The Telugu World Column# 19
As mentioned last week Telugu people going out of their state(s) shine as politicians, sports persons, scientists, writers, academicians, journalists, artists or singers at national level. But all of them listed together would be just a fraction of the list of Telugu-speaking film personalities who dominate the south Indian film industry in Chennai. I plan to ignore them in my column because: (1) they do not need any introduction to the Telugu people mostly know only them all even if they do not know SriSri or Suri Bhagavantam and (2) I know very little about film stars.
Last week I was talking of journalists. Once almost all English dailies all over India had many Telugu journalists, but today they come next only to others like Malayalis or Bengalis. These two linguistic groups have a tradition of literary and intellectual pursuits – the first with high literacy and the second with proficiency in every form of art. Just as Biharis go out of their state to top in IAS and other fields while Bihar itself remains a beemaru (sick, backward) state, Telugus start great, being at the forefront of any new moments, but let others take over because their initial fervour is not sustained. Great beginners, they give up soon. Then they opt to escape the harsh realities of life with escapist films. Telugu has a word for it which has no English equivalent – ఆరంభ శూరత్వం. They start but don’t pursue anything to the logical end. Telugus start many movements or are at the forefront initially, but others take over, as they leave – mostly for film shows. Perhaps criticizing Telugu people (like this) is also typical of the Telugus.
What effect the craze for films has on Telugu literature, culture and life-style today can be a topic for doctoral research in both literature and social anthropology. Budding Telugu writers on a multilingual amateur writers’ platform were upset and outraged when I wrote that they write with films in mind. Novels are written with film prospects as the main consideration and to suit particular heroes. Stories are ‘manufactured to order’ like eats in a hotel, not written. Usually they are inspired by films or ‘filmy’ situations. A hero falling in love at first sight and taking the heroine to a cinema are common to most stories. Cinema is a great medium and should not be belittled. But it is no substitute for reality. Telugu people seem to have forgotten this and live in a celluloid world.
Not only do Telugu story writers imitate films but also each other. If the masthead is hidden a Telugu magazine used to look exactly like all others and could not be named apart from them. In the 70’s when I spent a few months in Hyderabad all had only film heroines on cover and were the same size. A colleague in a Telugu daily (I worked for its English counterpart) used to say, “They dip into each other’s wastepaper baskets. They pick up as masterpieces stories rejected by others as trash.” This reminded me of a joke about a record set by a Malayalam film actor acting as hero in 160 films. “No. He did not act in 160 films. He acted in one film 160 times,” a discerning Malayalam film fan said. The magazines were so similar that they could not be distinguished from one another. All contained several similar serials, identical features and just one small story or two. And all magazines were full of cinema gossip.
Sir C.Y., Rama Rao, Punnaiah and Ishwar Dutt (who shifted from writing to editing a magazine called ‘New India’ and told me at his Karol Bagh house in Delhi: “Any fool can write. It takes a heaven-born genius to edit.”) were not the only eminent Telugu journalists outside. Rama Rao was succeeded by M. Chalapathi Rao as editor of National Herald, Lucknow and launched its Delhi edition. He was just its editor, but his successor, also a Telugu man whom I brought into English journalism, the late K.V.S. Rama Sarma, was Editor-in-Chief! Duvvuri Subba Rao was New Editor of The Motherland daily and M. Venugopal Rao of Patriot daily in the 60s.
Chalapathi Rao was treated badly and insulted by the management in his last days at Herald whose building on Bahadurshah Zafar Maarg in Delhi is the subject of a court case in which Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia were arrested and given bail by a court. The site was allotted during his regime.
When I met Rao in his office in 1967 I was shocked to hear his voice. Following throat cancer his pharynx was removed and his words came from a mechanical device with metallic sound. He was considered the best writer of English in journalism then, but when what he wrote was rewritten by a sub-editor (who did not know he was the author), he insisted that the rewritten version, and not his own, should be published as he considered sub-editor supreme and had the last word. The new journalists’ colony at Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills was named after him.
Chalapathi Rao was a bachelor and lived alone in his Kakanagar government quarters. He used to go for a morning walk and stop at a roadside stall daily for his morning cup of tea. One day, he sat at the tea stall and died of a heart attack. The stall owner did not even know his name and thought of him as a ‘Madrasi who used to have tea here daily.’ Thus the body of one of the greatest Telugu journalists lay unclaimed and unknown on the roadside in Delhi.
One hopes it is not symbolic.