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N.T. Rama Rao (1923 - 1995): A messiah of the masses


Coming from an ordinary peasant family in a remote village in Krishna district, he worked his way to the top with his hard work and strong determination to reach the goal, come what may. After making it big in the filmdom, he was deeply moved by the plight of the poor and gave a patient hearing to their problems, when they called on him at his residence in Madras. This had, perhaps, had an effect on his life several years later. After his `shashtipoorthi' celebrations, he quit films and set up a political party to end the hegemony of the Congress Party in the State and usher in value-based politics.

That was Nandamuri Taraka. Rama Rao, the hero of the masses in his reel life, who later became their hero in real life by unseating the nearly century old and well-entrenched Congress, and forming the first ever non-Congress Government in the State.

NTR, as he was fondly called, launched the Telugu Desam Party in March 1982, and within a year - on January 5, 1983, to be precise - the fledgling party dealt a crushing blow to the Congress. He was successful in weaning the Telugus from their unflinching loyalty to Indira Gandhi. The wayward functioning of the Congress in the State and the Andhras' anger over the way the Chief Minister, T. Anjaiah, was insulted in public by Rajiv Gandhi, who was then only the AICC secretary-general, at the Hyderabad airport changed the mood of the public which started looking for an alternative to the Congress. NTR fulfilled that need by espousing the cause of `aarukotla Andhrula atma gauravam' (self-respect of six-crore Andhras).

Soon after taking over as Chief Minister, NTR kept many of his election promises, which many had then dismissed as populist and earned a place for himself in the heart of Telugus. After his advent, the Telugus elsewhere got their exclusive identity, breaking away from the original tag of `Madrasis'. While emphasising the importance of Telugu, he, however, held out the assurance that the TDP would also encourage and protect the languages and culture of people from other States.

He believed that only strong States could make a strong Centre. He convinced the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in this regard which made her change her earlier stance that strong States would mean a weak Centre, says S. Venkat Narayan in his biography of NTR.

Apart from introducing the cheap rice scheme of selling the grain at Rs.2 a kilogram for poor people with a monthly income of Rs.500 or less, he fought with the Centre to amend the Hindu Succession Act to ensure equal property rights to women. He introduced educational reforms and laid the foundation for the Telugu Ganga project to provide drinking water to Madras city apart from irrigating the dry lands of Rayalaseema.

Born in Nimmakuru, a small village in Gudivada taluk on May 28, 1923, NTR had his early education from a tutor, Valluru Subba Rao, in his native village. His parents, Venkataramamma and Laxmaiah, gave him in adoption to the latter's brother, Ramaiah and his wife Chandramma, who were issueless. He studied up to Classs V in his village as there was no further education there, Ramaiah and his wife took their adopted son to Vijayawada and got him admitted into Class VI in the municipal school. He passed the matriculation examination in 1940 and joined the SRR and CVR College in Vijayawada. While doing his Intermediate course, he supplemented the family income by supplying milk to hotels in Vijayawada on his bicycle. At the end of the first year, the students decided to stage a play written by `Kavi Samrat' Viswanadha Satyanarayana, the well-known Telugu poet and writer and the head of the Telugu department of the college.

The play, `Rachamalluni Dautyam', had a strong heroine's character and girls did not take part in stage activities in those days. Satyanarayana ordered Rama Rao to don the robe of the heroine, and the latter took it up, though unwillingly.

That was his first role on the stage and it got him the first prize and also kindled his interest in histrionics. During the college anniversary celebrations the next year, he played the role of Salim in the play `Anarkali' and again bagged the first prize.

In May 1942, when he was 20, Rama Rao married Basava Tarakam, the daughter of his maternal uncle. The marriage came in the way of his studies and he failed twice in the Intermediate examination. Unable to stand the teasing by his friends, he made a determined effort and finally passed the examination.

He joined the Andhra Christian College at Guntur for the Bachelor of Arts course in 1945. He formed an amateur drama group, `National Art Theatre', with the help of his friends. The group used to stage plays to raise funds for noble causes. The first offer to join films came Rama Rao's way, when he was still in college. The famous Telugu director, C. Pullaiah, offered him a role in his film "Keelu Gurram". He, however, turned down the offer as he first wanted to complete his degree course.

A well-wisher introduced him to the established director, L.V. Prasad, who after a screen test in Madras, offered him a small role in his film `Mana Desam'. Rama Rao, who wanted to take up acting as a full-time career was looking for the role of a hero and rejected the offer.

In the meantime, he appeared for the Madras Service Commission examination for sub-registrar's post. Of the 1,100 candidates who took the test, seven were selected and he was one of them. He took up the job in October 1947 for a salary of Rs.120. On the very first day of reporting for duty, he was shocked to see the staff taking bribes and was disillusioned.

Luckily for him, B.A. Subba Rao, who was making his directorial debut, `Palleturi Pilla', saw Rama Rao's photograph in L.V. Prasad's album and decided that he was the right man for the hero's role in his film. He was offered Rs.1,116 for the hero's role and he accepted the offer and went back home after signing an agreement.

He resigned the sub-registrar's job, three weeks after he took it up and went back to Madras to launch himself in the screen career. He now accepted the role of a police sub- inspector in Prasad's Mana Desam, which was his first film.

He had an obsession for trying to be realistic in his films. In his first film as hero in `Palleturi Pilla', Rama Rao refused the services of a duplicate to do the risky bullfight scene, much against the wishes of the director. After some time, he lost grip on the noose and the enraged bull lifted him, swung him around and threw him to the ground. He suffered a wrist fracture and was hospitalised for several weeks. The bullfight contributed to the success of the film and it became a mega hit, running for 100 days at seven theatres in Andhra region.

It was the folklore, `Patala Bhairavi', which was the turning point in his career. The first godly role he played was that of Lord Krishna in `Maya Bazaar'. However, it was his role in `Sri Venkateswara Mahatyam', released in 1960, that gave him a new identity. The deification of Rama Rao began and his residence in Madras became a shrine for pilgrims, who would visit him after a trip to Tirupati. NTR fans used to wait in long queues outside his house for a darshan of their `living-god'. They used to apprise him of their problems back home in their villages and he listened to them patiently before rushing to the studio in the morning.

In all, he acted in 292 films in a career spanning 33 years between 1949 and 1982. Of these, 274 are in Telugu, 15 in Tamil and three in Hindi. This apart, several of his Telugu films were dubbed into Tamil.

After the death of Basava Tarakam, NTR, who had by then lost power, became a loner, and the entry into his household of Lakshmi Parvathi as his biographer, turned the situation leading to his marrying her in the ealrly1990s. This led to his estrangement with the family members. In 1994, he became Chief Minister again. The interference of Lakshmi Parvathi in political matters and his acquiescence in it distanced party legislators from him. Ultimately, his son-in-law, N. Chandrababu Naidu, became a rallying point for them, and the latter staged a silent coup and ousted NTR from power. Rama Rao felt heart-broken and made a vain attempt to get back the support of the MLAs. He went to the people who had voted him to power and demanded justice, but the people thought it was a family affair and ignored the issue.

He died on January 18 1995.

The statue of this `man of the masses' has been installed on the Beach Road.

B.M.G.

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