This one proclaims itself to be from the makers of Annamayya, and that hits closer home that you think - there's plenty of the feel of Nagarjuna / Raghavendra Rao's devotional blockbuster of the late 1990s in Vengamamba, with the climax looking like almost a copy. Indeed, even some dialogues are the same.
Well, for the most part, that's mostly a good thing, since Vengamamba is not helmed by the same creative talent that pulled off Annamayya, and sticking to a template helps ensure a minimum quality. The audience is not likely to be too discerning, anyway - the people who come to watch this, given its lack of star-power, are more likely there for devotional reasons than to judge the movie-making. Sometimes it's sensible to keep it simple, and Vengamamba is mostly an ROI flick.
The film is the story of the eponymous poet-devotee of Lord Venkateshwara who lived in the Mughal/British India of the 1700s. Born in Tarikonda in Andhra Pradesh to an orthodox Brahmin family, Vengamamba is a staunch devotee of Lord Vankateshwara (played by Saikiran) right since childhood, and considers Him her husband. So much so that when her actual husband Venkatachalapathi dies young, she refuses to give in to the Hindu custom of going ornamentless and having her head tonsured, since she considers only the Lord as her husband.
A supportive immediate family stands by her against the local clergy, and she even learns the yogic sciences from a renown Guru, Acharya (professor) Subrahmanayudu. She then turns yogini and dedicates her life to writing verses praising the Lord. Her love for her fellow human irrespective of religion gets her into trouble with the local clergy again, who resent her helping a Muslim, and ostracize her from the village.
Taking that to be the will of her Lord, Vengamamba moves to Tirumala (the hill bordering Tirupati that houses the famous Hindu shrine) from Tarikonda, where the Lord Himself helps (or is at least shown to, in the movie) her get a place to live and continue her service to Him. A jealous and vile priest in the temple, unable to stand her rising popularity, frames her in a burglary of the Lord's ornaments and has her leave Tirumala, but she is soon back thanks to the descendants of Annamacharya, whose house she gets to stay in. The Lord anyway helps her reach the temple each night to perform her prayers for Him even when she has to stay away from Tirumala.
The denouement is quite similar to that of Annamacharya, with an aged old Vengamamba stopped from tumbling in the sanctum sanctorum by the Lord Himself, being asked if she wants to stay young and immortal (she refuses in the same politically correct way, of course), and being granted moksha (freedom from the cycle of life and death). The film is, of course, enriched by your own devotion, and if Annamacharya makes you weep, this one will, too.
Annamacharya and Sri Ramadasu were products of Raghavendra Rao's fiction-writing skills at least as far as the parts involving the Lord were concerned, and Vengamamba is in the same canvas - so she is portrayed as someone born through the Lord's own grace, there are umpteen scenes showing the Lord in conversation with his consort Sridevi and with Vengamamba, and then, of course, there is the whole climax, none of which can be considered authentic.
The movie does, however, portray a good amount of her historically documented life, and serves the purpose of reaffirming the faith of its audiences. Vengamamba carries herself with a sense of purpose all through, impermeable to a lot of jibes and plotting around her that would ruffle most ordinary persons - and that's perhaps a takeaway from the movie for the thinking viewer. How devotion is arguably the most potent narcotic, the greatest gift. The film also transports you into the era of orthodox Hinduism, making you glad you weren't born then.
Meena is a seasoned actress, and quite good in the lead role. Everyone does a good job, including Ashok Kumar as the villianous priest and Saikiran as Lord Venkateshwara, though the comic track featuring Ananth is rather repugnant. The film appears visually luxurious, which is surprising since you wouldn't have expected this one, with its lack of mainstream actors, to be indulged by its producers.
Vengamamba's poetry is perhaps not as popular as the lyrical works of Annamacharya, and the music of this one (scored by Keeravani) thus doesn't have any familiar tracks. The poetess herself isn't that popular in Telugu lore, which reflects in the empty theatres. For the religiously-oriented, however, this is a professionally made offering that should not be missed.