Remembering Kaikala Satyanarayana: Goodbye, the Yama of Telugu cinema
Satyanarayana did to Yama what NTR did to Lord Krishna
Actors are gifted with the opportunity to immortalise certain characters and consequentially themselves on screen. Kaikala Satyanarayana might have acted in more than 800 films throughout his six-decade-long career, but his identity, legacy and in turn, existence, will forever remain connected to a rather terrifying name, Yamadharma Raju. After all, he immortalised the god of the dead on the silver screen. For an average person who grew up on a staple diet of Telugu cinema, the first image that flashes in their mind when they hear the name Yama is that of a mighty Kaikala Satyanarayana, with a royal mustache, covered in vibrant ornaments, holding a gadha and wearing a grand smile. What NTR did to Lord Krishna, Satyanarayana did to Yama.
He played Yamadharma Raju in multiple films. His Yama always went from the intimidating to the intimidated, when he realises that he was not infallible after all. In Yama Gola (1975), he played Yama while NTR player the mortal who wreaks havoc in the immortal's life. Thirteen years later, he played Yama to the then-young and rising Chiranjeevi in Yamuduki Mogudu. Then in the celebrated comedy, Yamaleela, co-starring actor-comedian Ali. Yamaleela perhaps featured the intimidating Yamadharma Raju in one of the silliest and most amusing situations one can imagine: when he, along with his loyal aid Chitraguptudu (the ever-reliable Brahmanandam) visit Bhoolokam, they discover ice cream, relish a hundred scoops, quickly realise that they are not aware of concepts like currency and sale at all, and run away. It's a hilarious and delightful scene. See, Satyanarayana even made 'the god of the dead' gullible and likable.
Yama isn’t the only iconic character he left his mark on, the actor had a blast playing the larger-than-life mythological character Ghatotkacha in multiple films including Pandava Vanavasam (1965), Ghatothkachudu (1995), and Sahasa Veerudu Sagara Kanya (1996). It is a role that carved the legendary SV Ranga Rao’s name—ascribed to his portrayal in the classic Mayabazar—in the history books of Telugu cinema and Satyanarayana furthered this legacy and left his signature on it. And he was just perfect as Bheemudu in another mythological epic, Daana Veera Soora Karna; so was he as Raavana in Sita Kalyanam (1976). Satyanarayana held his own ground, with majesty, in mythologies.
While he humanised and made even Yama loveable, it is safe to say that he did go ballistic and inhuman when he was playing the villain in some of the masala entertainers of the '70s and '80s. I vividly remember watching K Raghavendra Rao’s Vetagadu in which Satyanarayana, who essays a cold-blooded character, murders an innocent woman by feeding her to a crocodile. The scene isn’t graphic but the actor sells cruelty with all the ‘70s flash gloriously. As a villain, he took the torch from Rajanala and carried it forward. Some of his popular performances came in films like Adavi Ramudu (1977), Dabbuku Lokam Dasoham (1973), Jeevana Jyothi (1975), Secretary (1976), Moratodu (1977), Premalekhalu (1977), Kumara Raja (1978), Driver Ramudu (1979), Kukka Katuku Cheppu Debba (1979), Justice Chowdary (1982), Bangaru Bava (1980), Bobbili Puli (1982), Shimhasanam (1986), Kaidhi No 786 (1988), Kondaveeti Donga (1990), Kodama Simham (1990), Alludu Gaaru (1990) and Gang Leader (1991).
In the 2012 film Daruvu, he plays an aged Yamadharma who decides to retire and pass on the baton to his son, played by Prabhu. It was a cameo in a forgettable film. In retrospect, it feels like the culmination of a long, vibrant journey in Telugu cinema; we just didn't see its significance back then.