Tenali Raman is a 1956 Indian Tamil-language historical drama film produced and directed by B. S. Ranga based on Ch. Venkataramaiah’s stage play Tenali Ramakrishna. Produced for the banner Vikram Productions, the film stars N. T. Rama Rao, Sivaji Ganesan, V. Nagaiah, P. Bhanumathi and Jamuna. Ranga also handled the cinematography while P. G. Mohan edited the film. Viswanathan–Ramamoorthy composed the soundtrack and background score.
Tenali Raman narrates the story of the 14th century poet and scholar Tenali Rama, and his life as a member of the court of Krishnadevaraya, the king of Vijayanagara Empire. Raman, with his wits, manages to save Krishnadevaraya from the attacks made by the Bahmani Sultanate who try to invade Vijayanagara Empire. The rest of the film is about Raman’s efforts in saving Krishnadevaraya from courtesan Krishnasani, a spy and convincing emperor Babur against extending support to the Sultanate in the war.
Produced as a bilingual film shot simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu with a slightly altered cast, Tenali Raman was filmed in and around Revathy Studios at Madras. It was released on 3 February 1956, nearly a month after the Telugu version Tenali Ramakrishna.
Raman is a poet and scholar whose talent is not recognised in his hometown Tenali. To earn a livelihood, he migrates to Hampi along with his wife Kamala and son Madhava. On his way to Hampi, he halts at a Kali temple where he is initially terrified looking at the goddess’ idol and the animal sacrifices made to please her. That night, Kali appears before him and grants a boon: he would have to choose either wisdom or materialistic wealth. Raman opts for both, which angers Kali who warns that he might end up as a clownish poet whose wisdom is solely useful for entertaining others. Raman accepts it as a blessing and requests Kali to save him from further dangers, to which the goddess agrees and disappears.
Raman reaches Hampi and approaches Rajaguru, the royal priest of the Vijayanagara empire to find employment in the court of king Krishnadevaraya. Neither Rajaguru nor his assistants help him and he returns dejected. However, he finds an opportunity when Krishnadevaraya is unable to distribute 17 disputed elephants among three brothers as per their deceased father’s will. Raman solves the problem and Krishnadevaraya appoints him as a court member. With his wit and loyalty, Raman soon earns the respect of all the court members, except Rajaguru who sees him as a problem.
The Deccan Sultans of Berar, Ahmednagar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda decide to wage a war on Vijayanagara empire with united military forces. They send Kanakaraju, a spy, to Hampi where he meets Raman, who happens to be his distant relative. Some days later, Kanakaraju tries to assassinate Krishnadevaraya and Rajaguru blames Raman for giving shelter to a spy. As Raman is about to be killed as per the king’s orders, he overhears a conversation between another spy and the court’s astrologer. The spy bribes the astrologer to influence Krishnadevaraya in postponing the war on Bijapur so that they can have time for proper preparations. Raman escapes and meets Appaji with whose help he reveals the astrologer’s intentions. The astrologer is killed and Rajaguru, who believed in him with good faith, is accused of trying to back stab the king. Raman intervenes and Rajaguru is saved, which improves their relation.
The Bahmani Sultanate then send courtesan Krishna to Hampi. With her acclaimed dancing skills, she manages to elicit the notice of Krishnadevaraya, who finds himself besotted by her wits and sensuousness. He issues orders that anyone who enters his private chamber would be beheaded and continues to spend with time with Krishna for months. Appaji and Raman learn that the Sultans are planning to take advantage of the King’s inaccessibility and shall launch a combined attack on Hampi soon. Worried at the state of affairs, Raman braves the prohibitory order and enters Krishna’s abode dressed as a woman, but is ignored and expelled from the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Krishnadevaraya’s wife Thirumalambal falls seriously ill, and he finally realises his mistakes. Once the King is back at his palace, Raman manages to gain entry into Krishna’s chamber again, this time under the guise of a saint who assures her that he would bring the King back to her. He catches her red-handed with her gang of spies, and signals to the hidden soldiers to surround her. She kills herself preferring a dignifying death, and Raman wishes to leave for Delhi to convince emperor Babur from sending his elephantry to support the Sultanate in the war.
Raman reaches Delhi and meets Babur in the guise of an aged fakir and sings praises of him, until he empties all the gold coins he has. Babur then invites him to his palace to gift him properly. Raman goes to Babur’s palace, and introduces himself as one of those innocent citizens of the Vijayanagara empire who shall suffer if Babur extends his support to the unjust Sultanate. Babur is convinced and calls off his elephantry back. Dismayed at the sudden turn of events, the Sultanate call off the war. Krishnadevaraya learns about Raman’s efforts in stopping the war from Appaji. Remorseful, Krishnadevaraya invites Raman to rejoin the court, to which he agrees gladly.
Directed by B. S. Ranga
Produced by B. S. Ranga
Screenplay by B. S. Ranga
Based on Tenali Ramakrishna by Ch. Venkataramaiah
Starring Sivaji Ganesan, N. T. Rama Rao, V. Nagaiah, P. Bhanumathi, Jamuna
Music by Viswanathan–Ramamoorthy
Cinematography B. S. Ranga
Edited by P. G. Mohan
Production Vikram Productions
Release date 3 February 1956
Running time 169 minutes