Remembering Chalapathi Rao: Telugu cinema will miss its Babai
In a career spanning 1200 films, the actor managed to balance both menacing and endearing image
The demise of a person is more than the passing away of an individual—they take away everything associated with them, the memories and what they represented. And when an artist passes away, they take a time period away along with them. On Sunday, when news of Chalapathi Rao’s demise broke out, in his condolence statement, Pawan Kalyan fittingly described the actor as one of the ‘representatives of a generation of Telugu cinema.' And the statement rings quite effective, especially in a year that saw the demise of veterans like Krishnam Raju, Krishna and Kaikala Satyanarayana two days back.
In a way, Chalapathi Rao's five-decade-long career, comprising more than 1200 films, is a documentation of Telugu cinema, its ecosystem, and its evolution. He crossed paths with the who's who of Telugu cinema and his career is closely entwined with many prominent names. It's noteworthy that he made his debut in 1966 with Goodachari 116, a film that brought Krishna to the foreground. Chalapathi Rao was close to another veteran, NTR, having found one of his early significant roles in Kathanayakudu (1969). He went on to act in numerous films alongside NTR like Tatamma Kala (1974), Adivi Ramudu (1977), Yama Gola (1977), Annadammula Anubandham (1975), Manushulanta Okkate (1976), Daana Veera Soora Karna (directed by NTR, he played four roles in the film, namely Indra, Adhiratha, Jarasandha and Dhrishtadyumna), Yuga Purushudu (1978), Driver Ramudu (1979), Vetagadu (1979), Akbar Salim Anarkali (1979), Sarada Ramudu (1980) and Bobbili Puli (1982), to name a few. Some of his remarkable films in the ‘90s include Alluda Majaka (1995), Pokiri Raja (1995), Sisindri (1995), Pedarayudu (1995), Sankalpam (1995), Ninne Pelladata (1996), Vamsanikokkadu (1996), Gulabi (1996), and Anaganaga Oka Roju (1997).
Chalapathi Rao was synonymous with cruel, brutish villains and he did such a good job on-screen that he once joked that women would stay wary of him in real life. That doesn't mean he restricted himself to negative roles. This generation of moviegoers has seen him in many supporting roles alongside contemporary actors such as NTR Jr, Mahesh Babu, and Allu Arjun to name some. Some of his most popular performances in the 2000s came in the form of three VV Vinayak directorials: as caring guardian--dearly called 'Babai'--to Jr NTR in Aadi (2002), as Satti Reddy, the loyal right hand to Balakrishna's Chennakesava Reddy in the 2002 film by the same name, and as Nithiin’s witty father in Dil (2003).
As someone who has been vocal about his reverence for NTR, when he played the guardian of Jr NTR in Aadi, his character, more or less, serves as cinematic documentation of his of-screen bondage with the senior actor and his family. Another remarkable role of his came in Allari, which marked the directorial debut of his son Ravi Babu. It is amusing that in a film directed by his son, he plays a carefree, sarcastic father who doesn’t seem to be concerned much about his young son, played by Allari Naresh (yes, this is where the actor got his prefix from). He went on to appear in most of his son’s films, including Ammayilu Abbayilu (2003), Party (2005), Anasuya (2007), and Avunu (2012), to name some.
Vinaya Vidheya Rama and Ruler in 2019 and Johaar in 2020 were some of the final roles before he slowed down due to health issues. His final role came in a film titled Oh Manishi Neevevaru this year.
His demise marks the closing of a chapter in Telugu cinema. In the past decade, he mostly appeared in supporting roles, often playing a family member of the protagonist. He was dearly called Babai on and off-screen. In 2017, he landed in a controversy when he made a lewd remark about women, sparking outrage on social media. He issued an apology later. And there are stories about his tiffs with co-stars; some of them went to physical altercations too. Yet, his place in Telugu cinema remained unscathed, because he was considered a family member, off-screen too, and was accepted despite some of his flaws, as we do to our own family members. And seeing all the condolences being poured in, it is clear that Telugu cinema will miss its Babai.