The original swashbuckler
Kantha Rao was one of the most lovable and popular folk heroes of Telugu films.
There is a striking similarity between the lives of the great Nagaiah and Kantha Rao. Both were philanthropic and suffered as producers.
There has been many an actor on Indian screen who played the folk hero. But the most enduring among them all was undoubtedly Kantha Rao. The swaggering prince of folk drama ruled the Telugu cinema for close to two decades with unparalleled success. He won a place among the Tamil cine goers too through his dubbed films. They hailed him as ‘Andhra MGR.’
His was a legendary story that had come from a film career encompassing over 400 films spread over 56 years. The Badshah of folklore cinema had left the mortal abode on March 22, after a prolonged illness. He was 86.
Tadepalli Lakshmi Kantha Rao was born in Gudibanda, a remote village near Kodada in Nalgonda district on November 16, 1923. He left the hereditary ‘malae patel’ (village munsif) job for an acting career. He headed for Madras, the then Mecca of South Indian cinema, with enough experience as by then he had played various roles in his three month stint with Surabhi Nataka Samajam. A friend helped him get a small role in H.M. Reddy’s Nirdoshi (1951). The grand old man of Telugu cinema soon found his hero for his next project, Prathigna (1953). H.M. Reddy introduced another talented actor Rajanala through this film. Interestingly Savithri who has been playing supportive roles till then was signed to play the heroine by Reddy. (It is another story that Devadas where she played Parvathi, was released first). Semi folklore, the film was an instant hit. “The hero’s role in Prathigna was a mix of romance and valour. Till now it continues to be so. The only difference is in the costumes,” commented Kantha Rao in an interview in 1968. The previous year he had completed hundred films, most of which were obviously folk tales.
To establish himself as a folk hero, he had to wait till Jaya-Vijaya (1959) directed by B. Vithlacharya, the doyen of the genre. The swashbuckling prince of romantic folk tales had arrived. Working three shifts a day, Kantha Rao in two shifts played the hero and in the other shift acted in supportive roles to his contemporary legends – N.T. Rama Rao and A. Nageswara Rao in mythological and social films.
None like him Kantha Rao teamed with Rajashri in many movies.
In the company of Vithalacharya, Rajanala and either Krishna Kumari or Rajashri as the heroine Kantha Rao rode the Telugu folk cinema like a colossus. Among the many such films his favourite was Aggi Dora. (1967) “The protagonist is a combination of brain and brawn. It is a challenge to play such characters,” he once said. But the audience voted for his six roles in Akasa Ramanna (1965). He was supposed to make a guest appearance with two get ups in the film. But the director G. Viswanatham was so bowled over by his performance, he rewrote the story, replaced him as the lead star. One of the roles includes an old lady. The film was inspired by Sivaji Ganesan starrer, Navarathri.
The first mythological role he had donned was that of Lord Shiva (Sri Gowri Mahatyam – 1956) in which N.T. Rama Rao and Sri Ranjani played the lead roles. The association with N.T.R started with Jayasimha (1955). Kantha Rao played his brother in the film. Much later he won a national award for best supporting role playing again N.T.R’s brother! The film was Lava Kusa (1963) and he played Lakshmana to N.T.R’s Rama. His stint with Surabhi helped him essay the mythological roles with aplomb, especially the Narada character he has so perfected on screen. No wonder N.T. R insisted that he should only play Narada in his films be it Seetha Rama Kalyanam (1961) or Sri Krishna Thulabharam (1966). During that time it was always felt that after N.T.R. it was Kantha Rao who fits into mythological characters like Krishna or Rama. Such was his versatility. He was a no less talent in social themes too. He withstood the competition from such stalwart as A. Nageswara Rao in Shanti Nivasam (1960) and came out trumps in a role that has all the navarasas. The same year came an offbeat film, G. Ramineedu’s Chivariki Migiledhi a remake of the Bengali hit, Dheep jal Joi Rao played a mentally deranged person. Savithri and Balaiah are the other lead actors. Leela Naidu, the star of Yeh Raste Hai Pyar Ki, Trikal, Merchant- Ivory’s The House Holder and Heat and Dust made her debut with this film.
But Kantha Rao felt his best performance in a social was as a jilted lover who helps his rival in ‘Aada Brathuku’ (1965). In the company of Rama Rao, Devika and Ramakrishna he stood out. Raktha Sambandham (1962), Constable Koothuru (1963) earned him kudos too. Kantha Rao switched over to playing character roles with K. Viswanath’s Neramu-Siksha (1973). He made his foray into Kannada (Kantheerava, Asha Sundari) and Malayalam (Bhaktha Kuchela, Guruvayoorappan in both the films as Lord Krishna) films too. He had been conferred the title, Nata Prapoorna, and received the ‘Raghupathi Venkayya award’ (2000) from the State Government.
Kantha Rao sword-fighting scenes with Rajanala were a hit with the audience.
Though histrionically poles apart there is a striking similarity between the lives of the great Nagaiah and Kantha Rao. Both were philanthropic and suffered as producers. That left them penniless during their twilight years. Kantha Rao had to act in inconsequential roles in television serials too.
Kantha Rao wrote in his autobiography, Anaganaga Oka Rakumarudu (when roughly translated it reads): “I have only one ambition in life. I am an actor. I was born to act.
Being born as a blessed soul with the grace of Nataraja, I should continue to throw light on my performances. This glow should not diminish.” It may sound clichéd but he will continue to glow through his celluloid works. For there will never be another like him.
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