By T S Sudhir
``Are you Mr Nageswara Rao?” the caller at the other end enquired.
“Mr Ahmed from the Ministry of Home would like to speak to you, Sir.”
It was around 5:45 pm on January 25 and Akkineni Nageswara Rao was shooting for `Sri Rama Rajyam’ in Alwal on the outskirts of Hyderabad. ANR who is playing the role of Valmiki was at that moment, 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,” went the official’s voice next.
ANR admits 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,” says ANR.
Not surprising from a man whose middle name is discipline. In his 70th years in films, ANR is as choosy about the films he agrees to do as he was when at the peak of his career.
“I don’t want to do guest roles,” says ANR sitting in his tastefully done-up room at his home in Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad. “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.”
As we chat, former chief justice of the Kerala High court and former chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission, B Subhashan Reddy walks in to congratulate ANR.
“I am a huge fan of his,” says Reddy. “I remember watching his `Keelugurram’ as a 10-year-old at a small theatre in Medak. I have always seen his films, first day first show and must have seen most of his 250 plus films. He is such a versatile actor.”
Do you catch any of your old classics on TV or DVD, I ask ANR.
“I don’t because I do not enjoy watching any of my films,” he replies. “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.”
ANR is doing `Sri Rama Rajyam’ after a five-year gap. His last film `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.”
Will he be doing a film now with Nagarjuna and grandson Naga Chaitanya?
“My part is ready. When the filmmaker approached Nagarjuna, he told him `Ask Dad. If he accepts, we can.’ I am very strict. Like they say `Paat ki pallavi mukhyam, film ki climax mukhyam.”
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.”
You cannot talk to ANR and not talk about N T Rama Rao, the other thespian of Telugu cinema.
“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 mythologicals, where he was brilliant.”
For a man his age, ANR is fit and agile. “I don’t do any yoga. The kind of dances we did for singing duets were a good enough exercise,” he jokes.
“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.”
ANR’s fans will get to see him as Valmiki this June. In the Ramayana of his life, with a family that has 23 members, ANR’s mantra is to remain happy.
“Happiness makes me happier,” he says. It is only apt that the country has given one of its finest actors, Padma Vibhushan Akkineni Nageswara Rao one more reason to be happy at 87.