Anjali Devi, who swept filmgoers off their feet with her beauty and elegance, some decades ago, takes you into her rewarding past.

Can you believe that this heroine entered cinema with husband and two sons in tow and went on to work in 500 films in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi in a wide range of roles, before calling it a day? Known for her bewitching looks and elegant dancing skills in her youth, she has acted with the greatest heroes of her era. Meet Anjali Devi, whose religious slant and spiritual thinking have in no way diminished her zest for life! “It involves 64 years of experience ma,” she chuckles.

Friendly and cordial, she makes me feel comfortable, when I meet her at her home in Raja Annamalaipuram, Chennai, adjacent to ‘Sundaram,' where believers of Sathya Sai Baba throng.

Anjali Devi began as a child artist on stage at the age of eight. A theatre troupe had come to Peddapuram, to enact the play ‘Harischandra,' when the boy who was to play Lohidas fell ill. Anjali's father, Nokkiah, a tabla player, who wanted his only child to pursue the arts, suggested his daughter's name and the child who was taking her Class IV exam was whisked away. It was her first brush with acting. “Soon my father left me with the amateur troupe, Young Men's Happy Club, in Kakinada, just a few kilometres away. Doctors, lawyers and officers were members there and brisk theatre activity was going on. The club was my Rangasthalam,” she laughs. And that was where she met her husband Adhi Narayana Rao, writer, lyricist and musician. She refers to her husband as “guru, father, mother …everything.” The girl was hardly nine then. But by the age of 14, she knew that he was her life partner. And at 18, she was a mother with two sons!

Despite winning several medallions and certificates for her stage performances that included dance, Anjali only wished to bask in the glory of her husband's music skills, when well-known director C. Pullaiah, who had introduced actors such as Bhanumathi and Pushpavalli knocked at their door with a film heroine's role. Anjali's husband advised her to take it up and after much hesitation, she agreed. Her second son was a new born then. ‘Gollabhama' was the first film and soon a plethora of offers in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi followed. “In Tamil I did ‘Aadhithan Kanavu' and ‘Mangaiyarkarasi.' I was taught Hindi at the club, but Tamil was entirely alien. I diligently learnt the language and dubbed in my own voice,” she smiles. On the sets, heroes such as MGR would help her with the Tamil diction.

Dhirubhai Desai's ‘Shukh Rambha' was her launch pad in Hindi.

T.R. Mahalingam, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Ashok Kumar, N.T. Rama Rao, Nageswara Rao – there wasn't a top hero Anjali didn't work with. “Our first production, ‘Poongodhai,' a bi-lingual in Telugu and Tamil, should have been Sivaji Ganesan's debut film. But ‘Parasakti' got released first. He was God's gift to Tamil cinema. What an actor!” she goes into a reverie. Rekha too made her bow in cinema with Anjali Pictures' ‘Amma Kausam' (Telugu), after which she moved on to Hindi.

Incredible variety

You tend to associate Anjali with sober roles. So her light part in ‘Adutha Veetu Penn' with T.R. Ramachandran and Thangavelu must have surprised many. “I was keen on variety. We produced ‘Adutha …' with Vedanta Raghaviah as director. ‘Pakkinta Ammayi,' the Telugu remake was directed by Pullaiah. (As ‘Padosan' in Hindi, it featured Saira Banu and Mehmood.) Pullaiah gave me a negative role (Mohini) in ‘Gollabhama', made me play Sita in ‘Lava Kusa' and added a comedy to my repertoire with ‘Pakkinta Ammayi',” she laughs.

Anjali is very proud of her husband's achievements. “We made 28 films. Nearly all of them were hits. But our film ‘Phoolon Ke Sez,' for instance, became ‘Khaton Ke Sez,'” she smiles. Adhi Narayana Rao was a reputed music composer, writer and producer. Who can forget his scintillating pieces, such as, ‘Thesulavudhae Thaen Malaralae' and ‘Azhaikkaadhae'? “He was the only composer from the South to be honoured with a Film Critic Award for the Hindi number, ‘Kuhu Kuhu Bhole Koeliya' sung by Lata Mangeshkar. He was also awarded the title, ‘Vinodha Vaggeyakara,”' she beams.

Ilaiyaraja, she says, loves Rao's compositions. “In fact, the admiration was mutual. So I requested him to release our album ‘Adhi Narayana Rao Hits.'” Rao passed away in 1991 and his 20th year aradhana, organised by the State Government, was held in Hyderabad on January 25. “He was a great man. I miss him,” her voice turns soft. But regaining composure almost at once, she laughs, “His day would never begin without a copy of The Hindu. He loved the editorials.”

Anjali played Rajinikanth's mother in ‘Annai Oru Aalayam' -- the film was released in Telugu too. “I keep saying Rajini and Kamal are my sons. About a year ago, when South Indian Artists Association honoured me, as I had been its first woman president, I said, ‘One of my sons is here. Where is the other?' Rajini was present, but Kamal couldn't make it.”

It's joy to listen to this great actor re-live her past, even as she touches upon her present, in a quaint mix of Tamil and Telugu, with a few Hindi words peeping in. Daughter-in-law Vijayalakshmi is equally affable. “Do you remember comedian Sarangapani? Viji is his daughter.” Elder son Chinna Rao deals in software and Niranjan Kumar, the second, is a general surgeon. Both live in the U.S. “I can't leave Chennai ma. I've lived here since 1946,” she says.

Redressal, a must

I'm shocked when Anjali Devi tells me that the Central Government hasn't honoured her, ever! What more achievements are needed for such recognition, I wonder. “I wonder too! Some of our films have won national awards but that's it. The States of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have presented me titles and feted me. But somehow the Centre hasn't taken cognisance of my work and life,” shrugs the octogenarian. A grievous omission indeed!

A hand that gives

Anjali Devi has served in other areas too:

1. Vice president, Film Chamber of Commerce

2. Senate Member, Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati

3. The first woman president of South Indian Artists Association

Known for her philanthropy, Anjali Devi contributes a lot for the cause of education. “Helping those who wish to study is gratifying,” she says.

Her educational trust in the name of actor Nagaiah, whom she holds in high esteem, allots funds for at least 10 deserving students annually. “I'm also planning a trust in my husband's name,” she smiles.

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