A visionary legacy: How Ramoji Rao shaped the Telugu media landscape

South First traces the illustrious journey of Ramoji Rao, who established a key link between the film industry and the small screen.

BySrivathsan Nadadhur

Published Jun 09, 2024 | 1:20 PMUpdatedJun 09, 2024 | 3:07 PM

Ramoji Rao, the unconventional producer. (Supplied)

Media and entertainment baron Cherukuri Ramoji Rao, who breathed his last this Saturday (8 June), best known as the founder of the Eenadu group, was a shrewd businessman at heart with a gift for translating his ideas into reality methodically. He sensed opportunities within the voids in the market much ahead of his entrepreneur counterparts.

From establishing Margadarsi Chit Funds to founding an advertising agency (named after his son Kiran) to establishing a chain of hotels (Dolphin), a periodical exclusively for farmers (Annadatha), winning over a new generation of readers with the vernacular daily Eenadu and wooing food connoisseurs with Priya Foods—one presumed Ramoji Rao ticked all boxes in his checklist by 1983.

Ramoji Rao, an avid film buff during his younger years in Gudivada, made it a point to watch at least two movies a week with his wife Rama Devi in Vizag in the early 1960s (before his business priorities took over). His tryst with cinema formally kickstarted with the film periodical Sithara in 1976, which offered substantial competition to magazines like Jyothi Chitra and Vijaya Chitra.

As part of Sithara’s efforts to honour technicians in various crafts of filmmaking, Ramoji Rao began hosting an annual award ceremony in 1980, which brought him closer to his industry counterparts. Even before, an under-discussed aspect of his career remains his brush with the grease paint in 1978 for the Sridhar-Madhavi starrer Marpu, where he’d essayed the role of a judge.

Also read: Telugu film fraternity mourns the demise of Ramoji Rao

When the Congress rule in Andhra Pradesh was plummeting to a new low with unstable leaders, politics was on the mind of the media baron. However, when film star NT Rama Rao announced his political entry through the Telugu Desam Party, he directed his efforts towards popularising him among the masses and played a crucial role in bringing about a political shift in 1983, when the Telugu land had its first actor-turned-chief minister.

Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad. (Supplied)

Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad. (Supplied)

NTR’s political campaign in 1982 received a huge boost with Ramoji Rao’s publicity efforts. An Eenadu reporter always accompanied the film star across the nooks and corners of the state. From his help to draft the star’s political speeches to use his advertising agency to full capacity, backed by enthusiastic reporting in the daily, Ramoji Rao left no stone unturned to make a point that NTR was the political alternative that the masses needed.

A shrewd businessman

This was also the time when the Telugu film industry was becoming a pale shadow of its past, losing its direction with mindless commercial capers. The Eenadu founder also understood the need for alternate cinema and middle-road films that represented the common man’s voice and belief system on the screen minus the star frenzy. Usha Kiran Movies and their distribution unit, Mayuri, were officially born in 1983.

Ramoji Rao’s foray into the film industry began on an optimistic note with Srivariki Premalekha (1984), directed by Jandhyala, starring rank newcomers Naresh and Poornima (inspired by the novel Premalekha published in Chatura, also owned by the Eenadu group). The film’s massive success provided a strong foundation for the media baron’s career as a producer, prodding him to take more creative risks.

The unconventional producer

In the same year, Kanchana Ganga (1984), was another novel-inspired film that reflected Ramoji Rao’s knack for picking unique scripts. However, the game changer for Usha Kiran Movies was Mayuri (1985). Intrigued by an article about a Bharatanatyam danseuses’ road mishap and her road to recovery with a Jaipur foot, the ‘young’ producer greenlit starring the accident victim herself—Sudha Chandran.

At a time when the word ‘biopic’ was unheard of, Mayuri was a compelling blend of fact and fiction that took the film world by storm. Besides critical acclaim and commercial success, the Singeetham Srinivasa Rao directorial won a National award and bagged 14 Nandi Awards (the highest tally for a Telugu film). With the film’s Hindi remake Nache Mayuri (1986), Sudha Chandran and Usha Kiran Movies had a dream launch in Mumbai too.

'Pratighatana' poster. (Wikipedia)

‘Pratighatana’ poster. (Wikipedia)

Another major milestone in Ramoji Rao’s career as a producer was also inspired by a true incident—T Krishna’s Pratighatana (1985), that catapulted Vijayashanti to overnight stardom. The film, showcasing the bravura of a college teacher, mirrors many ills within the system and how the men in power misuse it for their needs.

Pratighatana was later remade in Malayalam as Pakarathinu Pakaram (1986) and in Hindi as Pratighaat (1987).

Pratighatana’s success paved the way for Mouna Poratam (1989), telling a real-life story of another victimised woman fighting the system, based on a real story of the injustice meted out to an Odisha tribal woman.

Using Mayuri’s hit formula, Ramoji Rao later introduced athlete Ashwini Nachappa to films in a tale loosely inspired by her achievements in the sports arena.

Ramoji Rao’s films were a breath of fresh air away from the mainstream madness, often made at a modest budget, relying on newcomers, experienced character artistes, and strong plots.

In the 80s and 90s, he launched many careers—Yamuna, Sudha Chandran, Ashwini Nachappa—besides introducing Rajendra Prasad as a lead with Preminchu Pelladu (1985), Srikanth in People’s Encounter (1991) and Tarun as a child artist in Manasu Mamata (1990).

In the 1990s, Ramoji Rao’s endeavours in Usha Kiran movies took a backseat because of his ‘bigger’ dreams.

A mentor figure 

Given the influence he wielded in political circles, he was often dubbed as the kingmaker which earned him a few enemies too. Yet, there was no stopping Ramoji Rao, the visionary. Prompted by P Narasimha Rao’s reforms, inviting private broadcasters to the television industry, ETV heralded a new era in the chapter of Telugu entertainment.

With the growing popularity of home viewing in the Telugu land, Ramoji Rao used his industry connections to acquire satellite rights of films from Telugu production houses for throwaway prices. In more ways than one, he bridged the gap between the film industry and the small screen, roping in several stalwarts—from Jandhyala to Vamsi to Bapu and Dasari Narayana Rao—to make television soaps for the small screen.

'Preminchu Pelladu' poster. (Supplied)

‘Preminchu Pelladu’ poster. (Supplied)

When a new generation of actors and directors was taking over the film industry, ETV offered viewers a glimpse of Telugu cinema’s glorious heritage with rare interviews with film celebrities and archival footage and gave yesteryear stars and technicians their due (Swagathalu, Soundarya Lahari). Ramoji Rao’s brainchild also had the credit of steering the careers of several popular character artistes and hosts today—Suma, Subhalekha Sudhakar, Jhansi, Rajeev Kanakala, Udayabhanu to name a few.

SS Rajamouli, who has earned global acclaim for his films, made his directional debut with a television soap, Shanti Nivasam (2000), backed by K Raghavendra Rao, for ETV.

As part of ETV’s 20-year celebrations held in 2015, actress, producer, and politician Radikaa Sarathkumar recollected, “At a time when I was going through a difficult phase in life and I had just established Radaan, Ramoji Rao was among the first set of people to trust me and backed my first mega serial Idhi Kadha Kaadu. ETV gave me respect as an actress and an entrepreneur.”

Besides Naresh and Radikaa, the channel introduced Gollapudi Maruthi Rao, Ali, Vennela Kishore, Lakshmi Manchu, and Sai Kumar as small-screen hosts.

Some of ETV’s most popular television soaps in the founding years include Sneha (1995), Kalankitha (1995), Lady Detective (1996), Anveshitha (1997), Antharangalu (1998), Sivaleelalu (2000), Panchatantram (2003) and Bhagavatham (2003). His younger son, Suman, played an active role in the production of many serials as a director and illustrator.

YT grab of 'Padutha-Theeyaga'. (Facebook)

YouTube grab of ‘Padutha Theeyaga’. (Facebook)

Any mention of the media baron’s journey with ETV would be incomplete without the mention of Padutha Theeyaga (1996), the music show, (which has run for 26 seasons) which paved the way for SP Balasubrahmanyam’s rewarding stint with the small screen.

The show continues to serve as a key link between the music industry and television, grooming budding Telugu singers for the big stage. Jhummandi Naadam (2007), encapsulating the journeys of popular musicians in the industry, was another step in that direction.

However, the endeavour that cemented Ramoji Rao’s presence as a visionary in the film/television industry was Ramoji Film City on the outskirts of Hyderabad, built over 1600 acres, where one could ‘walk in with a film script and walk out with a film’.

The film city, launched on Ramoji Rao’s 60th birthday, boasting of state-of-the-art technology, infrastructure, and post-production facilities was a revolution in Indian cinema besides serving as a tourist attraction.

Gallery: Ramoji Rao no more; the end of an era

A man ahead of his times

Just like in the 1980s, when the Telugu industry was heading in a different direction, Ramoji Rao stayed ahead of the curve in film production in the 2000s too.

Three campus dramas—Chitram (2000), Nuvve Kavali (2000), and Anandam (2001)—revived the fortunes of Usha Kiran Movies in the decade. All the films represented the tastes, choices, and everyday slang of the youngsters had memorable music, and continue to fetch impressive TRPs on television even today.

Nagarjuna in 'Akasa-Veedhilo'. (Supplied)

Nagarjuna in ‘Akasa-Veedhilo’. (Supplied)

The only occasion where Ramoji Rao entrusted his film in the hands in the hands of a major film star—Nagarjuna’s Akasa Veedhilo (2001) tanked at the box office. Some of his family dramas like Deevinchandi (2001) and Priya Nestama (2002) with other formidable actors like Srikanth and Venu tasted middling success.

Meanwhile, the ‘career launcher’ label stuck to Ramoji Rao firmly in the 2000s as well—the wide range of talents who benefited from his trust include actors Uday Kiran, Jr NTR, Kalyan Ram, Tanish, Akash, Shriya Saran, directors Teja, Sreenu Vaitla, Trivikram, Vijay Bhaskar and music director Devi Sri Prasad, to name a few.

Usha Kiran Movies’ last set of hits included Nachavule (2008) and Betting Bangarraju (2010).

With over 87 films to his credit in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and Malayalam languages, Ramoji Rao was an unconventional producer, who was unafraid of taking risks and backed young talent at every given opportunity.

With the recent launch of his OTT platform ETV Win, one can be assured that Ramoji Rao’s brainchild is well-placed for future growth.

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