And yet, it is the 1957 version that changed everything. Here you see for the first time, Telugu film industry’s ambitions of transporting the masses into a world of mythical fantasy realised on an epic scale with ambitious special effects, sets, and costumes. And yet, for all its immeasurable impact, the film itself is an exercise in levity: a romantic comedy about an elopement, orchestrated by Krishna (NT Rama Rao) who is really playing an elaborate game of chess with his counterpart, the wily Shakuni (CSR).
It says something about Hindu mythology’s ties with Telugu cinema that Mayabazar assumes familiarity with the Mahabharata’s story from its audience. For the uninitiated, the story begins when Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu and Balarama (Krishna’s brother)’s daughter Sasirekha are betrothed in their adolescence. When the Pandavas are exiled after losing the game of dice, Balarama and his wife Revathi are asked for Sasirekha’s hand in marriage by Duryodhana for his son — an alliance Revathi is immediately keen on, given that Abhimanyu’s family, the Pandavas, now happen to be in dire straits. The complication is that Abhimanyu and Sasirekha happen to be in love with each other, and Krishna decides to side with the couple against his own family and help them elope.
With Mayabazar, KV Reddy and Vijaya Vauhini Studios continued Telugu cinema’s romance with fantasy (facilitated by the mythological) after the success of Pathala Bhairavi (1951). For Mayabazar, despite its mythological setting, is designed to be whimsical fantasy, and it is precisely when it plays in this register that it is at its best. The scene that is emblematic of its tone is ‘Laahiri Laahiri Laahiri lo‘ — Abhimanyu sneaks Sasirekha out of her chamber by building a ladder shooting arrows. They go out for a boat ride on a moonlit night, singing the first part of the song when they are spotted by a guard who informs her parents. Krishna is aware of this and takes Rukmini out on a boat ride to cover, singing the second part of the song as they cover for the young couple making their escape. When Sasirekha’s parents finally appear on the scene, they too are taken in by the moonlit night, forget their suspicions, and sing the third part of the song. One wonders if the Hindu mythology in theatres today can be secure enough to accommodate this sort of whimsy.