Remembering Jamuna, a celebrated doyenne with gumption
With a filmography spanning three decades, Jamuna left an indelible mark in the hearts of the Telugu viewers with her performances
The leading ladies of mid 20th century Telugu cinema were a class apart - they worked and thrived at a time when cinema purely, exclusively belonged to the theaters and none of the auxiliary industries that films today share a symbiotic relationship with, be it fashion, music, marketing, television or OTT, existed. Actors like Savitri, Jamuna and Sowcar Janaki also peaked way before leading ladies sadly became ornamental, hyper sexualized and increasingly disposable as the format of masala cinema became du jour. They featured prominently in the films they acted in and had solid, author backed roles that catered to the society unitarily and cogently, without truncating them into target demographics.
Perhaps this is the reason why actresses of that era possess a stardom that has long endured the test of time. Jamuna, who was fondly given the moniker Vendithara Satyabhama (silver screen’s Satyabhama), has acted in 198 films, out of which 145 are in Telugu, 20 in Tamil, 10 in Hindi and seven in Kannada respectively. Jamuna was born as Jana Bai in 1936 to a Kannadiga father and a Telugu mother in the town of Hampi, which also famously resulted in Jamuna also being called Hampisundari later in her career. Jamuna’s father, who had a business selling turmeric and tobacco, moved the family to the town of Duggirala in Guntur, where she grew up, acting in plays and learning music from her mother, till she was offered a role by Dr Garikapati Raja Rao and acted in his film Puttilu (1952).
Jamuna’s career has been closely intertwined with the career of Savitri’s, with them first meeting when the latter stayed in Jamuna’s house while performing in Duggirala. Savitri and Jamuna would go on to act in many films, including cult classics like Gundamma Katha(1962) and Missamma(1955). These movies often presented an interesting juxtaposition of these two heroines, with Savitri playing the older, orderly, dutiful older woman and Jamuna playing her younger, modernised, shrewish counterpart. Jamuna also had a successful collaboration at the movies with NT Rama Rao (NTR) and Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR), acting opposite them in movies like Appu Chesi Pappu Koodu(1959), Tenali Ramakrishna(1956), Poola Rangadu(1967), Donga Ramudu(1955) and Dorikithe Dongalu(1965) to name a few. Jamuna had also prominently featured in many mythological movies of that time including Bhookilas(1958) and Sri Krishna Tulabharam (1965).
Jamuna’s pairing with NTR and ANR came with its own set of controversies, with the actors even going so far as to declare publicly in 1958 that they will not act with Jamuna ever. Speaking on this ban, a few years ago at the Telugu talk show, ‘Open Heart with RK’, Jamuna notes, “Male ego is there in every profession, this profession is no different. Heroes think the world revolves around them, but the truth is that heroes amount to nothing without heroines, even the oldest hero needs a young, hot lady to star opposite him. My ban was a result of that male ego.” The ban lasted for a little over three years, and was lifted with Gundamma Katha. In addition to working with big names like NTR and Savitri, Jamuna has also acted opposite relative newcomer Harinath in films like Letha Manasulu (1966), Maa Inti Kodalu(1972) and Challani Needa(1968), which helped Harinath’s career immensely. Apart from acting, Jamuna is known for her short lived career in politics, contesting from the Rajahmundry constituency in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress party ticket and then, campaigning for BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late 90s. Jamuna, be it in her roles, or her real life persona, always emphasised the value of speaking and owning one’s truth, being a feminist way before that word emerged in popular usage. Despite ups and downs and controversies, she will fondly be as the Satyabhama, who truly embodied the inner strength and gravitas that she radiated both onscreen and off-screen.