The film has also won the Prize of the Public at the Besançon Film Festival of France in the year 1981. For the April 2013 centennial of Indian cinema, CNN-India included Sankarabharanam on its list of "100 greatest Indian films of all time", while Forbes included J. V. Somayajulu's performance in the film on its list of "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema". The film has received four National Film Awards including the National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, and five state Nandi Awards.
The film begins with an introduction by Viswanath in the form of a Sanskrit Subhashita शिशुर्वेत्ति पशुर्वेत्ति वेत्ति गानरसं फणिः (Music is enjoyed equally well by babies, animals and even snakes). We hope you appreciate our effort in bringing you the 'Jeeva Dhara' (Lifestream) of Indian classical music."
"Sankarabharanam" Sankara Sastri is a very popular Carnatic singer and a widower. People come in huge numbers to listen to his voice and consider him a great man. He has mastered the raga Sankarabharanam and hence is eponymous with the same. Tulasi, (Manju Bhargavi) is a prostitute's daughter who has great interest in music and dance. She is also an admirer of Sastri, and goes to the riverbank in the early mornings when Sastri typically taught his own daughter.
In a scene that speaks volumes, one morning Tulasi is so thrilled by Sastri's singing that she begins dancing on the riverbank, oblivious of her surroundings. Sastri sees her, and Tulasi also comes to her senses — and abruptly stops, expecting Sastri's rebuke. But Sastri reciprocates her sincerity and continues singing — Thus is born an unspoken, platonic teacher-student relationship between the young dancer and the veteran singer. This bond, bound to be misunderstood by a callous world, forms the crux of the story.
Tulasi's mother, of course, wants her to follow in the family profession by servicing rich clients. The mother is waiting for the opportune time to introduce her daughter to prostitution, and one day she extracts a high price from a rich hedonist who's eager to be Tulasi's "first". That man forces himself on Tulasi. The foul deed done, the man sees a photo of Sastri in Tulasi's room and flings it to the ground while telling her that she's free to become the old Sastri's girlfriend now since he's done with her. Tulasi, quiet until then, is ostensibly more hurt by the insult to Sastri, her guru, than the crime perpetrated on herself. She takes a shard of glass from the broken frame of Sastri's photo, and stabs the client.
A murder trial ensues, and Sastri tries to save Tulasi by consulting his lawyer brother (Allu Ramalingaiah), who wins the case in Tulasi's favour. Justice comes through as Tulasi's mother is sent to jail for unlawful flesh trade, while Tulasi is a free but homeless woman. Sastri brings Tulasi to his home — precipitating changes in his own life. The public, of course, assume that Sastri is keeping Tulasi at home as a mistress — and avoid him as a debauchee. Even Sastri's maid and musical accompanists, who until then grudgingly bore the maestro's mentoring of "that prostitute's daughter", openly rebel and leave. Tulasi feels responsible for Sastri's troubles, and eventually moves out of his house.
Sastri's problems are not all due to Tulasi, however. The winds of change have made classical music wane in popularity, while pop music is on the ascendant. Sastri loses his loyal audience and, with it, his comfortable lifestyle. Ten years pass, and Sastri is living in a small house with his grown up daughter. Meanwhile, by a quirk of fate, Tulasi has inherited her mother's ill-gotten property that was under litigation until then. She wants to help the struggling Sastri anonymously. Tulasi has a ten-year-old son by then, ostensibly from her one-&-only conjugal encounter, and wishes that her son redeems his life by becoming Sastri's student — A chance she desperately wanted for herself but was denied by Fate. So Tulasi gets her son to pretend to be homeless, and enter Sastri's household as a servant boy — and to earn his trust. Things go according to plan, and Tulasi is content to watch from a distance as her son gradually becomes a part of Sastri's household, and then his musical protege.
Chandra Mohan, a dilettante, falls in love with Sastri's daughter. Although Sastri rejects the alliance at first, he later agrees after learning of the man's interest in classical music. Tulasi then arranges for a concert on the day of Sastri's daughter's wedding, where Sastri finds his lost audience return to hear his voice. Sastri sings at the concert, but suffers a heart attack part-way through it. Then his disciple, Tulasi's son, takes over from the sidelines and continues singing the song.. As Sastri watches his student with pride, he also sees Tulasi at the side of the hall, and realizes (via eye contact with his lawyer brother) that the boy is Tulasi's son. A doctor is brought to attend to Sastri, who is on stage clutching his chest with pain, but Sastri waves off the physician, knowing that his end is near. As Tulasi's son completes the song, Sastri symbolically anoints the boy as heir to his music, then dies — Tulasi comes running to her guru at that moment, and falls down at his feet — Moments later we realize that she too has died with the shock of Sastri's death. The film ends in this tragic but uplifting note, as the newly-weds Chandra Mohan & Sastri's daughter take charge of Tulasi's son.
After hearing the plot, the producers were initially taken a back due to the parallel cinema tone to the subject matter, but finally Edida Nageswara Rao agreed to produce the film. He wanted Akkineni Nageswara Rao to enact the role of Sankara Sastry, K. Viswanath wanted Sivaji Ganesan to perform the role but couldn't approach him for various reasons and also wanted Krishnam Raju for the role but later refused as Viswanath felt his image as a star would ruin the role and he finally chosen a debutant J. V. Somayajulu, a stage artist for the role. Geetha Krishna, who went on to direct films like Sankeertana (1987) and Kokila (1990) was one of the assistant directors in the film.
The music, largely Carnatic based, was composed by K.V. Mahadevan. M. Balamuralikrishna was the original choice for the male playback singer, due to the heavy classical content of the compositions. But K.V. Mahadevan, having faith in the mettle of S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, insisted on him taking up this challenge.
All music composed by K. V. Mahadevan.
Released on 15 January 1980, the film was released in only one theatre and opened to empty hall. However, due to positive word-of-mouth, the film opened to packed houses and had a 216-day run at Royal theatre, Hyderabad.
The success of this film triggered a sequence of classical films in Telugu, including Saptapadi, Tyagayya (by Bapu), Meghasandesam (by Dasari N. Rao), and Viswanath's own follow-ups: Saagara Sangamam, Sruthi Layalu, Swarna Kamalam,Swayam Krushi, Sirivennela, and Swati Kiranam. S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, the Telugu playback singer who rendered all the songs of Sastri's character, has often said this movie was the highlight of his career. It got 'SPB' his first National Award, and made him a household name across all of South India. Film critic Gudipoodi Srihari called it as the best Telugu film he has seen after Mayabazar. Viswanath has later remade the film in Bollywood as Sur Sangam with Girish Karnad, and Jayaprada in pivotal roles.