Velugu Needalu
Srinivas Kanchibhotla

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Velugu Needalu
Here is the the series that focuses on the many greats who lurk in the shadows behind the silver screen bringing out the best in them, to radiate and redirect their brilliance onto the silver medium. We hope that these articles would focus our attention and applause to these true "stars" to whom limelight and spot lights do not usually beckon upon.

Part 1

'Character actor' - the term itself is a misnomer in acting parlance. As against what, the question would pop up, whenever someone is referred to as a 'character actor'. But then again, in the context of telugu movies, more so after a clear delineation occurred between the stars and the rest, the term 'character actor' appears not only apt but also warranted and befitting. And so it came to be that 'stars' could afford to be 'character-less' as long as there are strong supporting staff lending the proceedings the necessary heft and weight. As an example, the heroine gets chased, teased, hit upon, called names and pulled pranks on, on a daily basis. She gets irked, irritated and vexed (in that order), so much that one day in front of a huge crowd she slaps her tormentor hard across the face. Now, how the rules apply to the two kinds of actors ('character actors' and 'character-less stars') gets near comical from here. If the one slapped is a star, then transformation of hearts occur, both for the slapper and the slappee, with unwarranted sympathy assuming the form of love for the heroine and the star slapped back into coherence and good behavior, with his sudden admiration for the heroine's uprightness also turning into (and reciprocating) love. But the if one hit across is a 'character actor', things turn sour in an instant with the 'character actor' suddenly donning the mantle of the cruel villain hounding the lead pair for the rest of the movie. The problem with this setup is not so much as the fairness of the situation, for the star and the character actor pretty much did the same thing and one becomes a hero and the other the villain. The injustice is felt more during the award season. Say for the same movie above, by some stroke of divine luck (or hard lobbying) both the actors get selected for the award. The star gets the better billing of 'Best Actor', while the villain has to contend with 'Best Character Actor', which brings back to the original question, if the villain happens to have the best character in the movie, then what becomes of the other one - character-less, or slightly inferior actor? So stop calling them 'Character Actors' for they are the foundations, they are the pillars, they are the unseen brick and mortar, the hidden cement that binds the whole structure together. They are (also) the reason why the end result is marveled at.

Right from the inception of the industry, telugu filmdom has been blessed with a strong a reliable stable of character actors, none greater than the legendary S V Ranga Rao. Moving in and out of a wide variety of role with equal ease, essaying characters that cut across generations - grandfather, father, uncle, brother, on the affable side of affairs, down to the downright detestable, shady, arrogant and loathsome villains - SVR essentially set the benchmark against whom any actor worth his talent, past and present, are held up for examination. Saddled with a frame just a tad above what was considered as hero material, SVR turned this to his advantage affording himself the opportunities and characters that other stars dare not attempt. This made him the only actor to be taken in the same breath as the reigning stars of that era NTR and ANR, a feat that hasn't been replicated before or since. As a thug tugging at at the heart in 'బంగారు పాప', or a absent minded yet brilliant lawyer in 'తోడి కోడళ్ళు', as a disillusioned father in 'తాతా మనవడు', or the outright romantic in 'నర్తనశాల', as a dismissive and arrogant emeperor in 'పాండవ వనవాసం', to a large hearted patriarch in 'పండంటి కాపురం', and the innumerable yet memorable roles he portrayed in what are currently considered as the gold standards of telugu cinema, SVR upped the status of the 'character actor' on par with lead actors, both in terms of respect and revenue. Though Nagabhushanam played a bridging role bidding farewell to the era of the strong characters and ushering in the period, where the character actor is reduced to merely making the life of the leads miserable, his inimitable dialogue delivery, both comical and menacing, allowed him to straddle both the comedic and villainous role, carrying the legacy of SVR honorably forward. But it wasn't until the sun shined on the careers of this duo, who became an inseparable and indispensable part of the modern telugu cinema and who together truly imbibed the spirit of the SVR, that the glory of the character actors was regained and restored back to its original position - Rao Gopal Rao and Satyanarayana.

The interesting aspect is one lacked what the other had, but put together between the two they had it all. Gopal Rao, despite his deep baritone, fell short on the acting front, while Satyanarayana endowed with the full histrionic range was short changed (only when held up against his predecessor, SVR and compatriot, Gopal Rao) in the booming voice department. But their combination rewrote the rules for how a modern telugu villain ought to sound and act, all the while holding themselves back even when pitted against puny heroes, far inferior in stature and talent. In terms of redefining the art form for this new age of entertainment starvation, Raghavendra Rao (direction), Veturi (lyrics), Chakravarthi (music), Chiranjeevi and Vijayasanthi (lead roles), Rao Gopal Rao and Satyanarayana ('character roles') are cut above the rest, for each tailored their talent to suit the period and the requirement, never looking down upon or undermining the situation/scenario at hand. And so there were movies written, directed and acted that were an insult to the intelligence, in effect reversing the evolution of the telugu cinema from the golden age back to the silicon age, and yet there were these directors, musicians, lyricists, actors whose commitment to the content was beyong reproach, whose dedication, despite the silliness and inanity, remained dogged. To add to that list, in the glorious mould of SVR, continuing the great tradition of strong 'character acting', trudging tirelessly through the morass of mediocrity, here is the last telugu actor, who truly can be called an artist, worthy of the baton passed on by Gopal Rao and Satyanarayana - Kota Srinivasa Rao.

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K Balachandar
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K Viswanath
Bapu Ramana

More series of articles by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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