Hero of the masses

Going strong

His father, Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winner A Nageswara Rao, was a superstar in Telugu cinema. A Nageswara Rao, along with the illustrious and contemporary N T Rama Rao, ruled the roost for decades on end. Their sons, Nagarjuna and Balakrishna respectively, have inherited their mantle and have, with a series of box office hits, consolidated their hold on the industry.
Nagarjuna, who first faced the arc lights as a child actor in the Adurthi Subba Rao-directed Sudigundalu, soon vanished from the scene to pursue his education, and earned an engineering degree from Michigan University. His handsome looks and lineage were enough for filmmakers to convince him to re-enter cinema in a big way as a hero.
 The year was 1986 and the film was Vikram. But the films that really launched his career were the Raghavendra Rao-directed Aakhari Poratam, where he was paired with established heroines Sridevi and Suhasini. Not to mention, Mani Ratnam’s romantic love story Geethanjali. The latter struck a fine rapport with the teeny-boppers and a new star was born. One of Nagarjuna’s biggest hits to date was to follow, when maverick director Ramgopal Varma signed him on for the action-thriller Shiva, which turned out to be a cult film. Varma remade the film in Hindi with Nagarjuna in the lead, but the venture met with a lackluster response at the box office. 

The success of Shiva brought a number of action-film offers to his door and Nagarjuna, who was on a signing spree then, did films like Killer. He also performed in Chanakya, Nirnayam and Allari Alludu with directors like Fazil and Priyadarshan. His Hindi remakes caught the eye of director Mahesh Bhatt, who offered him the hero’s role in the Telugu-Hindi bilingual Criminal, which too had its quota of action sequences. To avoid being stereotyped as an action hero, Nagarjuna revealed his flair for comedy in Hello Brother. A spate of comedies like Santhosham, Manmadhudu and Shivamani soon hit the screens.

But, by then, monotony had set in and a change of image was required. Two films, Nenunnanu and Mass, gave him a chance at portraying a role where he would be a crusader for justice. The latter film, directed by choreographer-director Raghavendra Lawrence, became a super hit at the box office. The trend continued with other box office hits like Don, King and Kedi. The action-cum-romance king made a clean break from his routine by doing the period film Annamayya, a story based on the life of reputed singer and poet Annamacharya. The film, which won him a host of awards including a special mention from the national jury for best actor, revealed a new facet to his talent. Nagarjuna later capitalised on his popularity by doing another film, Sri Ramadasu, that etched the story of an 18th century poet and composer. Continuing in the same vein, Nagarjuna is presently wrapping up the shoot of Shirdi Sai, where he plays the revered saint of Shirdi. Also in the offing is a film on Adi Shankaracharya titled Sri Jagadguru Adi Shankara. A stickler for perfection, the actor is known to observe rituals while performing these roles, which are far removed from the usual commercial genre but nonetheless have been able to garner mass appeal. A commercial film, Damarukam, is also on the floors. Although firmly wedded to Telugu cinema, Nagarjuna has also forayed into Tamil and Hindi cinema. His Tamil films — the lavishly mounted Ratchagan with Sushmita Sen and the Tamil version of one of his Telugu films, Payanam — garnered a lukewarm response from the audience. Apart from the remake of Shiva and the bilingual Criminal, Nagarjuna has also worked in several Hindi films like Khuda Gawah, Drohi and Angaaray. Supporting roles also came his way in films like Mr Bechara, Zakhm, LOC Kargil and Agni Varsha.

The actor also turned into a producer fairly early in his career and a few of his productions have done exceedingly well at the box office. High on the list was Ninne Pelladatha, directed by Krishna Vamsi, which won a National Award for the Best Feature Film in Telugu. Nagarjuna also produced a film, Satyam, which gave a break to his nephew Sumanth. The actor is also the brain behind a new acting school based in his home town Hyderabad.  Nagarjuna and his wife, one time top heroine of South Indian cinema, Amala, together founded the Hyderabad Blue Cross, a shelter for stray animals. He has also never failed to espouse other charitable causes that are dear to his wife. His son from a previous marriage, Naga Chaitanya, is a busy hero in Telugu cinema today, and bids fair to sparkle as a third generation representative of the Akkineni family.

Although a veteran with over two-and-a-half decades in the industry, Nagarjuna, who has a sizeable fan following, has never been a part of the rat race and has never scrambled for roles like some of his peers. With his illustrious father as mentor, the actor has rarely put a wrong foot forward and has also shied away from politics, preferring to concentrate on his acting career, his studio and institute. Even though he has a very good rapport with his heroines, Nagarjuna is known to be a homing pigeon. Extremely fit and athletic in his early 50s, the actor has managed to retain his youthful charm and this has gone a long way in furthering his career.

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