Obituary: N. T. Rama Rao

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The Independent Online
N. T. Rama Rao is best known in India for having abandoned his status as a film god to enter politics, and was three times voted chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the state's highest elected office, most recently in 1994.

A popular screen actor from the south-eastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, "NTR" starred in over 320 Telugu- language films, usually as a mythological Hindu god or hero. Among the rural poor, he had a massive following. Many of his awed, illiterate followers blurred the distinction between god and actor, and following his death shrines have sprouted in some parts of Andhra Pradesh, where Rama Rao is worshipped as one of Hinduism's many deities. At least one of his followers committed suicide on hearing news of his death.

A populist, he was born into a poor farming family at Nimmakuru, in the state's Krishna district. Ambitious, handsome and graced with a booming baritone, he quit his lowly job in the civil service and entered films while in his twenties. From his first part, a walk-on as a police officer in Mana Desam (1949), for which he was paid 500 rupees (today about pounds 10 sterling), he became one of the cinema-crazed state's best-known idols. Wide-shouldered, flamboyant and with a proud, hawkish face, Rama Rao made as good a villain as he did a hero, but he is best known for his portrayals of the two gods Krishna and Rama.

During the Sixties, his fame reached such a pitch that his fans would clash outside theatres with gangs owing allegiance to rival film stars. One of his films during this period, Shri Venkateshwara Mahatyam (1960) evoked such reverence that Rama Rao's followers erected makeshift shrines inside the cinema halls to pray before and after the screening.

His last film paved his entry into politics. In The Lion of Bobbili (1982), Rama Rao plays an army officer who turns into an idealist fighting against the corrupt government. On his 60th birthday, while The Lion of Bobbili was still filling cinema halls across the state, Rama Rao launched a new political party, the Telugu Desam. Using cinema tricks, he travelled Andhra Pradesh campaigning from a makeshift van fitted with lights, a powerful public address system and a bed. In 90 days, he covered 35,000 kilometres, a feat he claimed was a world record. He said he owed this feat of endurance to yoga. The appearance of the state's most popular film idol so mesmerised villagers in Andhra Pradesh, many of whom had never seen television or electricity, that Rama Rao's fledgling party, despite its political inexperience, won an overwhelming majority. Hundreds of thousands of supporters witnessed his swearing-in as chief minister.

During his three terms as chief minister, he proved as durable a politician as he had been an actor. His populist schemes of selling rice for two rupees a kilo, building houses for the poor and reserving more university places for women may have nearly bankrupted the state treasury but did win him votes. He was one of the few opposition politicians to stand up against the often wrathful Indira Gandhi, then premier.

After the death of his first wife in 1984, Rama Rao's godly lustre faded. A high court found him guilty of corruption and nepotism and his party was thrashed in the 1989 assembly polls. His comeback in 1994 - with a new and far younger bride at his side, Lakshmi Parvathi, a teacher - was marred by family feuds. His numerous children hated their stepmother and her influence on the often sickly Rama Rao. He was ousted as chief minister last August by his own son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu.

The prime minister, Narasimha Rao, described him as "a man of many parts - a learned and deeply religious person, a very fine and powerful actor who swayed millions of people, a forceful orator and above all, a man of the masses." Rama Rao was also chairman of the leftist National Front, an alliance of leftist and regional parties. "What is destined to happen will happen. Victory and defeat are like light and darkness," he laughed on the day when his own family toppled him, in a drama that for many Indians was nearly as spellbinding as Rama Rao's performances as mythological hero.

Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, actor and politician: born Nimmakuru, India 29 March 1923; founder and first President, Telugu Desam Party 1982; Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh 1983-89, 1994-95; twice married; died Hyderabad 18 January 1996.