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Nagaiah — noble, humble and kind-hearted

The birth Centenary of one of the leading icons of South Indian Cinema, Chittoor V. Nagaiah, was celebrated recently in Chennai. RANDOR GUY pays tribute to the multi-faceted personality.

Chittoor V. Nagaiah (right) ... with Nambiar in "Amara Deepam."

THE STORMY petrel of Indian film journalism Baburao Patel, editor of `Filmindia' described him as `the Paul Muni of India.' During his days he was one of the most respected personalities of South Indian Cinema. A multi lingual artiste whose career spanned over three decades of active involvement in South Indian Cinema as an actor, producer and director, he was considered one of the greatest character actors Indian Cinema has ever witnessed. The immensely talented person was also a noted film music composer and singer who received training in Classical music under legendary figures, Musiri Subramania Iyer and G. N. Balasubramaniam. Such was the icon of South Indian Cinema, Chittoor V. Nagaiah, whose birth Centenary was celebrated recently at Chennai. His life was one of various vicissitudes and adversity was his constant companion. Yet he fought a valiant battle winning laurels. Some of the characters he portrayed on screen during his long innings — like Pothana, Tyagaiah, and Vemana — have achieved immortality and are talked about to this day with reverence as role models of perfect screen acting. Many were his memorable movies. He played lead and major roles in Tamil, Telugu and even Hindi and Kannada films. Memorable among them are, "Vande Mataram," "Sumangali," "Devata," "Bhakta Pothana," "Swargaseema," "Yogi Vemana" and "Tyagaiah" all in Telugu, "Chakradhari," "Meera" and "Ezhai Padum Paadu" (a classic), in Tamil.

His career

Vuppalagadiyam Nagaiah was born in 1904 in a Telugu-speaking Brahmin family in Repalle, Andhra Pradesh. He was taken to Chittoor by his uncle, where he studied and took his B.A. degree. Blessed with good looks and a melodious voice he had an inborn talent for singing and revealed a flair for acting. For a short while he worked as a clerk in a local government office in Chittoor but soon gave it up. That was the period of the Indian Freedom Movement. Inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and others he took part in the Movement and became an ardent follower of local Indian National Congress party leaders like C. Doraiswamy Iyengar, Madabhushi Ananthasayanam Iyengar and R. B. Ramakrishna Raju, and worked as a volunteer for the Congress party.

With his flair for music and theatre he took part in amateur plays associating himself with the local troupe run by Ramakrishna Raju, (the noted lawyer and Congressman of Chittoor) Tragedy struck when he lost his wife early in life. Depressed, he decided to take up a life of penance and prayers. However to make both ends meet he began to cut gramophone discs for companies like Hutchins and for a while he worked for its Bangalore office as its in-house musician and composer. Many of his discs like `Marubaari Korva Jaalaney....' became popular. Highly creative and innovative he introduced and sang English words in the popular Telugu song-disc, like "I love you heart of hearts.... my lovely lalaana..." which was far ahead of its time. The song became extremely popular and sold well.

Debut project

Ambitious to improve the quality of life he visited the provincial capital Madras and took part in Telugu plays then staged regularly by the Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha (CAMS) which functioned-and still does with less glory- at the famous Victoria Public Hall in Park Town. CAMS was then a hive of Telugu cultural activity in the city. Nagaiah became part of the scene and thanks to such association he developed friendship with an affluent audit-apprentice with a flair for drama and cinema, Bommireddi Narasimha Reddi, who was destined to become one of the leading Indian filmmakers under his professional name B. N. Reddi. His growing friendship with B. N. Reddi, helped Nagaiah to take his bow in Telugu Cinema with "Grihalakshmi" (1938) produced by B.N. in partnership with `the Grand Old Man of South Indian Cinema,' H. M. Reddi. The new entrant, Chittoor V. Nagaiah, played a minor role as a Gandhian social worker running a home for poor and destitute women.

This role attracted considerable attention in the hit movie and so did the song rendered by Nagaiah highlighting the Indian Freedom Movement — `Lendu Bharatha Veerulaara ... Nidhura Levandoy...' (`Arise warriors of Bharath...! Awake from your slumber!)

Success often brings problems between partners and B.N. parted company and promoted his own unit, which created history in Indian Cinema, Vauhini Pictures.

Under this banner BN cast Nagaiah as hero in his directorial debut "Vande Mataram" (1939). Based on an unpublished novel by the director it dealt with rural poverty, unemployment among the educated, inferior status of women in society and other such social issues. The movie was a major hit all over the Madras Presidency and even the surrounding princely states and Nagaiah established himself as a brilliant actor and movie star. Thus the legend began.

B.N. again cast him in his next film "Sumangali" (1940) not as hero but as an elderly man inspired by the Andhra social reformer who fought for the re-marriage of child and young widows, in Hindu society, Kandhukuri Veeresalingam Panthulu.

Even though the role was minor Nagaiah scored heavily with his sensitive and impressive performance and one of the songs he sang which had the theme of the film,, `Baaala Pasupu Kunkuma Neeku,' proved a hit and is fondly remembered to this day by old-time Andhra folks and movie buffs.

B.N.'s next film saw Nagaiah as hero in "Devata" (1941) which was all about pre-marital sex and pregnancy, class and caste conflicts and such socially relevant issues. Nagaiah played a London-educated rich, young man who has a pre-marital affair with his servant maid. The movie was a major success and had great impact even in States like Cochin where nobody spoke a word of Telugu. Soon Nagaiah entered Tamil Cinema in the M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar starrer, "Ashok Kumar" (1941), in which he played Ashoka, the Great.

Nagaiah ... always faced adversity with courage.

When the American Tamil filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan began work on "Meera" (1945), he insisted Nagaiah be cast as the Rajput king Kumbha Rana, opposite M. S. Subbulakshmi. C. Honnappa Bhagavathar, P. U. Chinnappa and G. N. Balasubramaniam were all considered for the role but Dungan wanted only Nagaiah because he felt only he had the dignity and screen presence required for the role.

Actor turned director

Nagaiah turned producer and director and made many movies out of which "Tyagaiah" was the most successful. Besides his stature and status as a South Indian movie icon Nagaiah was a wonderful human being and was humility personified. He helped persons, not always in distress, which landed him in financial difficulties during his last years. For example, because his film "Bhakta Ramadas" was under production for many years, he had to sell all his assets to complete the project. The film did well but Nagaiah benefited little.

Nagaiah invited the famous Hindi film singer Mohammed Rafi over to sing the Urdu songs of the Muslim saint, Kabir, which was a major role in "Bhakta Ramadas." When Rafi was given his remuneration , he returned it to Nagaiah, and was kind enough to ask him whether he could be of any further help financially in the making of the picture. Such was the regard and affection Rafi had for Nagaiah even though he had earlier seen him only on screen in the Hindi version of "Meera."

In his later years, due to adversity, Nagaiah had to accept whatever roles came his way. In one film he had to play a cowboy for a third-rate `curry western.' The noted Tamil writer, Sandilyan, who had been associated with Nagaiah and BN during the happier days of Vauhini Pictures, went to meet his old friend in a Madras city studio.

The writer was shocked to see his old pal, Nagaiah, dressed in a bizarre, outlandish, cowboy costume holding a rifle made of bamboo and sitting under a tree waiting for his shot. When Sandilyan expressed his anguish about the sad state of affairs, Nagaiah told him, "Bhashyam, (Sandilyan's real name) ... Uthara nimittham bahu krutha vesham!" (A Sanskrit saying, which means, `for the sake of the stomach, one has to play many roles!').

Sandilyan had tears in his eyes when he narrated this incident to this writer many years later. Nagaiah received the Padmasri award from the Indian Government and this writer whom he had known from the time he was a kid called on him to congratulate him. In an emotion-choked voice he remarked, "My dear boy, I have only `Padmam,' ... no `Sri' " (Sri means wealth and prosperity, which sadly the actor did not have at that time.)

Whenever Nagaiah noticed a traffic constable on duty he would stop his car and salute him even though he did not know him from Adam. When someone asked him why, he explained that the poor lowly paid cop stood for hours in the sun and rain directing traffic and making it safe and secure for the citizens, a social service for which he got little in return. Hence the poor man needed at least a salute from the people, he would say. Such was his kind heart and noble thought.

The actor as a devotee of Lord Krishna in "Paanduranga Mahaathyam."

Regretfully Nagaiah died in penury on December 30, 1973, and one of the many causes for his poverty was the person himself. Generous to a fault he did not always know who his real friends were. Many took advantage of his generosity.

After his demise, he was neglected, and almost forgotten. But a group of his old friends and admirers led by veteran Telugu film journalist Inturi Venkateswara Rao, after many hurdles, succeeded in erecting a statue inside the famous Paanagal (not Panagal) Park in T. Nagar, an area where the great soul lived most of his life.

Persons like Nagaiah are rare to find in the world of today.

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