THE veteran film producer Daggubati Ramanaidu, a Dadasaheb Phalke awardee, passed away in Hyderabad on February 18. Condolences poured in from every corner of India and the rest of the world. At his funeral on the following day, the who’s who of Telugu cinema were present throughout the proceedings. Stars and celebrities flew in from the north and the south to pay their last respects. Newspapers and television channels across the country treated the occasion with utmost respect. Rarely has Hyderabad or for that matter the nation witnessed a warm send-off of this kind for a film producer.
Born in Karamchedu in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh on June 6, 1936, Ramanaidu belonged to a family that owned a rice mill and a transport business. His father entered the film industry as a partner in the production of Nammina Bantu (1959) featuring A. Nageswara Rao and Savitri. Directed by Adurthi Subba Rao, the film won the National Award for the best Telugu feature. Showing greater entrepreneurial spirit, Ramanaidu, a graduate of Presidency College, Madras (Chennai), closed his family transport business and moved to Chennai in 1962 looking for better prospects in brick-making.
One day his uncle took him to the Andhra Club in T. Nagar in the city, and the course of his life changed. He met some of the important people of the Telugu film industry there. The very next year he became a financial partner in the Bhanumathi-Gummudi feature Anuragam (1963). Undeterred by the failure of the film and armed with what he had learnt in the process of making it, he set up his own production outfit, Suresh Productions, in the name of his elder son to make the runaway hit Ramudu Bheemudu in 1964. Directed by Tapi Chanakya and featuring N.T. Rama Rao, the film went on to set the trend for dual-role films across India. It was remade by Vijaya Vauhini Studios with equal success in Tamil as Enga Veetu Pillai (1965), featuring M.G. Ramachandran, and in Hindi as Ram Aur Shyam (1967), featuring Dilip Kumar. The popularity of the films was so widespread that in 1972, the Salim-Javed duo tweaked yet another version of it in Hindi, Seeta Aur Geeta , featuring Hema Malini in dual roles. This in turn led to a string of remakes in regional languages.
The outstanding impact of Ramudu Bheemudu led to a significant tie-up between Ramanaidu and B. Nagi Reddy of Vijaya Vauhini. Together they floated a new production house named Vijaya-Suresh Combines to produce a few films. In the process, Ramanaidu learnt how to run a studio. Distancing himself from this partnership later, Ramanaidu continued to make films under his principal banner but fortunes began to fluctuate. At one point he almost reached a dead end and decided to head back to his home town. It is at this moment, in 1971, that the idea of adapting Koduri Kausaliya Devi’s Telugu novel Prema Nagar materialised as if to make good all that he had lost. Directed and co-written by K. Prakash Rao, this Nageswara Rao-Vanisri feature with its cinematic title Prem Nagar turned out to be a phenomenal hit. Its remakes by Suresh Productions in Tamil as Vasantha Maligai (1972) featuring Sivaji Ganesan and Vanisri, and in Hindi as Prem Nagar (1974) featuring Rajesh Khanna and Hema Malini produced stupendous results.
Moving to Hyderabad
Since the formation of Andhra Pradesh as a separate State in 1953, there was pressure from the Telugu intelligentsia and successive Congress governments in the region to shift the Telugu film industry to Hyderabad. As a business model, however, the idea suffered from two crucial bottlenecks. First, as many creative artistes, technicians and wage-earners of Telugu cinema also worked for other language films, they were hesitant to shift from Chennai. Second, well-established production outfits were equally reluctant to move lock, stock and barrel out of Chennai owing to the costs involved and the fear that once they set up units in Hyderabad they would have to constantly transport artistes and technicians from Chennai. By 1975, however, Nageswara Rao made his Annapurna Studios operational in Hyderabad. Others were still sitting on the fence.
Once N.T. Rama Rao came to power in 1982, the operation was galvanised with a series of schemes that offered various incentives to those who were willing to take the plunge. It was in this context that Ramanaidu laid the foundation stone of his studio in Hyderabad in 1989. His move had a decisive impact on the rest of the Telugu film industry and the exodus from Chennai began.
At that time, the government had given him a large area to set up his studio at Jubilee Hills at a very low cost. The place was nothing but a barren piece of rocky surface filled with shrubs and weeds. In one of the conversations he had with me, he said that it nearly cost him one and half crore rupees then to break up the rocks at crucial points to make it ready for the kind of infrastructure he had in mind. Moreover, he was quite busy then with several productions on hand.
By now his son, Suresh Babu, who had completed his M.S. in engineering from Ann Arbor, Michigan, was ready to take charge. He ensured that proper landscaping was done to house the all-in-one facility his father had dreamt of. Very soon, a large shooting floor; recording, dubbing and foley sound theatres; a colour laboratory with a preview theatre and a series of editing rooms; some gardens for outdoor shoot; a pool for underwater shoots; and a distribution office with branches in all important centres of Andhra Pradesh were added to make the outfit fully operational such that if a producer stepped into Ramanaidu Studios with a reasonably good script the film would find its way to the screen without a hitch. In the subsequent years, in order to keep production costs down in the industry, Ramanaidu came up with a cine village which contained ready-made sets at Nanakramguda, Hyderabad, and in the new millennium put up a much larger studio on a hill at Visakhapatnam.
Ramanaidu is, however, remembered today not for these long-standing edifices but for how he fostered film-making in the region and elsewhere by going beyond his immediate concerns. By 1986, he had launched the successful star-career of his younger son, Venkatesh Babu, with his debut film Kaliyuga Pandavalu . With that, Ramanaidu could have concentrated in promoting the career of Venkatesh. Instead, facing success and failure with equanimity, he threw open his gates for a range of aspiring directors. In the process, Suresh Productions launched the careers of 22 directors such as B. Gopal, Jantha C. Pajanji, Muppaleni Shiva, Boyapati Srinu, Tirupathi Swamy and Uday Shankar and four music directors. Moreover, four male actors—Srikanth, Aryan Rajesh, Harish, Allari Naresh—and 12 female actors, including Tabu, Kushboo, Divya Bharathi and Karishma Kapoor, found their stardom through films made by Ramanaidu.
It is of equal significance that Ramanaidu never screened out directors according to his own political perceptions. Otherwise, a maverick left-wing film-maker like R. Narayna Murthy would not have found support from time to time at Suresh Productions. Moreover, Ramanaidu became a Telugu Desam Member of Parliament for a term not because he enjoyed political power but because he yielded to pressure put on by his well-wishers.
Surprisingly for a man entrenched in mainstream film production, he did not entertain a serious division between art and commerce: both the National-Award winning Asukh (1999) of the late Bengali film-maker Rituparno Ghosh and Hari Villu (2003) of writer-director B. Narsing Rao of Daasi (1988) fame were made by Suresh Productions.
It is because he could connect with and foster a large contingent of talent in the country that Ramanaidu won a time-honoured place in the Guinness World Records for the largest number of films made by a single producer when he touched the score of 125 films a decade ago.
By the time he died, he was just one short of 150 films, in a career spanning 50 years. Not being a narrow regionalist, he cherished another dream: to make a film in every language of the nation. Apart from Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, he also succeeded in making films in Bengali, Oriya, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Marathi and Assamese.
In the last years of his life, in order to give something back to the industry and the region that had given him all his success and fame, he founded the Ramanaidu Film School in 2008, the first of its kind in Hyderabad, with state-of-the-art infrastructure. I was fortunate enough to be the first dean of this school.
In 2012, the Government of India conferred on him the third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, for his contribution to the film industry. Yet, for all his fame and achievements, he was a simple and unassuming man, a jolly good fellow at heart. It is unfortunate that fate did not give him a little more time and health to celebrate the golden jubilee of Suresh Productions.
The fact that Ramanaidu was once a Telugu Desam MP did not deter Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the leader of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, from recognising his contribution to the region. He ensured that the mortal remains of the giant of Telugu cinema were cremated with full state honours in the very precincts of the studio he established at Jubilee Hills. There could not have been a more fitting farewell than this to someone of Ramanaidu’s stature and achievement.