In the climax of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s tragic love tale Devdas, the protagonist meets a heartbreaking end. But such was the portrayal of the character by Akkineni Nageshwara Rao in the 1953 movie Devadasu that it remains immortal in the hearts of Telugus.
None other than Bollywood legend Dilip Kumar who essayed the same role two years later in Bimal Roy’s Devdas admitted the superiority of ANR’s act.
And even now, young men in the state threaten, jokingly and sometimes seriously, to become like ANR (imitating his mannerism in the film) when the girl snubs their proposal.
On the night of January 21, the aura that extended to 256 films finally came to an end when ANR – as Nageswara Rao is popularly known in the south – breathed his last at the age of 90 years having battled heart ailments from long and the recently diagnosed cancer.
Thus, the Telugu film industry or Tollywood – largest after the Bollywood in the country – lost second of its two major pillars. The first - N T Rama Rao, a matinee idol and former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh died around the same time – January 18 in 1996.
While N T Rama Rao became a legend with his mythological characters – Rama, Ravana and Krishna that endeared him to the masses, ANR is known for his social films some of which depicted class, caste differences and ushered in a socio-economic mobility appealing to the educated and the middle classes.
While some saw ANR and NTR as rivals (which both never acknowledged), for many the over a dozen movies they acted together like Mayabazar, Missamma, Gundamma-katha are a feast to the eyes to this day.
Born on September 20, 1924 in Krishna district, ANR began his career donning female roles on stage but went onto become the first romantic hero in Telugu, who introduced the dancing steps in the duets. Long queues of women at the cinemas playing his movies were a necessary scene in those days. Premabhishekam, another love tale released in 1981 produced by ANR’s Annapurna Studios ran for over 500 days.
ANR is also credited for playing a pivotal role in shifting of the Telugu Film Industry from Chennai to Hyderabad in the late 70’s with setting up of his Annapurna Studios in the then boulder and bush filled Banjara Hills.
In his long distinguished career spanning over 70 years, ANR – all of primary school education – researched life through the reels. Apart from numerous awards, Dr Rao was conferred the highest honour for movie personalities, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1991 and the second highest civilian honour in the country, the Padma Vibhushan in 2011.
However, very much uncharacteristic of his colleagues of yesteryear like NTR in Andhra and M G Ramachandran in Tamilnadu, ANR determinedly maintained a wide distance from politics, not tempted to translate a huge, passionate following into votes.
Fans across the state and outside are pouring in to pay their last tributes to the star. ANR, however, leaves behind his legacy in form of a legion of actors from his family - son Akkineni Nagarjuna and three grandsons aspiring to replicate at least a fraction of ANR’s magic on the screen.