In the sixties and for even a good part of the seventies, Madras (now Chennai) was the Mecca of south Indian cinema. Sprawling studios like Vauhini and AVM, recording theatres and labs were all situated in Madras. In those early days, when outdoor shoots were rare, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada filmmakers made a beeline to Madras to shoot their films.
Two men - actor Nageswara Rao and producer D V S Raju - were instrumental in Telugu cinema shifting gradually to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh.
The thespian Nageswara Rao also founded Annapoorna Studios with state of the art facilities and slowly, Tollywood began to warm up to functioning in its own territory. The two superstars of the time, N T Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao, dominated Telugu cinema for several decades before handing over the baton to others, including their sons. Rama Rao’s son Balakrishna, and Nageswara Rao’s son Nagarjuna, along with the likes of Chiranjeevi and Mohan Babu.
The Akkineni family is now in its third generation, as Nagarjuna’s sons Naga Chatianya and Akhil Akkineni continue to hold the family banner aloft.
Nageswara Rao faced a lot of challenges in the initial stages and was cast in women's roles in theatre before he began to be noticed by filmmakers.
Biographies and mythologies were a rage in those days and Nageswara Rao found his métier in performing vital roles in such films as Tenali Rama, Mahakavi Kalidasu, and Bhaktha Thukaram.
He also landed the plum role of Abhimanyu in Maya Bazaaar, one of the biggest grossers at the box-office. Rao further essayed the characters of Mahavishnu and Arjuna as well. His ability to emote and deliver lengthy dialogues stood him in good stead and he added several notches to his popularity as a mass hero.
However, the role that really brought him into the limelight was that of Devdas in a bilingual film of the same name, (Devadasu) released in 1953 and based on a story by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.
The role of a besotted alcoholic was performed with panache by the actor and it was reported that Dilip Kumar, who acted in the Hindi version of the film lauded Nageswara Rao’s performance, rating it above his own portrayal of the role.
With the slow fade out of mythological roles, Rao drifted towards social themes and here too, he tasted a great deal of success with hits like Prem Nagar, Premabhishekam, Megasandesham, Dharma Daata etc. The Nageswara Rao – Dasari Narayana Rao combination proved to be a formidable one and Dasari’s film Premabhishekam not only broke several box office records but also ran for more than a year in theatres across the state.
Nageswara Rao donned dual roles in films like Iddaru Mithrulu and Buddhimanthudu. Apart from being a good singer, Rao was also a fleet-footed dancer and could match steps with gifted dancers like Jayaprada, Jayasudha and Sridevi among others with consummate ease.
A simple man with spartan habits, Nageswara Rao who also produced films under his home banner, excelled in a whole gamut of roles during his long and eventful career. A Padma Vibhushan awardee, Rao won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour in Indian cinema. Their home production Manam, which brought together all the three generations of the Akkineni family, was released after he passed away at ninety. Manam, which fared well at the box office, had Nageswara Rao as an aging patriarch of a family with Nagarjuna and his two sons Naga Chaitanya and Akhil Akkineni also in pivotal roles. Samantha, who would later go on to marry Naga Chaitanya, was part of the cast, too.
Unlike his father who could not even afford primary education, Nagarjuna passed out with an automobile engineering degree from the Michigan University in the US but was inexorably drawn into films, following in his father’s illustrious footsteps. Nagarjuna, though a chip off the old block, never aped his father’s acting style or mannerisms and embarked on his career, largely relying on his handsome looks and electrifying presence on screen.
Although he acted in several pot boilers like Aatma Porattam, Janaki Ramudu and others, the two films that gave a distinct fillip to his career were Mani Ratnam’s Geetanjali and Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva, both released in 1989.
Varma’s Shiva became a cult film and Nag’s role of a fiery student leader won him plaudits galore and the film too became a blockbuster. One trait that Nagarjuna shared with his father was a penchant for biographical films, a genre that none of his contemporaries with carefully cultivated images were willing to touch with a barge pole.
Nagarjuna’s performances in films like Annammayya, Sri Ramadasu and Shirdi Sai were a far cry from his commercial avatars where he was cast as a swashbuckling hero opposite the biggest heroines of the time like Sridevi, Vijayashanthi and Ramya Krishnan.
His home production Ninne Pelladatha, directed by Krishna Vamsi, Gharana Bullodu and Allari Alludu were all big box office hits. Ninne Pelladatha also won a National Award for the Best Telugu Film of the year. Nagarjuna ventured into Bollywood and acted in Mahesh Bhatt’s bilingual Criminal, the Amitabh Bacchhan starrer Khuda Gawah and also films like Zakhm, Agni Varsha, and LOC Kargil. However, his foray into Tamil cinema with Rakshagan, opposite Sushmita Sen cut no ice with the viewers.
Naga Chaitanya and Akhil
Although he has been around for nearly a decade, Naga Chaitanya, Nagarjuna’s son, has to go a long way to go before he can come anywhere near the lofty standards set by his father and grandfather. He, however, has the benefit of training in a Film Institute in Mumbai and in Los Angeles as well.
Naga Chaitanya impressed in Gautam Menon’s Ye Mayave Chesave as a lovelorn young man and in Sukumar’s 100% Love but films like Autonagar Surya and the latest Rarandol Veduke Chudham and Yuddham Sharanam did little to further his career. Bejawada, where he played the role of a college student who turns gangster, was perhaps the worst of the lot. Tadakha, a remake of the Tamil hit Vettai was a face saver and Naga Chaitanya did full justice to the role. The Telugu Premam, remake of the popular Malayalam hit, also did well.
Nagarjuna’s son with actor Amala, Akhil Akkineni who picked up his acting lessons at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute, made his debut as a full fledged hero in Akhil, after playing a cameo in Manam. He also has a film Hello to his credit and this was helmed by Vikram Kumar who also directed Manam. Like his step brother Naga Chaitanya, Akhil, too is on the lookout for meaty roles that can provide adequate scope for his acting talents.