Remembering Raavi Kondala Rao: The last of the links to Telugu cinema’s origins

Srivathsan Nadadhur

It was barely a month ago that the writer of this tribute had met the multifaceted Raavi Kondala Rao in relation to an unreleased project where he was privy to many aspects of his life. The writer, playwright, actor, journalist and producer’s birth in 1932 had incidentally coincided with the origin of the Telugu film industry – perhaps it was a hint of the deep connection that the auteur would have with the silver screen until his last breath. As a 16-year-old boy, he had left his home (in a village named Nagavali) uninformed in 1948 and landed in Madras for a career in the film industry, regardless of the job he got. His elder brother staying in the same city in a modest room was a small-time actor who was working in films as a junior artiste then, thereby giving a young Raavi Kondala Rao unparalleled access to roam around the major studios of those days. It’s an opportunity he totally cherished and would go onto cement his understanding of the craft.

The early days

Raavi Kondala Rao was witness to the historic sight of NTR delivering his first dialogue for his debut project Mana Desam at Sobhanachala Studios when he was being nurtured in the able hands of his mentor L V Prasad. As a youngster and a man in his 20s, Kondala Rao was ready to do any job as long as it was associated with films. Film journalism was a welcome opportunity for him to develop long-lasting associations with leading actors of the times and keep the flame burning. His first brush with films as an actor was with the 1958-release Sobha, when he was cast in place of a supporting actor couldn’t deliver a dialogue as per its director Kamalakara Kameswara Rao’s expectations.

In a couple of years, he went onto marry Radha Kumari, another young actress whom he regularly co-starred with. After his marriage to Radha Kumari, the two went onto be cast together more frequently than before. They were so busy jumping from set to set, working in multiple shifts since the mornings and didn’t have any time to cook their own food at their home. Bathing after heating a bowl of water through coal, they used to grab a quick meal at a hotel close to their residence in the mornings and head to work. They used to return home only after a 16-hour day at work but never complained about it. Both were extremely talented actors and had excellent on-screen presence, playing comical, wile and supporting characters with ease. It was only natural that they were cast in every second film that released in the 70s and 80s.

Finding his feet and the later literary glory

Many producers had defaulted them on their payments, but financial stability was never a cause of concern for the man. Raavi Kondala Rao was witness to careers of many actors slipping away with their poor lifestyle and habits; he was very aware of the varying fortunes of the film industry and vouched to never drink, smoke or gamble through his career. As a writer, his short stories had a unique open-ended quality on the lines of O Henry’s works.

He particularly immortalised the portrayal of Gireesam in Gurajada Appa Rao’s Kanyasulkam across several stage plays, some of them hosted only a few years ago. He balanced his role as an editor in the vernacular magazine Vijaya Chitra with his acting stint and there were a few instances that it remained a cause for conflict as well. Some of his scathing reviews in the magazine invited the wrath of the producers, after which producer and co-founder of the magazine Chakrapani advised him to stop writing reviews. There were many instances where Raavi Kondala Rao remained tightlipped about his opinions, particularly when he disliked a film and was conscious of being politically correct.

The crowning moment of glory for Raavi Kondala Rao’s writing acumen was for Bapu-Ramana’s Pelli Pusthakam, for which he had penned the story. Incidentally, the film’s director Bapu, writer Mullapudi Venkataramana and Raavi Kondala Rao all went onto win Nandi awards for their credible efforts. Raavi Kondala Rao was always of the opinion that every story told in Indian cinema could be traced back to epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. He was instrumental in adding significant value to the return of Vijaya Productions into active production when he drafted the script for the Singeetham Srinivasa Rao-directorial Bhairava Dweepam. It was a film that marked the return of the folklore genre in Telugu cinema after 16 years. The excellent script gave Balakrishna one of the most memorable hits in his career.

His last days

One of the best on-screen appearances in his last few years was for the Siddharth-Shamili starrer Oy, where he acted in a brief role along with his wife. It was an iconic humourous sequence that became  one of the film’s major highlights upon release. Raavi Kondala Rao lost his companion in 2012; it was obvious that it dented his spirit quite a bit. Yet, he was regularly accessible for journalists for interviews and a regular sight at literary and cultural events hosted at Ravindra Bharathi and Tyagaraya Gana Sabha in Hyderabad.

Raavi Kondala Rao hasn’t been in the pink of his health in the last year, cutting down on his public appearances considerably. The 88-year-old was increasingly dependent on a few friends and his house helps for food and to keep his Moti Nagar residence spick and span. He always had his FM radio set and harmonium by his side for company. He was believed to have had a major fall in the bathroom weeks before the writer (of this tribute) had met him. He had used a walker and it limited his physical agility quite a bit but it seemed that the octogenarian had it in him to bounce back and was in regular touch with his doctor. Ce la vie, as they say, that’s life even if it feels incomplete. Raavi Kondala Rao was a treasure trove of information and was probably the last link that this generation had with Telugu cinema’s glorious roots. The autograph that he had signed on the writer’s copy of his autobiography would remain a prized possession now. offers sincere condolences and prays for strength to the family members of Raavi Kondala Rao. It doesn’t need saying that he’ll be missed.

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