NTR-ANR, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageswara Rao, Telugu Stars. After ANR, the last of the first generation Telugu heroes, passed away this...


After ANR, the last of the first generation Telugu heroes, passed away this week, what one remembers are not the similarities, but the contrasts between the two stars. NTR was flamboyant with striking roles, ostentatious dialogues delivered in a baritone, characters that jumped out of the screen to take on fantastic proportions. ANR was suave, gentle and yet sharp, grounded and young mannext- door who could turn on the charm at a blink. If NTR was the towering cut-out figure of Telugu legends, ANR was the poster child for homegrown cinema

USHA TURAGA REVELLI Anatural actor is an oxymoron. Acting is a totally artificial process. Who sings songs when sad? Who runs around trees while romancing? There is nothing called a natural actor. It is all synthetic. And let us not be fooled into thinking cinema is real.”

These lines, uttered as an answer to a random question in some interview, sum up the character of the man who spoke them. Dr Akkineni Nageswara Rao – redoubtable actor, stalwart producer, visionary entrepreneur, patron of arts and an eminent citizen – a man who donned make-up for the best part of his life and yet had no hesitation in showing the world his real face, as it is. Nor in succinctly speaking his mind.

Considered one of the two giants who shaped the industry’s destiny, dictated its future course, Akkineni occupied as much celluloid space as the other stalwart NT Rama Rao did and then continued to match his colleague off-screen, playing a leadership role in bringing the Telugu industry to Hyderabad even as the other man registered victories in the political arena.

Together, they were a force to reckon with. They played a perfect foil to each other. They captured the imagination of the Telugu audiences, taught the industry discipline and diligence, gave writers and lyricists fodder of fancy and made even leading ladies legends in their reflected glory. They defined drama, defied boundaries and even created clichés. They brought the glitter of stardom to a line of work that was largely an extension of theatre. Interestingly, if their evolution as actors was caused by the trends in Telugu cinema, their own personas steered the films in a new direction. “ANR started early and NTR joined later on though he was older. They both starred in folk stories and their respective images developed as the other genres were introduced to the Telugu film industry.

NTR grew with mythological films whereas Nageswara Rao bloomed once social themes became popular,” Gudipudi Srihari, senior journalist and film analyst who tracks film history. Shadowed by the flamboyant presence of NT Rama Rao in mythological films, ANR was happy playing what was virtually the second lead, until social themes began to take predominance in films. There are many similarities between the two thespians. They both played female roles before becoming heroes. They both started with small films, gradually making it big. They acted together in a total of 14 films, including evergreens such as ‘Missamma’, ‘Gundamma Katha’, ‘Srikrishnarjuna Yuddham’, ‘Samsaram’ and the magnificent ‘Maya Bazar’. Both of them had their career peaking in the decades of 1960s and 1970s. And went on to set up production houses that gave livelihood to thousands of actors and workers. In fact, both of them have been awarded the Padmasri on the same day, same year, in recognition of their yeoman service to the film industry.

However, down the decades, what one remembers are not the similarities but the contrasts between the two heroes. One, flamboyant with colourful, striking roles, long, ostentatious dialogues delivered in a baritone, characters that jumped out of the screen to take on fantastic proportions. The other, suave, smooth, gentle and yet sharp, grounded and young man next door who could turn on the charm at a blink. If NTR was the towering cut-out figure of Telugu legends, ANR was the poster child for homegrown cinema.

The former an emotional whirlwind who shook the screen. The other a method actor who flowed through the film. The two, together, made for the dark and the light, soft and hard, rough and smooth and silk and steel. In fact, those who have seen both from close quarters identify striking differences between the two in gait and gestures, behavior and beliefs, approach and attitude and the style in which they have written their respective chapters in the annals of film history. “There was a time when ANR did attempt to be like NTR, like his characters. But he was an actor who knew his plusses and minuses and chose to mould his image in a different way, one that befit his talent and showed his panache – that of a lover and a family man,” says Srinivas Challa, film critic and analyst. Within a decade and a half of attaining stardom, ANR chose to clearly move away from the kind of films that established him. In other words, he moved away from the movies that made NTR a legend, a larger-than-life demi-god. Playing Arjuna, Narada and Abhimanyu was by then old hat for the younger actor and he switched to social themes, thereby carving out an impressive niche for himself in Telugu cinema, and a firm place in the hearts of the Telugu viewers.

If ‘Maya Bazar’ is the iconic milestone in mythological films, it was ‘Devadas’, the Bengali classic, that shines as the most paradigmatic film in the social genre. The films that followed, including Akkineni’s personal favourite ‘Batasari’, were all chips of the same old block, based on a protagonist who was humane, sensitive and real. The characters that Akkineni played in these films were that of a young man, a product as well as a reflection of the times, ideologically well-entrenched, perceptive, responsive to the societal dynamics, caring and respectful towards women and emotionally forthcoming. When not playing the innocent as in ‘Mooga Manasulu’, he played the smart, educated young chap in ‘Gundamma Katha’ or the profoundly moving character of a man who traverses from the innocent to the meditative in ‘Pooja Phalam’.

“I believe that 1960s onwards, ANR chose what he could do best – play a romantic hero. It is said that he rejected good offers of mythological roles and chose love stories with a melancholic touch,” Challa says. And this calculated move at a crucial time in career is what gave him not just the stupendous success but also the long innings that Telugu film viewers happily and affectionately followed’.

What also stood ANR apart from his contemporaries and his immediate juniors was his versatility. At a time when matinee idols could not move an inch out of their stardom’s straitjackets, ANR ventured beyond his forte and experimented. From the early-in-career ‘Rojulu Maraayi’, where he plays a progressive farmer to ‘Bharya Bhartalu’ with the hero a jealous, egoistic character, to the much later, artsy ‘Megha Sandesam’, which wonderfully combines the delicate warmth and kindliness of a poet with the inexorable weakness of a lover who forgets boundaries, ANR played it all.

He was the Dheerodatta Nayaka – the archetypal humane hero. Courageous and sublime, romantic yet mystical. Educated yet rustic. Playful and yet introspective. Many years later, when Akkineni Nageswara Rao will be remembered, it shall be not just for his unparalleled 70+ years long career; not just for playing a stunning variety of characters. Or for being accepted by fans and critics alike. And not just for having greyed gracefully. But, for being the remarkable man and persona that he was, on screen and off it.

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