The master of melancholy- Chittoor Nagayya
Even from the days of silent films, Telugu movie makers contributed to acting, filmmaking, and distribution.
CHENNAI: The Telugus were very actively involved in promoting the cinema in Madras city. Even from the days of silent films, Telugu movie makers contributed to acting, filmmaking, and distribution. When dialogues made its way into cinema in 1931, the first film from Madras, titled Kalidas, had the hero speaking in Telugu while others spoke in Tamil.
Studios producing Telugu talkies did come up in Rajahmundry and Visakhapatnam, but brought their shutters down soon. Madras became the centre of producing Telugu films and the cast, musicians and other technicians overlapped over Tamil cinema as well. This continued till the 1990s, when the Telugu film world shifted its base to Hyderabad. Many of the mass heroes like NTR and Nageswara Rao, started their careers in Madras. So did many character artistes, foremost amongst them was Nagayya.
Born in the heartland of Andhra, then a part of Madras presidency in 1904, Chittoor Nagayya had an innate flair for music and theatre. It was also the period of the Indian Freedom Movement and he did his bit promoting the struggle by working as a volunteer for the Congress conferences. He would later be a delegate to the Guwahati Congress Conclave.
Nagayya was widowed twice and often considered renunciation and became a sanyasi, but wanting to give himself another chance in theatre, he came to Madras. Telugu plays staged by the Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha at the Victoria Public Hall were very well-liked and he found roles along with some recognition. Naturally, his next step was cinema.
BN Reddy, who founded the Vauhini studio, was his friend from theatre days. Nagayya became a resident actor of Vauhini pictures which was one of the first studios of Tamil cinema in Kodambakkam. So involved he was with the studio that he would even do odd jobs like pushing the trolley in shots he was not acting in.
His first film was Grihalakshmi (1938), a family melodrama, in which Nagayya was rightfully cast in a minor role of the Gandhian social worker, but he attracted considerable attention. A song by him preaching prohibition became very popular across the presidency being ruled by Rajaji whose pet scheme was abstinence. It was joked that even those inebriated after a night of drinking hummed this song on the roads. Next came Vande Mataram, where he played a hero who wins a lottery. He was recognised as the new hero to be watched out for.
Nagayya trusted Reddy’s instinct regardless of its merit and this was when he made a costly mistake. Reddy’s next film Sumangali, much to the surprise of many had Nagayya cast as an elderly white haired social crusader, fighting for the emancipation of women (this was loosely based on reformer Veeresalingam Panthulu). Thereafter Nagayya played the long-suffering father too many times to get out of that mould.
A prolific actor, he would do 200 films in Telugu and 120 in other south Indian languages, but was mostly associated with more popular actors than he. He acted as the Rajput king with MS Subbulakshmi in the musical movie Chandra Prabha Cinetone’s, Meera. He acted as emperor Ashoka in Ashok Kumar, with the then superstar MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar, who was only six years younger playing his son.
Somehow over the course of his career, Nagayya became associated with the general suffering of human life. When they were filming Ezhai Padum Paadu, based on the famous French classic Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, he was the accepted pick to play the lead.
Besides acting, Nagayya composed music for many films. Though he composed all sorts of songs, most of his hits had a tint of melancholy. Chittoor V Nagayya being a trained musician, was very deeply involved in Carnatic music and was inspired to make the first movie on one of the musical trinity. When he played the role of 17th century composer Thyagaraja, he took training from the legendary Carnatic singers like GN Balasubramanian and Musri Subramanya Iyer to add realism to the role.
On a stormy night Nagayya was returning in his car to his T Nagar house. He noticed a group of drenched people waiting at a bus stop in Mylapore without a shelter or an umbrella. Nagayya gave them a lift in his car and during the journey on questioning, he learnt that they were T Nagar residents, who had come to listen to a Carnatic Kutcheri in Mylapore. Nagayya felt the need for an auditorium in T Nagar to culturally gratify T Nagar residents, and due to his efforts Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha was formed, and an auditorium, Vani Mahal, was constructed.
Nagayya was well paid and must have built a fortune. But a few flop films that he produced and his mindless generosity to anyone who sought it, drove him to a penury. After his death, scores of his admirers got together and had a life size statue installed in Panagal Park, T Nagar, the place where he lived most of his life.
With inputs from film historian Lakshmipriya pakanati