18 January 1996: N.T. Rama Rao, actor and Andhra chief minister, died

Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, a superstar of Telugu cinema who entered politics to become one of the most popular chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, was born on May 28, 1923. Better known as N.T. Rama Rao or simply NTR, he died on January 18, 1996.

Born in a farming family in Nimmakuru, a village in Krishna District, then part of the Madras Presidency, he took to singing as a child. After completing his matriculation he pursued an intermediate course in Vijayawada. During this phase he did several jobs like supplying milk to hotels and running a small store. He took part in a play staged by college students in the first year. 

Subsequently, while studying in Guntur for his Bachelor’s degree he performed in many plays, also directing them.

After securing his graduation he worked as a sub-registrar for a while. But a nine-to-five job was not NTR’s destiny. In 1949 he got a small role as a cop in director L.V. Prasad’s film ‘Mana Desam’. His next appearance was in the film ‘Palletoori Pilla’, which did very well commercially. However, it was in the 1951 film ‘Paathala Bhairavi’, directed by K.V. Reddy, that he got his first major break while playing the role of a prince.  

He played the role of Krishna in the superhit ‘Maya Bazaar’ in 1957; he would go on to play mythological roles of various gods such as Krishna, Rama and Shiva in dozens of films, including  ‘Sri Krishnarjuna Yudham’ (1962), ‘Daana Veera Soora Karna’ (1977), ‘Lava Kusha’ (1963), ‘Shri Rama Pattabhishekham’ (1978) and ‘Dakshayagnam’ (1962). These roles made him the biggest star of Telugu cinema.

As a December 2002 profile of NTR in The Hindu noted: “The deification of Rama Rao began and his residence in Madras became a shrine for pilgrims, who would visit him after a trip to Tirupati. NTR fans used to wait in long queues outside his house for a darshan of their ‘living-god’. They used to apprise him of their problems back home in their villages and he listened to them patiently before rushing to the studio in the morning.”

NTR did not restrict himself to mythological figures and essayed a wide variety of roles. In fact, he continued to act in films occasionally even after entering politics.

In March 1982, NTR formally entered Andhra Pradesh politics and founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). The TDP convincingly won the first assembly elections it contested and NTR became the first non-Congress chief minister of the state.

In August 1984, NTR was controversially removed from office but reinstalled within a few months. Later he dissolved the assembly and fresh elections were held, with the TDP expectedly returning to power.

The Hindu article said about his tenure: “Apart from introducing the cheap rice scheme of selling the grain at Rs 2 a kilogram for poor people with a monthly income of Rs 500 or less, he fought with the Centre to amend the Hindu Succession Act to ensure equal property rights to women. He introduced educational reforms and laid the foundation for the Telugu Ganga project…”

However, the TDP lost the next assembly elections in 1989 after completing five years in office, with NTR himself losing one of his seats. He then turned his attention to national politics and the TDP became part of the National Front at the Centre.

The TDP returned to power in Andhra Pradesh in 1994 but in August 1995 there was an internal rebellion in the party and he was ousted from the chief minister’s chair. NTR quickly started plotting his political comeback. As Outlook magazine noted in October 1995: “There is every reason for NTR to be upbeat. His favourite son-in-law is back. His supporters no longer show any ill-will towards his wife, Lakshmi Parvati. His eldest son, Jayakrishna, has expressed support, exhorting the MLAs with Chandrababu Naidu to return and to refrain from ‘clipping the wings of a bird about to fly.’ The MLAs who had deserted him are now sending feelers. It has taken only six weeks for the founder of the TDP to re-emerge from political oblivion.”

Tragically, only a few months later, on January 18, 1996, NTR died after suffering a heart attack.

In an article after his death, Outlook put his stardom and politics in context: “In the 1983 elections, NTR proved his political worth and charisma by inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Congress in its citadel, Andhra Pradesh. In all subsequent elections, with the sole exception of 1989, NTR proved that he was as good at politics as he was as at acting as Rama, Krishna, Bheema, Karna and Bhishma on screen. Like MGR, he made capital of his screen image and in the villages of Andhra Pradesh he was literally worshipped.”

Also on this day:

1947 — K.L. Saigal, Indian singer and film actor, passed away

1955 — Saadat Hassan Manto, Urdu writer, passed away

1972  — Vinod Kambli, Indian cricketer, was born

2003 — Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Hindi poet, passed away

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