Hyderabad: Veteran Telugu movie actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao , who helped give the prolific Telugu film industry a base in its home state during a career spanning seven decades, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Hyderabad.
Rao, or ANR as the Andhra Pradesh star was popularly called, was 91 and had been suffering from cancer. He is survived by three daughters and two sons, the younger of whom, Akkineni Nagarjuna, is also a Telugu movie hero.
ANR starred in 256 films and was a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan and Dadasaheb Phalke awards for his contribution to Indian cinema. He also bagged three Filmfare awards in the best Telugu actor category.
ANR is largely believed to be the man who helped relocate the Telugu film industry from its former base in Madras (now Chennai) to Hyderabad at a time when the Andhra Pradesh capital hardly had any infrastructure related to the film industry.
ANR built his own movie studio on 22 acres of land in Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad, in 1975, naming it Annapurna Studios after his wife and producing several movies under the banner of Annapurna Pictures.
In turn, his move spurred several Telugu film studios and production houses to migrate to Hyderabad, which today is home to the second biggest film industry in India, behind only Bollywood.
He went on to star in such celebrated blockbusters as Devadasu (Devdas), Maya Bazaar (Magic Market), Dasara Bullodu (Dasara Lad), Missamma, Laila Majnu, Anarkali, Prema Nagar (Love Town), Premabhishekham (Pouring of Love), and Meghasandesham (Message from the Clouds).
Premabhishekham became one of the biggest hits in Telugu film history, and was screened in a Hyderabad theatre for 533 days—a record that is unbroken, and will likely remain so, with film-makers having moved to a system of multiple prints and releases on hundreds of screens in multiplexes as opposed to low-intensity releases.
ANR was born into a poor farming family in 1923 in Venkata Raghava Puram of Krishna district in the then Madras Presidency.
In common with many other actors of the era, ANR began his career in theatre, often taking the roles of female characters because it was considered a social taboo for women to appear on the stage.
ANR made his debut in the movies at the age of 17 in the film, Dharmapatni, in 1941 and got his first break in a lead role in Sri Sita Rama Jananamu (The birth of Sita and Rama) in 1944.
ANR mostly played romantic roles, winning the hearts of many fans, especially women although his attempts spanned genres and languages—in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi.
“With the death of ANR, the golden era of Telugu movie industry has come to an end,” film critic and writer Gudipoodi Srihari said. “His rise from a poor agrarian family to becoming the epitome of Telugu film industry shows his perseverance, discipline and commitment.”
Although an agnostic in real life, ANR became famous for his religious films, giving convincing performances in the roles of great Hindu poets and saints in Mahakavi Kalidasu, Bhakta Tukaram, Bhakta Jayadeva, Vipranarayana, and Amarashilpi Jakkanna.
But he will be remembered most for his portrayal of the lovelorn alcoholic hero in Devadasu (1953). Although many doubted ANR’s ability to pull it off, he took up the challenge and proved his critics wrong, even losing weight to play the role of what is possibly Indian cinema’s most famous tragic hero.
“I did not know how a drunkard behaves when he is drunk. I learnt through observation. I observed how an intellectual behaves when he’s drunk, how a labourer who drinks toddy behaves,” he once said on a show he did for ETV, in which he answered letters sent by viewers.
Yet, he discouraged people from drinking alcohol. “Drink only for pleasure but not to forget someone. This is a big lesson I learnt in life,” he said in the programme.
One of ANR’s contemporaries in Andhra Pradesh was N.T. Rama Rao (NTR). They came from similar backgrounds and from the same district, but unlike Rama Rao, ANR stayed away from the political limelight. NTR entered politics in 1983, founded the Telugu Desam Party and became chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. The two also acted together in around 15 films.
ANR did entertain the idea of joining politics at one point, and was actively wooed by the Congress and NTR’s Telugu Desam, but he dropped the idea and chose to remain apolitical. “In the end that decision turned out to be good for him,” Srihari said.
ANR was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 90 in October 2013, and called a press conference to announce the fact.
“I don’t want your sympathy but am banking on the strength that I derive from all your wishes,” The Hindu newspaper quoted him as telling journalists.
“I’ve lived my life to the fullest and will continue to do so. I want heartfelt wishes but not sympathy,” the actor said.
After that press conference he headed straight for the sets of Manam (Us), his last movie where he stars along with his son Nagarjuna. The film, ANR’s last, is currently under production.
Despite being educated only till primary school, ANR was full of intellectual curiosity and read widely.
“Intellect is not something one gains from education,” he once said. “...Where did Valmiki gain intellect? Where did Abraham Lincoln get his intellect from?”