The Forgotten Jewel
The late legendary actor who lit up the stage with more than 5000 shows of the play, ‘Raktha Kanneeru’ and the ‘Natabhooshana’...
The late legendary actor who lit up the stage with more than 5000 shows of the play, ‘Raktha Kanneeru’ and the ‘Natabhooshana’ who essayed roles in more than 350 social, mythological and political films in Telugu, C Nagabhushanam is rarely remembered today. His youngest daughter Gowriswari relives his memories
The play is in progress and the audience is fully engrossed in the touching tale of a foreign returned young man who, obsessed with western culture, shuns his wife, falls prey to bad habits, loses all his property to a greedy prostitute. He is afflicted with leprosy only to be helped by a noble lady who he realises is his estranged wife. As the dialogues progress there is a question about the hero’s disease which is indeed very obvious.
The hero suddenly points to the dignitary sitting in the audience, former President Dr Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy and says “Asking me whether I have this affliction is like asking Mr Sanjeeva Reddy his caste (Which is obvious from his name); making room for spontaneity and improvisation in an otherwise rehearsed play. This is just one of the many varied, spontaneous and improvised dialogues with punch which changed depending on the place and political milieu where it was staged. The legendary actor who lit up the stage with more than 5000 shows of the play “Raktha Kanneeru” (Tears of blood) and made an unforgettable contribution to Telugu Cinema Chundi Nagabhushnam became known as “Rakthakanneeru Nagabhushanam”, setting the trend for comic villainy that none have been able to emulate till date.
Rakthakanneeru adapted from a Tamil play by MR Radha became immensely popular for the witty and meaningful dialogues on contemporary issues making it one of the most staged plays after another play “Adrak ke Panje” directed by Babban Khan which holds the record for the maximum number of shows.
An actor with a rare stage and screen presence, a beautiful rendering of dialogues, a faultless diction and an expression that could convey a wide range of emotions Nagabhushnam was the quintessential villain and character artiste who enjoyed a status on par with the hero of the film as he essayed roles in more than 350 social, mythological and political films. A tall imposing personality whose iconic dialogues Like “Charitradakku Cheppindi Cheyyi”(Don’t enquire about the history-do what is told) ,”Padavilekapothe Bathakalemayya”(We can’t live without power) “Kaliyugam,Kaliyugam Kalushyaaniki-Idi Nilayam” (Kaliyuga is home to all sorts of pollution) came to be used as common jargon.
Gowriswari the youngest of his five children recalls with nostalgia the days of her childhood in Chennai where they lived till their family relocated to Hyderabad in 1979. “Our father was always well-dressed in a white kurta and dhoti, believed in traditional values and was very humane. He was born in an extremely poor Brahmin family in Nellore and did odd jobs before he joined the railways and later films. He instilled a strong value system in all of us and performed annadanam (feeding the poor) whenever he could” she says. Nagabhushanam’s career took off with a bang after he was introduced in the 1951 through his first film ‘Palleturi Pilla’. His next film as a hero ‘Yedi Nijam’ won the President’s medal. ‘Ida Lokam’, ‘Mayabazaar’,
Mohammad Bin Tughlak’, ‘Andala Ramudu’, ‘Kurukshetram’ and several others earned him a great name as an actor par excellence. Says Gaureshwari, “In his days of struggle he played the character of Siva in a couple of mythological films where he agreed to have a live snake around his neck as he was offered RS 30 to do so.” Despite doing well in films, acting with all the lead actors and actresses of his time Like NTR, ANR, Savitri and SV Ranga Rao, he continued to do theatre because of his sincere commitment to the stage.
His son-in-law Ramu recalls his simplicity and total lack of ego as commendable traits despite the great heights of fame that he achieved as an actor. “He would travel in a rickshaw or any other public transport without thinking twice. He even sat on my scooter during my initial days of journalism to meet his good friend Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy.” All the great actors of his time respected him immensely and NT Rama Rao frequently asked him what dialogue he would say next knowing his penchant for improvisation and showing a keen desire to match up to his work,” says Sarma.
“Festivals were celebrated with the family and on many occasions he sat on the wooden Jhoola in the room listening to the Varnams rendered by mother,” adds Gaureshwari, who says that she and her older sister Malleshwari used to feel intimidated by their father because of the roles he portrayed on screen. “His real life persona was totally opposite to the “reel one” but as children we could not distinguish between the two.”
Nagabhushanam would get up at 3 am each day, do his asanas, Pranayama and walking before he began his work. He loved playing cards with co-stars Suryakantham, Chayadevi, Akkineni Annapoorna (Nageshwara rao’s wife) on the sets. Comedian Rajababu, who was also his neighbour was a good friend of his and another great actor Allu Ramalingaiah doubled as his wife’s Homeopathic doctor. Although he was never seen worshipping or performing rituals on a regular basis, he celebrated the nine days of Navaratri with great religious fervour, Gowriswari recalls. Honoured with various awards and titles Nagabhushanam who was famous as “Natabhooshana” (Jewel of acting) believed in simple living and high thinking. It is indeed sad that there is no documentation of the monumental work done by this brilliant actor. Although it was his desire to have a video recording of the historical play “Raktha Kanneeru” last staged in 1986, his dream remained unfulfilled.
An effort can still be made to recreate the epic, with the help of actors who were involved in the production, so that the lasting contribution made by the great actor is available for posterity and can serve as an inspiration to those who are interested in learning and appreciating the nuances of great acting.