By T S Sudhir
“Are you Mr Nageswara Rao?” the caller at the other end had enquired.
“Mr Ahmed from the Ministry of Home would like to speak to you, Sir.”
This was on January 25, 2011 when Akkineni Nageswara Rao was shooting for `Sri Rama Rajyam’ in Alwal on the outskirts of Hyderabad. ANR was playing the role of Valmiki and at that precise moment, was discussing the Lava-Kusa scene with director Bapu.
“The government of India has conferred on you the Padma Vibhushan. Are you willing to accept it Sir,” said the official.
As ANR recounted this conversation to me a couple of days later at his home in Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad, I noticed his expressive face. Even when he spoke casually, the natural actor in him emoted through his eyes, the famous manner of his raising his eyebrow and moving his facial muscles.
ANR admitted the honour was completely unexpected and therefore the excitement was far more than in 1968, when he received the Padma Shri and 1988, when he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan or the Dada Saheb Phalke Award a couple of years later.
“I was happy. I am not a hypocrite to say I wasn’t. I called up my wife, who was obviously happy to hear the news. I told her to inform the kids and continued with my work on location. And lest the crew assume that I would take the next day off to meet those who will come to congratulate me, I told them that I will report on sets the next morning,” said ANR that day.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet and interview ANR on several occasions. Very conscious of his status as the patriarch of the Telugu film industry family, ANR however was choosy about what kind of work he sought. Both during his years at the top and after he had stopped being the hero of the film. And he retained his sense of humour intact while explaining why he did not want to do guest roles.
“I do not want to lose my old fans. Like your mother and your grandmother. Because today’s character aren’t characters. The talent is there but the quality of scripts isn’t up to the mark. In comparision, we had better opportunities,” he explained.
ANR’s middle name was discipline. That is one facet of his character those who worked with him in his 250-odd films, remember the most about him.
But ANR was not in the habit of going down memory lane, catching any of his old classics on TV or DVD.
“I don’t because I do not enjoy watching any of my films,” he would say. “My mind invariably goes back to the shooting of that particular movie, remembering each single detail. How that scene or song was shot, what discussions we had, how we differed with the director etc etc.”
And then ANR had rewound to a particular film shooting where a song was being picturised on him and Vanishree on the sands by the River Godavari one afternoon in the month of May. “The sun was at its peak, the sand was burning hot, you couldn’t stand for a moment, it was as if the skin was peeling off. Atleast I had my wig, but what about Vanishree. We finally saved our feet by covering it with the tapes that came along with the film reels. Anytime I see that song, I remember all this,” he chuckled.
ANR’s `Sri Ramadasu’ in 2006 saw his sharing screen space with son Nagarjuna. “Sri Ramadasu was just nine days of work for me. But it was a vital role. ANR was noticed. That is very important.”
His fans got a rude shock when his family announced in October 2013 that ANR was suffering from cancer. But the thespian did not want his family to be gloomy and wanted everyone to go about their work like usual.
“It is a boon that I got cancer at this age. Even the cancer cells will be aged,” he had said then. Pointing out that he had undergone a heart surgery, he said doctors had said he will live only for 14 years after that, a prophecy that proved incorrect. “The record for long living in my family is 96 years. I want to cross that age limit and set a new milestone. If your blessings are with me, I will live for 100 years,” he had said.
In fact, he was busy working on `Manam’ in which his co-stars were Nagarjuna and grandson Naga Chaitanya. When the filmmaker had approached Nagarjuna about casting for the film and asked him if ANR will agree, the son had told him, “Ask Dad. If he accepts, we can.” ANR told me that he is very uncompromising when it comes to the quality of the script. “Like they say `Paat ki pallavi mukhyam, film ki climax mukhyam,” he explained.
ANR’s early years and difficult childhood is well-chronicled. He began acting at a young age and over a period of time, became one of the foremost actors of Telugu cinema. Moving from folklore to socials to being the romantic hero.
“When Devadasu was offered to me, I was tense because people doubted if a folklore actor can play Devdas. K L Saigal’s Devdas was a reference point and since everyone was making me feel unfit for the role, I asked if I could see it. “Why should you see it. Saigal was a singer, you are an actor”, was the retort I got. So I prepared very well for the role and after the film’s release, no one had any doubt about my ability to play such a difficult character.”
ANR and N T Rama Rao, the other thespian of Telugu cinema, acted together in 50 films.
“By the time, he came into films, I was already a very popular actor. His acting style was different from mine. I admire his talent but thought he was artificial in social movies. His personality and laughter was more suited for mythological roles, where he was brilliant.”
Was there any sense of competition? “No, our fields were quite clearly demarcated. I was more the romantic hero while his forte was the mythological.”
For a man his age, ANR was fit and agile. “I don’t do any yoga. The kind of dances we did for singing duets were a good enough exercise,” he would joke.
“I was my mother’s ninth child and she fed me milk till I was five years old. I always thank my mother for that as I believe it is because of that that I never get a headache.” Which is why, ANR points out, he insisted that his daughters and daughters-in-law too did the same with his grandchildren.
ANR leaves behind a family of 23 members, to who he always said only one thing : `Be Happy. Because happiness makes me happier.’
Thankyou ANR garu, for giving a lot of happiness to millions of your fans. You will be missed.