured into music composition for around 5 movies during her career span. In addition to this, she had written scripts, directed and produced movies under her own banner, Bharani Films.
Even the roles she played were very diverse as against the sob queens and delicate femmes played by her contemporaries. The characters she played involved strong individuality, persona and most importantly humour delivered in her signature satirical arrogance. The famous Telugu director, Chakrapani supposedly once mentioned that “audience will not watch Bhanumathi cry, they would watch if she makes others cry”.
Early life and entry into films
Bhanumathi was born on September 7, 1925, in a middle-class family to Saraswatamma and Bommaraju Venkata Subbaiah near Ongole, Andhra Pradesh. Her parents being music enthusiasts, she was given training in both Carnatic and Hindustani music from a very young age.
Her first movie offer for Vara Vikrankatam came to her in the year 1939 at the age of 13. She was offered the role of Kalindi, a 13-year-old who is forced to marry an old man and commits suicide. The filmmaker was looking for a girl who could sing, for in those days playback singing was not an option.
Her singing talent gained her more popularity than acting in the initial days and very soon she landed lead roles in Malathi Madhavam and Dharma Patni. While she learnt horse riding and sword fighting with ease, dancing was not her cup of tea.
Her dance teacher, the renowned dancer Vempathi Pedda Satyam, supposedly got exasperated at her complete lack of grace in dancing. After the movie release, her dancing was ridiculed by the press, a skill which she gradually improved.
Rebellious marriage at the age of 18
At the time of shooting of her fifth film in 1943, Krishna Prema, Bhanumathi was already an established actress. She took a liking to the assistant director of the movie, Ramakrishna, and proposed to him. Ramakrishna, who was still struggling for his place in the industry, was initially reluctant to accept the offer, but finally conceded.
However, Bhanumathi’s father was not convinced of her decision to marry a person much below her station, which led to both of them eloping and getting married. Their marriage lasted for 40 years, in the span of which they produced many successful films together under their own banner Bharani Films.
Re-entry into films and no going back thereafter
After marriage, Bhanumathi had initially decided not to enter into films. However, when reputed director B.N Reddy approached her few months after her marriage and persuaded her to do just one more film with him, she conceded out of respect to the great director.
The movie Swargaseema (loosely based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), was released in 1945 and was a raging success in all the Southern states. The movie‘s song, ‘Oho Oho Pavurama’ inspired by a Spanish tune hummed by Rita Hayworth from the movie Blood and Sand was a sensational hit and made Bhanumathi a household name and an overnight star.
The veteran actor, Sivaji Ganeshan had later mentioned to Bhanumathi that he watched the movie more than 30 times, just for that song. In the same year as the Swargaseema release, she gave birth to her only son, Bharani.
After Swargaseema, offers started pouring in for Bhanumathi, not just from Telugu films, but also Tamil Cinema. She became the first female superstar of Southern cinema and was commanding a whopping 25 thousand rupees per movie back in those days, which was around 50% of movie production cost.
With money starting to pour in, she decided to start her own production house and studio and thereby providing a break to her husband as a filmmaker, who was working as an assistant director to other filmmakers. Thus Bharani Studios came into being, (named after their son) which produced 15 movies in total, including super hit movies such as Laila Majnu and the National Award winning Vipranaraya.
Her acting career reached its peak with the release of the musical super hit, Malleswari in 1951 opposite N.T. Ramarao, whose career was just taking off (Telugu superstar who went to become CM of Andhra Pradesh). The movie is touted to be an all-time Telugu classic. In her overall acting career, spanning around 60 years, she acted in around 97 films, of which 58 were in Telugu, 34 in Tamil and 5 in Hindi.
One of the first woman directors in Indian cinema
In 1953, Bhanumathi became one of the first women in India to direct a movie. She directed Chandirani simultaneously in 3 languages: Telugu, Tamil and Hindu. She played a dual role for the first time in this film. She paired opposite N.T. Ramarao in Telugu and Tamil and Dilip Kumar in Hindi. She created a record by releasing the movie in all three languages on the same day in over 100 theatres across the country. The movie was an average success.
A successful stint as a writer
Bhanumathi was also a talented writer with a number of short stories to her credit. The Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy awarded her as ‘Best Short Story Writer’ for her popular comedy short stories ‘Attagari Kathalu‘ (Mother-in-law’ stories) which has its own place in the pages of Telugu literature. She also penned her autobiographical work, Nalo Nenu in 1994, for which she won the National Award for best writer.
Bhanumathi was known for her arrogance in the film industry. She not just carried it in her demeanour but was vocal about her pride. When asked by a reporter once, how it felt like having been paired with male superstars of Telugu cinema, she had supposedly retorted stating that it was not she who was paired with them but they with her and the reporter should pose this question to them and not her. On another occasion, when a reporter asked who she thought was her heir among the next generation of actresses, she replied stating there cannot be a successor to Bhanumathi.
There are other interesting episodes where in a fit of ego clashes with director Chakrapani, she threw away the title role of Missamma in 1955, (which went on to become an all-time Telugu classic) after having acted in it for around 40 minutes of screen time. The film eventually went to the legendary South Indian actress, Savitri, whose climb to the stardom was largely facilitated by this movie.
Post this, Bhanumathi produced the film Charkrapani in which she created an old, miserly and eccentric character for the title role and it was widely believed that she named the character after director Chakrapani with whom she was having a showdown at that point. But she and Chakrapani eventually made peace and stayed friends for the rest of their lives.
During the later years of her life, Bhanumathi did admit in an interview that she was arrogant, but the arrogance was more a defence mechanism to survive the extremely male-dominated film industry.
Awards and accolades
Bhanumathi was the first South Indian actress to receive the Padma Shri in 1963. She later received the Padma Bhushan in 2003 for her contribution to Indian cinema. She was honoured among ‘Women in Cinema’ at the 30th International Film Festival of India. The Postal Department of India released a 5 rupee stamp of Bhanumathi in 2013 to commemorate ‘100 years of Indian Cinema’.
Bhanumathi died at the age of 80 after an illustrious career in films and proving her merit in every skill she was gifted with. She will always be remembered as an actress, whose charm lay in her self-awareness, attitude and satire. She did not fake humility to win hearts, she instead won them with her well-founded arrogance. Her pride did not have its founding in looks or youth, but her talent, ability to persevere and her passion to excel.