A tribute to the movie that changed the trajectory of my life

By Arun Jacob

In the fast paced world we live in today, fame is as ephemeral as a flickering candle in the wind. And yet some people and events leave an indelible mark upon the lives of others. And it is in such a context that I would like to mention C. Praveen Kumar Reddy, PR. Prasad and CL. Narasa Reddy as three individuals who touched the lives of many. Out of those, some like mine changed forever. These three gentlemen together with a posse of other incredible individuals were the architects of something wonderful in the year 1989. About what it is, I am going to hold the suspense for just a wee bit longer while I indulge in a reminiscence of the good old days.

It was a different era. A different Hyderabad. A time before the internet, Google or Facebook. Cell phones were unheard of and even pagers were yet to arrive on the horizon. For those of us who did not have a phone connection at home, the corner STD/ISD PCO was the lifeline. For the uninitiated who are going to Google it anyway, let me share a brief description here. These were small wooden phone booths abounding on practically every major street, the equivalent of today’s internet cafes but only to make calls to local phones, outside the state or country. I was a twenty one year old ‘dude’ just having passed my B.Com Honors from the only B.Com Honors college in town then; Indian Institute of Management and Commerce aka Vasavi College. Life was ‘bindaas’ as we would like to say. To contact friends we had no sms or Watsapp but actually had to get on a bike and go to where they lived. If we were lucky they would be home. Otherwise it was on to the next friend’s house or the next. The bikes themselves were seeing a revolution with the arrival of the Ind-Suzuki, Yamaha RX 100, Kawasaki Bajaj and a few others. The good old relics like Jawa, Yezdi and Roadkings were still around too.

It was the era of transitioning from drinking cheap rum in the dhabas to draught beer in the pubs that started opening around town. Black Cadillac, 10 Downing Street, Bier Keller, Barrelhouse to name a few. It was that glorious era to wear the Top Gun inspired leather jacket with its many macho patches made so famous by Tom Cruise and head over to Sangeet theater to watch the latest Hollywood movie. It was infradig to watch ‘desi’ movies. We would not be seen within a mile of a theater that played Hindi or Telugu movies with their predictable plots, loud songs, lewd dialogues, hip thrusting dances and overweight lead actors. And then on the tenth day of May 1989, Gita arrived and changed everything.

It was my younger sister who came home one evening and insisted that I go and watch this new Telugu movie that had just been released. I was aghast with the thought of watching a ‘desi’ movie. But my kid sister was adamant and insisted that I would change my view about Telugu movies if I saw this one. I thought she was indulging in fantasy to think one single movie could change the view held over a lifetime of twenty one years. But to humor her and be able to tell her later condescendingly how wrong she was, I went to watch Gitanjali. And my life changed forever.

Maniratnam may be on the wane but his prowess as a celluloid magician is unrivaled. He was the one who crafted and delivered this movie that I consider a watershed event in the Telugu film industry. The fact that it was made in Telugu originally and was not a dubbed Tamil movie made it very special for all of us who spoke the language. The story of Gita and Prakash was like a breath of fresh air in the murky world of Telugu cinema of that time. The premise, the script, the locales, the actors, musicians, photographer, just about everything and everyone involved with the movie created magic. I was mesmerized. I kept going back to the theater day after day and immersed myself totally in the Gitanjali experience.

Every day I would lose myself in one or the other esoteric aspect of the movie. If one day I marveled only at the innocence of young Girija Shettar who played the lead role, the next day it was admiration for young Nagarjuna as Prakash and the restrained performance he delivered. His clothes and footwear in the movie very quickly became the new benchmark and Tom Cruise and his leather jacket went into cold storage almost overnight. On other days I would lose myself in the magic that Ilaya Raja created with his music. I watched the movie so many times now, I can recall every bit of background music of each and every scene. My favorite is when Prakash starts running through the woods to search for Gita who he had callously abandoned in a tit for tat move in the plot. I know all the dialogues of course.

And then there was PC Sreeram’s magic as the cinematographer. Combined with the beautiful locales of Ooty, every scene evoked a deep sense of romance, love, laughter, gaiety and yet tinged with an unspeakable sense of sadness because of the physical state of both the protagonists. My eyes well with tears right now as I write this sitting in a small town in a distant part of the world because I am still and will always be touched by the inherent sadness of the movie every time I dwell upon it. Which is practically every day. I must also mention the editing by B Lenin and VT Vijayan. They really set a benchmark for themselves with this movie. Crisp, clean, precise and yet beautifully unfolding a simple yet poignant drama. That’s what they achieved.

And then there was Mugur Sundar also known as Sundaram Master. He was the choreographer who also danced a cameo in that amazing and possibly one of the best, entertaining, gripping and classy rain songs ever shot or made in India. This song (Jalantha kavintha) introduces the heroine Gita to the audience. No wonder Sundaram Master’s progeny have all gone on to carve an important place for themselves as notable choreographers and directors in Indian cinema; Prabhu Deva being the most prominent amongst them.

And then back to the maestro Ilaya Raja and the songs he composed for this movie. And SP Balasubramaniam, Janaki and Chitra who sang them so beautifully. From the first song ‘Jagada jagadam’ with its rebellious streak introducing the free spirit of Prakash to the melancholic final song ‘O papa lali’ he wove absolute magic. I am absolutely positive that this album will still top the charts even today if the producers decide to release it again. For that matter the movie would run to full theaters again if they decide to do a special silver jubilee screening. That’s how powerful this creation is. Before I forget I must also mention the significant contributions of others in the movie like Mucharla Aruna, Vijayakumar, Vijayachander, Disco Shanthi, Silk Smitha (RIP), Suthi Velu (RIP), Chandra Mohan, Sowkar Janaki, the young girls who played Gita’s sisters, the grandmother and the many others who together wove this magic.

And so I can go on and on about Gitanjali. Its beautiful way of meshing into the script a comedy track that was hilarious in itself but did not interrupt the main narrative, the dialogues by Rajashri (Gita’s tongue in cheek lechi podama), lyrics by Veturi or the many facets that make this movie so complete and entertaining. In the event readers assume I am some sort of a besotted fan who borders on an obsessive compulsive disorder lasting twenty five
years, let it be known that Gitanjali went on to win numerous awards. In the 37th National Film Awards the movie won Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment. In the Filmfare Awards South Manirathnam bagged the Best Director for the movie. In 1990 it also won six Nandi Awards for Best Feature Film, Story Writer, Best Male Comedian, Best Choreography, Best Cinematographer and Best Art Direction.

To me personally, the first time I watched this movie it was like being walloped with a ton of bricks. This movie was so powerful it skewed the entire trajectory of the career I had envisaged till then.

Like most of my classmates I was firmly looking at the path of either a MBA, CA or Company Secretary. But this movie instilled in me and awakened a creative side I had never really explored before. And so I set out to carve out a creative career and abandoned anything to do with commerce and started writing the entrance exams for Film and Television Institute of India and MA Mass Communication in Jamia Milia Islamia. In both the entrance exams I described why I thought this national award winning movie was exceptional. Except for a quirk of fate I would have graduated from one of these premier institutes. The fact I could not did not deter me though.

While pursuing what can only be termed as a conventional career I have constantly been in touch with my creative aspirations. This has made me work for All India Radio, write and produce a documentary, make ad films, be a copywriter, write a novel and constantly experiment with a camera. Thanks to Gitanjali and the spirit that young girl’s attitude instilled in me. I live life one day at a time just like she and Prakash did. In my mid forties now, I still feel youthful and zestful because I live like them. I am full of dreams, hopes, aspirations and the beauty of what tomorrow holds. And to hell with what fate holds out for us.

For a long time I thought I was a one man Gitanjali fan club. And then I realized I was not alone. Through random conversations in Hyderabad over the years I came across many who were as deeply touched and moved by this movie as I was. I would like to mention two of them here.

The first one is someone who went to Canada for presumably a masters in electrical engineering but quickly changed the course to a film course as soon as he reached there. What transpired between him and his father post this course change is a plot for a family drama! Interestingly enough this friend also changed his name at one point in his life and took on the name of Prakash. Wonder where that inspiration came from? And then, there is this other dear friend who very often wears a white kurta pyjama and a colorful chunni just like Gita did in the movie. In many ways I think she imbibed Gita’s attitude towards life and went on to face the many challenges she encountered with a care-a-damn attitude, a smile and the colorful chunni.

I write this article because it will be a travesty if we do not acknowledge the silver jubilee of a phenomenon called Gitanjali. If I were still living in India I would have certainly utilized all my organizational ability to create a celebration of this gem of a movie. But I live overseas now and do not have that opportunity. So the next best thing I can do is write this tribute. What I have done, though, in my personal capacity, is to install two lamp posts in the back garden that are very similar to the ones under which Prakash holds Gita in his arms and sings the soulful ‘O papa lali.’ My wife still keeps wondering why I chose these particular lamp posts. I have never told her the real reason lest she think I love Gita more than her! I also keep writing my books and scripts even while continuing with a conventional career. And on days when the job stresses me out, I come back home and watch Gitanjali again. I am rejuvenated immediately.

I don’t want to end this eulogy, but I guess I have to at some point. But for those of you whose interest has been piqued about Gitanjali, go ahead and watch the movie. Hopefully it will transform your life too. At the very least you will be totally entertained for two hours. As far as I am concerned I am going to pop in the DVD one more time just now and experience the magic all over again. The opening background score of the movie starts with the words ‘I love you’. Pretty apt I would say because I went on to love this movie so much. Thank you first to my little sister who introduced me to Gitanjali and then to Gita who has been an inextricable part of my life ever since. And a very happy twenty-fifth birthday.

The three gentlemen I mentioned at the start of this article are the producers of the film. I hope they read this article and accept my thanks on behalf of the legions of Gitanjali fans out there. I also fervently hope Maniratnam, Nagarjuna, Girija, Ilaya Raja or anyone involved with Gitanjali will read this. If any reader knows them personally please direct their attention to this article. Thanks in advance and let us all celebrate life every day. Just like Gita did even in the face of much adversity.

New Zealand September, 2014