He was born in a farmer's family but grew up to be one of the country's acting legends. Akkineni Nageswara Rao believes one should enter films with devotion and not because it is the fashion to do so and says if you're popular, you're bound to be responsible for your actions.
"You always carry huge responsibility as an actor when you become popular. One should be careful about his or her actions both in films and in public life," Rao told in an interview. "Cinema is an honourable profession which gives you fame, money, laurels and popularity. Therefore, come with devotion, but never enter the industry for fashion," added the octogenarian, who made his cinematic debut as a lead actor in 1944 Telugu film Seetha Rama Jananam.
Since then, he has worked in over 200 Telugu films in a career spanning seven decades. Besides the coveted Dadasaheb Phalke Award, three of the country's four top civilian honours - the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri - have been conferred on Rao.
Known for his work in Telugu films such as Devadasu, Mayabazar, Dr. Chakravarthy and Muga Manasulu, Rao, popularly referred to as ANR, has always believed in longevity to connect with his audiences. "I was very careful from the beginning and knew that I need to focus on longevity in order to connect with audiences with every role I adorned. I was also aware of my weakness and hence it was all the more important for me to choose the right film with utmost care," he said.
Rao never hesitated to play a variety of roles, such as a villager, an urban educated protagonist, a tragic hero and even a comedian, to sustain his popularity over the years. "I never wanted people to get bored of seeing me on the screen in similar roles," said Rao, who still has a fan base equivalent to that of his star son Akkineni Nagarjuna.
From being a farmer's boy to India's most respected actor: How did it happen? "I dropped out of school because my family couldn't afford it. I used to help my mother at her work, but at leisure, I used to stand in front of the mirror and act. My mother noticed my interest in acting and asked my brother to introduce me to the local theatre group," he said, adding: "I can't even think of what I would have been if not an actor".
Remembered for his memorable roles in films such as Sudigundaalu, Antastulu and Meghasandesam, Rao recalls Batasari and Devadasu as two films he will always be proud of. "I still consider Batasari as one of my finest performances in my career. There was only one page of dialogue in the whole picture and the role demanded maximum use of expressions," he added.
Despite strong criticism, Rao acted in Devadasu, only to be catapulted to the status of Telugu cinema's first romantic hero. "Many said I wasn't suited to star in a romantic saga, but the criticism made me all the more eager to prove myself. Devadasu went on to become a classic, he said.
How did he manage the competition? "There were few people in the industry when I entered at 19. It helped me because the industry was looking for a new boy as the established actors were under contract with studios," he added.
Did his busy acting career keep him away from his family? "Initially, it was challenging as I got extremely busy with my career. As I learnt to include discipline into my schedules, I found ample time for my family," said Rao, who was married to Annapurna Akkineni for 62 years. She passed away in 2011.
Rao has two sons and three daughters - the eldest son Venkat Akkineni is a popular producer, while the second son Nagarjuna is a renowned actor. Daughters Saroja, Susheela and Sathyavathi are settled. Rao's grandchildren Sushant, Sumanth, Naga Chaitanya are all actors while his youngest grandson Akhil is likely to soon enter films.
At 88, Rao is all set to share screen space with his son and grandson in upcoming Telugu family-comedy Manam. Sharing his thoughts about the 100-year-old India cinema, he said the industry needs to become more experimental and attract global audiences.