Akkineni Nageswara Rao: Titan of Telugu cinema (Obituary)

Hyderabad, Jan 22: From a poor farmer’s son to one of the most loved and respected actors of Indian cinema, Akkineni Nageswara Rao’s journey, which lasted over seven decades, could very well make an interesting story of a film.

Nageswara Rao, who as a youngster walked bare foot in Gudivada in Krishna district of coastal Andhra, rose to the dizzy heights of stardom and became a symbol of the Telugu film industry, or Tollywood as it is popularly called sometimes.

ANR, as fans fondly called him, died of cancer at a private hospital here in the early hours of Wednesday, plunging the industry into gloom. He was 89 and is survived by three daughters and two sons, including popular actor Nagarjuna.

ANR was the last of the most popular first generation actors of Telugu cinema and was considered one of the two all-time greats of Telugu cinema, the other being N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) who died in 1996.

Rao started his career as an actor in theatre when he was just nine. In the initial years of his career, he even played female characters.

His passion for cinema was spotted by his mother at a very young age.

“I dropped out of school because my family couldn’t afford it. I used to help my mother at her work, but at leisure, I used to stand in front of the mirror and act,” Rao told IANS in his interview last year.

“My mother noticed my interest in acting and asked my brother to introduce me to the local theatre group. I can’t even think of what I would have been if not an actor,” he had said.

Rao’s was truly a rags-to-riches story. He made his cinematic debut in 1941 Telugu film “Dharmapatni” with a brief role, and in 1944 he was picked up from the platform of Bezawada (now Vijayawada) railway station and signed on to play the lead role in Telugu drama “Sitarama Jananam”.

Rao never hesitated to play a variety of roles, such as a villager, an urban educated protagonist, a tragic hero and even a comedian, to sustain his popularity over the years. He believed in longevity and, therefore, constantly chose to play different roles as he never wanted the audience to get bored of seeing him on screen.

While Rao will be remembered for many wonderful films such as “Devadasu”, “Mayabazar”, “Dr. Chakravarthy” and “Muga Manasulu”, “Sudigundaalu”, “Antastulu” and “Meghasandesam”, Rao’s best work was in “Batasari” and “Devadasu”.

“I still consider ‘Batasari’ as one of my finest performances in my career. There was only one page of dialogue in the whole picture and the role demanded maximum use of expressions,” he had told IANS in the interview.

Despite strong criticism, Rao acted in “Devadasu”, only to be catapulted to the status of Telugu cinema’s first romantic hero. The strong criticism made him all the more eager to prove himself with the film.

In 1966 Telugu drama “Navaratri”, Rao essayed nine different roles and earned critical acclaim for his performance. The film was later remade in Hindi as “Naya Din Nayi Raat” with Sanjeev Kumar.

Mostly remembered for his romantic roles in “Laila Majnu”, “Anarkali” and “Prem Nagar”, Rao also starred and proved his mettle in several mythological characters in “Mayabazar”, “Mahakavi Kalidasu” and “Bhakta Tukaram”, “Sri Ramadasu” and “Sri Rama Rajyam”.

In his 74-year long illustrious career, he starred in about 235 Telugu films, besides 20 Tamil and one Hindi. Some of his best Tamil films include “Anbumagan”, “Kanal Neer” and “Pen Manam”.

Although he was enjoying a successful career in Tamil industry too, Rao shifted base to Hyderabad to ensure longevity in Telugu filmdom. Also he wanted his children to learn and speak their mother-tongue.

A true disciplinarian in both reel and real life, Rao succeeded because of passion and devotion. He believed as an actor one shoulders lot of responsibility, and, therefore, he or she should always be careful about his or her actions both in films and in public life.

He was instrumental in setting up one of the biggest studios in India. Named after his late wife, Annapurna Studios will remain the thespian’s biggest gift to the Indian cinema.

The veteran, who studied only up to fifth standard, also set up a film school as he believed in the philosophy of giving back to the society.

Rao bagged three Filmfare awards for the best actor for his role in “Marapurani Manishi” (1973), “Seetharamaiah Gari Manavaralu” (1991) and “Bangaru Kutumbam” (1994). He also won two Nandi awards for best actor for “Meghasandesam” (1982) and “Bangaru Kutumbam” (1994).

He was recipient of many awards, including the Padma Vibushan, the second highest civilian award of the country, and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest individual lifetime achievement award for films.

Rao’s last film was Telugu family drama “Manam” with son Nagarjuna and grandson Naga Chaitanya. The film is slated for release this year.

Rao called a press conference in October last year to announce that he was diagnosed with cancer. He refused to take questions, saying he doesn’t want any sympathy. Claiming that he has strong will, he said wanted to live up to 100 years with the good wishes of his fans. The destiny willed otherwise.

IANS