To his many fans, Akkineni Nageswara Rao was the quintessential lover boy, the dutiful husband, the man on the street whose extraordinary acting career from the 1950s through the 1980s earned him the same stature as that of other southern legends such as N T Rama Rao, Sivaji Ganesan and M G Ramachandran.
The Telugu actor, a Dadasaheb Phalke award winner who also had a Padma Vibhushan and three Filmfare awards, died in his sleep in the early hours on Wednesday (January 22) at a private hospital. He was 90 and had battled cancer for a year.
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He acted in 255 Telugu and Tamil films in a career rivaled only by NTR’s. While the latter was at his best in mythological roles, film producer D Ramanaidu describes Nageswara Rao as a man who perfected the role of a happy-go-lucky street guy who won everyone’s hearts, and who was brilliant in both comic and serious roles.
“His lively, fun-filled eyes in comic roles as in Preminchi Chudu and Missamma, and profound expressions when he played a serious character as in Devadasu or Premabhishekam (where he played a cancer patient) are etched in our memories,” Ramanaidu said. “He was the last of the great actors of that generation.”
ANR, as he was popularly called, was also known as a trailblazer who didn’t mind dancing with the heroine during the years when heroes considered it taboo.
He is often described as the original Devdas for his performance as the lovestruck youth. He once told an interviewer that he used to eat lots of curd while shooting for Devadasu; that made him drowsy and helped him act drunk without actually needing to drink.
His other all-time hits included Donga Ramudu, Tenali Rama and Maya Bazaar. Due for release is Manam, directed by Vikram Kumar and featuring three generations of the Akkineni family — ANR, his son Nagarjuna and grandson Naga Chaitanya. Nagarjuna is a very popular actor, while Naga Chaitanya and two other grandsons, Akhil and Sumanth, too are stars in their own right. ANR died surrounded by his family of actors — Nagarjuna, daughter-in-law and former actress Amala, Naga Chaitanya, A Akhil, and nephew Y Sumanth. ANR’s wife Annapurna passed away in 2011.
ANR turned 90 last September 20 while shooting for Manam. Only last month, ANR called up journalists for a chat after reports that he was unwell and told them that he was healthy and looking forward to the release of the film.
“There is no last film for me. I will continue acting till my health permits or I die,’’ he said in October, reflecting the fighting spirit of a man who had carried on for nearly four decades after an open heart surgery in 1974.
Born in 1923, Nageswara was the youngest of five in a family of poor farm workers in Ramapuram in Krishna district. He could not study beyond primary school. In fact, he often joked that he was just a Class III pass but had acted many times as a college student.
He began as a street troupe artiste, then got small roles in theatre which landed him a role in his first film, Dharampatni, directed by A Chakrapani. At the age of 20, he was looking for work when Telugu producer G Balaram spotted him mimicking someone and asked him to accompany him to Hyderabad.
He was offered the role of Lord Rama in Seeta Rama Janam, which was a hit in 1944. Fitting easily into many roles, he took the industry by storm when he acted in seven movies released in a single year, 1955.
ANR is often credited with helping the Telugu film industry establish itself in Hyderabad starting in 1970 when most Telugu actors preferred to work out of Chennai. He not only shifted to Hyderabad but also founded Annapurna Studios in 1976, which helped the start-up Telugu film industry. He also produced more than 60 films.
He launched the family’s philanthropy wing, Akkineni International Foundation, which instituted the ANR National Award in 2005. It recognises lifetime achievements in cinema, some of the winners being Shabana Azmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Dev Anand, Shyam Benegal, Vyjayanthimala Bali and Hema Malini.
The Telugu film industry mourned him Wednesday. All top film stars, directors and producers rushed to pay their last respects at Annapurna Studios, where the body has been kept.