Akkineni Nageswara Rao, the legendary Telugu actor/producer who died early on January 22 in Hyderabad, never dreamt that he would see beyond the paddy fields that his family of farmers tilled on the banks of the Krishna in Andhra Pradesh.
Rao, who was born in 1924, was the youngest of five children to very poor parents, their meagre means not allowing the boy to study beyond primary school. Rao often used to joke that he was a "Class 3 pass".
But life had other plans for Rao. In 1944, when he was just 20, a leading Telugu producer, Ghantasala Balaramaiah, saw the youth on a railway platform at Vijayawada, and saw a flicker of promise on his face. Balaramaiah at once offered him the lead role of Lord Rama in the movie, Seeta Rama Jananam.
Although Rao had acted in a Telugu film earlier when he was barely 17, Dharmapatni, he had been largely part of the theatre scene, often playing female roles because those were days when women were not welcome on stage. He was a good singer, who could recite "slokas" with a flourish, and had acted in theatre when he just about 10. Also he had a way with languages.
There is this incident of him visiting Sri Lanka in the early 1960s when he found that his lack of English speaking ability put him at a great disadvantage. He is said to have shut himself in a toilet and wept, but when he returned home, he hired the best language teachers and learnt to speak English like the British!
Rao acted in about 255 movies in Telugu, Tamil and even in Hindi in a long, long career. He was often paired with actress Savithri, also a Telugu, who later became famous as Tamil star Gemini Ganesh's companion.
One of Rao's most memorable films was Devadasu (the tragic tale of a jilted lover written by Bengal's Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), and even though many versions of the plot were filmed in many languages (in Hindi with Dilip Kumar, and later with Shah Rukh Khan), critics aver that Rao's portrayal of the alcoholic lover was by far the best. Even Dilip Kumar once famously remarked that it was Rao's performance that outshone the rest.
Rao's turning point in cinema came in 1955 when he essayed a good hearted thief in Donga Ramudu - and it was no surprise that the year 1955 alone saw seven of his movies being released. One of them was Missamma (with Savithri), where Rao portrays a lonely, unemployed young man. The film was a powerful social document that spoke about the importance of religious tolerance with Rao essaying a Hindu and Savithri a Christian.
Though Rao donned the role of mythological figures -- like Rama, Krishna and so on - his fame emerged from the man- on- the- street kind of parts that he did with remarkable excellence. On the other hand, NT Rama Rao became famous for mythological characters.
Nageswara Rao had a range all right: from a charming prince to a pauper, from a lovelorn man to a saint to a college student to a bureaucrat, he travelled the entire gamut of emotions. Works like Premabishekam (which ran for 533 days in Hyderabad) and Maya Bazaar were some of the landmarks in Rao's career - which had not ended even when his own end came. His last movie, a comedy, Manam, is about to open.
A Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Vibhushan and three Filmfare Awards were some of the high points of recognition, but for one like me living in Chennai, I am invariably reminded of Rao each time I pass by the park in Mylapore, named after him.