A towering personality with an electrifying screen presence, SV Ranga Rao who acted mostly in Telugu and Tamil films was ranked on par with the superstars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s such as NT Rama Rao, Nageswara Rao, MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan.
The actor, whose centenary is being observed this year, worked in a total of 162 films, 109 in his mother tongue Telugu and 53 in Tamil, in a career spanning nearly three decades before his untimely demise at the age of 56.
Ranga Rao was the only actor apart from the legendary NT Rama Rao who remained an automatic choice for Telugu filmmakers for mythologicals which were a rage in those times. But even NTR was no match for Ranga Rao in terms of the sheer range of characters that he portrayed on the screen.
NTR, of course, was the ultimate actor when it came to playing Lord Krishna as films like the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Karnan would testify. But Ranga Rao played Akbar, Bhishma, Duryodhana, Yama, Ravana, Ghatotkacha, Kamsa and Keechaka, and what really propped him up as an actor par excellence was that he performed all these roles with effortless ease. For one, his height and physique suited all these larger-than-life roles and when it came to voice modulation, Ranga Rao was peerless. Even though some of these characters had to be essayed in a loud, over-the-top manner, the audience never got an inkling that he was going overboard with his acting.
Ranga Rao had landed a job after completing his education but also had a penchant for acting. His first outing Varoodhini, however, tanked and this took a toll on the actor’s morale. But the film Mana Desam where he acted with NTR with the legendary singer composer Ghantasala scoring the music convinced him that with a little patience he could still make the grade.
It was the role of the scheming tantric Nepala Manthrudu in Patala Bhairavi that brought Ranga Rao to the centre stage and proved to be the launchpad for his career. The film turned out to be a runaway hit and Rao’s performance was acclaimed though NTR as the hero hogged most of the frames. But the film that fetched him laurels, that too at an Afro-Asian Festival held in Indonesia, was Narthanasala. Ranga Rao was cast in the role of Keechaka and the actor used his deep, bass voice to great advantage while delivering the lengthy dialogues, bowling the award jury over.
The role of the glutton Ghatotkacha in the film Maya Bazaar also endeared him to children and the song ‘Kalyana Samayal Sadham’ sung in the Tamil version by Tiruchi Loganathan became one of the biggest hits of the year. When the epic Ramayana was made on celluloid as Sampoorna Ramayanam, Ranga Rao was the ideal choice for the role of Ravana, the antagonist in the film. One of the highlights of the film was a lengthy monologue by Ravana and Rao’s baritone voice and his style of dialogue delivery were to the fore.
Rao was also impressive as Duryodhana in the film Pandava Vanavasam as well. Two other memorable characters that the thespian enacted that charmed audiences were those of Yama in Sati Savithri and Hirankyakashipu in Bhakta Prahlada.
Ranga Rao was also prolific in social dramas that came alive on the screen. Unlike the fiery characters that he portrayed in mythologicals he was much more sober in films in various other genres. The eternal do-gooder, the village elder, the compassionate, long suffering family patriarch, a doting elder brother, a caring father-in-law were all characters that he played with consummate ease.
Tamil cinema exploited his histrionic talent to the optimum by utilising him in films like Missiamma, Annai, Naanum Oru Penn, Karpagam, Kai Kodutha Deivam, Vidivelli, Parthiban Kanavu, Padikkatha Medhai, Thaikku Thalaimagan, Enga Veetu Pillai and others. He always had well-defined roles in films where the two titans of Tamil cinema, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, played the hero. One of his rare appearances as villain was in MGR’s Nam Naadu.
In Telugu too Ranga Rao starred in many memorable films, including Aathma Bandhuvu, where he played a rich landlord, and Thatha Manavadu, in which he was cast as a daily wage labourer. A frothy comedy with an illustrious contemporary Nagabhushan, Andaru Dongale (remake of the Hindi laugh riot Victoria No. 203 starring Ashok Kumar and Pran) amply proved that Ranga Rao could sparkle in humorous roles as well. Rao later turned producer and director with films like Chadarangam and Bandhavyalu.
Ranga Rao was one of the earliest to be hailed as a ‘method’ actor and a substandard performance from him was simply out of the question. Rated as one of the most dignified and cooperative stars, he was held in high regard by the acting fraternity. He was one of the earliest stars to feature in commercials and his ad for a popular cigarette brand of a foregone era, Berkeley, was extremely popular.
A self-taught actor who rose to great heights, Ranga Rao was always an endearing presence on the silver screen. He was conferred the title ‘Viswa Nata Chakravarthy’ in recognition of his versatile acting talent.