A Telugu icon

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Akkineni Nageswara Rao at the last press conference he gave, on October 19, 2013. Photo: G. Ramakrishna

In "Devadasu" (1953). Photo: The Hindu Archives

ANR in his home office with Bapu, Ramana and Adurthi Subba Rao. Photo: M.V. Rayudi/Manasu Foundation

A poster of "Gundamma Katha".

A poster of "Maya Bazaar".

ANR and Anjali Devi on the song book of "Mayalamari" (1951), the film their company produced. Photo: M.V. Rayudu/Manasu Foundation

ANR and Savithri in "Maya Bazaar" (1957). Photo: The Hindu Archives

The story of Akkineni Nageswara Rao (1923-2014), the icon of cultural authenticity who found the perfect fit between good cinema and commercial profitability, has an immense relevance to the Telugu industry seeking to reinvent itself.

IN June 1948, several film enthusiasts were injured in a police lathi-charge at a cinema hall in Vijayawada. The massive crowd that had gathered at the celebration of the 100th day run of Balaraju (Ghantasala Balaramaiah) to catch a glimpse of the film’s stars had apparently startled the policemen on duty who resorted to the time-tested technique of crowd control. In the years that followed, lathi-charges became a regular feature of the festivities engendered by Telugu cinema. The 1948 event marks the beginning of what would evolve into a fan culture that was only rivalled by its Tamil counterpart. The star who arrived on the scene at this historic moment was Akkineni Nageswara Rao.

As far as his contribution to the film industry is concerned, Akkineni is second to none, not even the film star-turned-politician Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR). ANR, as he came to be popularly known later, had earned quite a reputation playing female roles in an amateur theatre group called Excelsior, where he was paid five rupees per performance. He began his film career too, in 1940, playing a female role. Such was his mastery over female roles that he had to struggle to act like a man. He was quick to make the transition and, in the mid-1940s, he began to be cast as the male lead in films of reputed directors such as C. Pullaiah and Gudavalli Ramabrahmam. Many years later, he would recall that learning and unlearing to play female roles was the main reason he could excel as an alcoholic and a devotee on screen though he was a teetotaller and a non-believer.

In Balaraju, the ANR character is of secondary importance to the story. Like most films of the period, it revolved around the female lead S. Varalakshmi. Nonetheless, the film which had the ANR character turning into a snake and dying twice over (to be rescued by the heroine) launched him as a star. As the scriptwriter, Parachuri Gopalakrishna, would have it, Balaraju established ANR as the “Telugu young women’s dream prince”.

Over the next decade, ANR and his competitor NTR would displace the legendary “Chittor” V. Nagaiah, stage actor-turned-film star and, more importantly, a generation of female stars who were better paid and had meatier roles too. The film scholar M. Madhava Prasad notes that this was the period when all the three cinemas made in Madras (Telugu, Tamil and Kannada) underwent a major transformation in a relatively short period.

Among other things, cinema overcame the dependence on theatre, as is evidenced from the fact that the rising male stars, in spite of their theatre backgrounds, did not carry over their fame from the stage to the screen. Unlike Bellary Raghava and Chittor Nagaiah, the younger stars were created by the cinema itself.

ANR was considered the better actor while NTR was the bigger star. But the two stars had much in common. Both were from Krishna district in coastal Andhra and belonged to the Kamma caste. While they were not born or raised in poverty, their respective families were of modest means. Their simultaneous rise to fame and prestige from the 1950s is evidence of how important cinema was for the emergence of a new upper-caste elite which, in just one generation, moved from the village and agriculture to displace the colonial elite—zamindars in particular.

Some of ANR’s early films, including Mayalokam (also known as Kambhoja Raju, 1945) and Keelu Gurram (1949), were produced by companies controlled by zamindars. Shortly after he was established as a star, ANR became the founding chairman of Annapurna Pictures Private Limited, the first major production company established by coastal Andhra Kamma entrepreneurs without zamindar support (incorporated in 1951, not to be confused with the studio ANR built in 1975). NTR too began producing films early in his career (his National Art Theatres produced the award-winning Thodu Dongalu in 1954).

Star as Entrepreneur

ANR could not have become the star he was if not for his entrepreneurial ventures. Unlike Chittor Nagaiah, who lost substantial earnings as a star in film production, ANR was a successful businessman—indeed, more so than NTR. In 1949, ANR partnered the actor Anjali Devi to set up Aswini Pictures. The two of them had met in the early 1940s while working in theatre and had acted in Keelu Gurram. The result of their partnership was the commercially successful Telugu and Tamil bilingual production Mayalamari/ Mayakkari (1951). Anjali Devi and her musician husband then established a studio, which faded into oblivion in the years to come. ANR did not join them and instead became the founding chairman of Annapurna Pictures Private Limited.

ANR’s association with Annapurna defined his career from the 1950s in multiple ways. Under the Annapurna banner he worked with directors Adurthi Subba Rao, K. Viswanath and Bapu. He played the lead in Annapurna’s social films (the name given by Indian film industries to melodrama set in the contemporary period), which were positioned as high-quality productions committed to promoting good taste and social values. Stories by Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani and Koduri Kousalya Devi, whose novels were avidly read by the emerging middle class, and the odd borrowing from Bengali cinema ( Iddaru Mitrulu directed by Adurthi was a remake of Taser Ghar) too contributed to the respectability and prestige of the institution. Annapurna created a record of sorts by producing several hit social films in a row. The achievement prompted a film critic to declare that this Telugu institution was a ray of light in the otherwise disappointing world of Telugu cinema.

In their attempts to distinguish between ANR and NTR, film commentators described the former as a romantic star whose roles as a tragic lover defined his stardom. The star twosome (hero dwayam), as the superstars came to be known in the 1960s, appeared together as early as Palletoori Pilla (1950) and co-starred in some of the most successful productions of Vijaya Vauhini Studios, the Madras studio run by Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani: Missamma (1955), Maya Bazaar (1957) and Gundamma Katha (1962). True, ANR played Majnu ( Laila Majnu, 1949) and Devdas ( Devadasu, 1953) in his youth and re-played the tragic lover as a mature actor ( Prem Nagar, 1971; Premabhishekam, 1981; and Meghasandesam, 1982). However, neither superstar was a genre specialist. They came to be associated with different genres: ANR’s stardom was defined by his identification with the social—indeed his immanence in the genre. This was partly due to Annapurna’s track record as a producer of high-quality social films.

The social was not just another genre, neither in Telugu, nor in other Indian languages. It was perceived by film commentators as being inherently progressive due to its association with realism on the one hand and reform or nationalism on the other. The folklore film and the mythological—barring a few exceptions—were considered anachronistic and regarded as ideologically suspect. The eminent public intellectual and film critic Kodavatiganti Kutumbarao wrote in 1964 that folklore films were a “cultural retreat”—they could be made with stories sourced from any part of the globe in a studio and in multiple languages simultaneously. Presumably, being timeless and placeless, they were inimical to realism. In Telugu cinema, the social connoted both realism and commitment to Teluguness.

The “Telugu” Superstar

From the early 1960s, around the time NTR displaced ANR as the highest paid actor in the industry, the aura of the social rubbed off on ANR, who came to be seen not just as a pillar of good cinema but also as an epitome of Teluguness. NTR, on the other hand, was by now closely identified with the mythological film and continued to be occasionally cast in folklore films. M. Madhava Prasad points out that ANR, like Sivaji Ganesan in Tamil and Kalyan Kumar in Kannada, was considered to be more culturally authentic while NTR, MGR and Rajkumar emerged as more popular and charismatic stars.

That split, between the authentic and the popular, determined the course of ANR’s and NTR’s careers from the 1960s. NTR carried over the thrills and populism of the folklore film into the social. ANR extended his cultural authenticity beyond films to emerge as the spokesperson of Telugu interests in the film industry. After the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the creation of production infrastructure in Hyderabad was foremost on the agenda of the Telugu nationalists in the film industry. ANR’s decision to support the move to relocate Telugu film production to Hyderabad reinforced his image as the spokesperson of Telugu interests. In 1962, ANR announced that he would shift his residence to Hyderabad. Reflecting on that moment some years later, ANR says in his autobiography that the decision to shift to Hyderabad was part of his plan to retire from acting and become a full-time entrepreneur. The city was better for his children’s education too, he adds. But, as he himself noted with amusement, the industry moved to Hyderabad, as if with him. No doubt, he had the stature and also the connections with the production and distribution sectors to take the film business with him. ANR’s decision to base himself in Hyderabad meant that his producers would have to shoot there rather than in Madras. For precisely this reason, the move was hailed by the Telugu press. One commentator went to the extent of calling it a selfless act reminiscent of stories from the Puranas.

It took a decade and a half for Hyderabad to acquire new production facilities but within a relatively short span, conditions became ripe for making the city an attractive investment destination. In 1962, the State government, and the Minister Marri Channa Reddy in particular, played a proactive role in persuading ANR and the rest of Annapurna to begin shooting in Hyderabad.

In early January, 1964, after a few rounds of discussion with industry representatives, including ANR and his Annapurna colleague Dukkipati Madhusudhana Rao, the Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy government announced a new film policy. The highlights were a Rs.50,000 subsidy for films produced in Hyderabad, loans for the construction of industry infrastructure (such as studios and cinema halls), and the institution of (Nandi) awards for Telugu films. The policy, centred on loans and subsidies, resulted in the flow of substantial investments into Hyderabad. Topping the list of investors were the Madras-based Telugu film personalities, ANR, NTR and also the actor-turned-director and producer L.V. Prasad.

Hyderabad’s new studios were not functional until the late 1970s due to delays in the sanction of loans and, perhaps more importantly, the agitations for separate Telangana and Andhra States (1969-73). Annapurna, the studio ANR established in 1975, has since grown into an impressive film and television production hub. Some of the most striking screen representations of Hyderabad city are to be found in Siva (1989), produced by the studio and featuring ANR’s actor son Nagarjuna.

ANR leaves behind two generations of actors and a media empire. But that is hardly a good reason to pay him a tribute. ANR is the only star in the 80-odd years of Telugu cinema’s history to have come anywhere close to realising the ambition of the founders: of finding a fit between good cinema and good politics (no matter how these may have been defined) on the one hand and profits on the other. Today, when the Telugu film industry has no choice but to reinvent itself in response to changing political and economic conditions, the importance of being ANR cannot be overstated.

S.V. Srinivas is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He is the author of two books on Telugu cinema: Megastar (2009) and Politics as Performance (2013). The author would like to thank M.V. Rayudu of Manasu Foundation, Bangalore, for the archival images reproduced here.