Adurthi Subba Rao, or A. Subba Rao as he was commonly referred to in the credit titles of his Tamil and Hindi films, was one of the most successful filmmakers, who sadly didn’t get the recognition he deserved. He made movies in his mother-tongue Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Kannada. He made more than 50 movies in Indian languages, with many of them proving to be box-office hits. Many of his films won awards at the state and national levels, with some of them becoming iconic movies.
The year 2012 marked the birth centenary of Subba Rao; but for some reason, his friends and fans plan to celebrate it this December by bringing out a commemorative souvenir, highlighting his life and movies.
He was a masterly film editor before he blossomed into a great movie maker. He was closely associated with the icon of Telugu cinema, Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR), whom he joined and promoted the production house Chakravarthi Chitra, and made some experimental movies, which didn’t do well and landed him in financial trouble.
He was also associated with south Indian movie mogul and boss of the Salem-based Modern Theatres, T. R. Sundaram, for whom he made Tamil movies such as Kumudham (1961) and Kattu Roja (1963), and also worked as editor.
Passion for photography
Adurthi Subba Rao was born on December 16, 1912, in Rajahmundry, the heartland of Andhra, then part and parcel of the sprawling Madras Presidency. His father was a Revenue Department official who didn’t encourage his interest in movies. Even as a college student in Kakinada, he developed a passion for photography and movies, and defying his father, he abandoned home and headed for Bombay with the little money he had given him. He joined a three-year course in photography in Bombay, but abandoned it halfway and joined a film studio lab printing department. Thereafter, he joined the well-known editor of the day, Dina Narvekar, as his assistant.
Soon he got the opportunity to become an assistant editor in a cult film, Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), which was produced at Gemini Studios, Madras (now Chennai), in which the sadly underrated Indian movie wizard K. Ramnoth was the director of photography and editing, and he learnt a lot about editing and filmmaking from this genius.
He also wrote screenplays and dialogues in Telugu and took his well-deserved bow in the Telugu movie Amara Sandesham in 1954. This film was inspired by the Hindi musical extravaganza Baiju Bawra and did well enough for his talents to be recognised by the people in the industry. It was after this that ANR recommended him to his associate, the Telugu movie mogul Dukkipati Madhusudhana Rao, who gave Adurthi his film Thodi Kodallu (1957), which turned out to be a super hit.
The producers remade it in Tamil as Engal Veettu Mahalakshmi (1957), with Subba Rao handling the megaphone, and P. Kannamba, S. V. Ranga Rao, ANR and Savitri in lead roles. This film became a big hit and also won awards at both the state and national levels. With this film, Subba Rao arrived in a big way in south Indian cinema, and climbed up the ladder to become a ‘name’ in Indian Cinema.
In the scope of a single article, it is very difficult to take an in-depth look at his various films. However, mention must be made of some of his outstanding movies. The list of his meaningful movies, which won awards at the national level, besides Thodi Kodallu , includes Mangalya Balam (1958 – Best Feature Film in Telugu), Nammina Bantu (1959 – President’s Silver Medal for Best Feature Film in Telugu) and Kumudham (1961 – Third Best Feature Film In Tamil, a Modern Theatres movie with S. S. Rajendran, Vijayakumari, Sowcar Janaki, and M.R. Radha). The song, ‘Meow meow….poonaikutti’ from Kumudham , sung by M. S. Rajeswari and filmed on Sowcar Janaki, became a super hit and is still popular.
Mooga Manasulu (1963), based on the reincarnation theme, was a major super hit of Telugu Cinema. Featuring ANR and Savitri in lead roles, it won National Award for Best Feature Film. It had excellent music, with most of the songs including ‘Godaari Gattundhi....’ becoming popular. It was remade in Hindi as Milan (1967) with Sunil Dutt, Nutan and Jamuna. In Kannada, Mane Aliya (1964 – with Kalyan Kumar and J. Jayalalithaa in lead roles) won the National Award for Best Feature Film.
Introduced new faces
Subba Rao had the distinction of introducing the Telugu superstar and cult figure Krishna as a hero in his film Tene Manasulu (1965). Earlier, Krishna was playing only supporting roles, and this was his first major break. This film also introduced new faces Ram Mohan, Sandhya Rani and Sukanya in lead roles. This was also the first Telugu film in colour.
Subba Rao, with his skills as an editor, had a distinct way of filming a scene, especially song and dance sequences, where he showed his calibre, which came in for much appreciation from critics and fans alike.
His outstanding quality, as a top director, was to put his artistes, especially new faces at ease, so that they did not feel inhibited. While filming Tene Manasulu, he took the new actors on a picnic to places such as Mahabalipuram and Elliot’s Beach, thereby removing all traces of tension and self-consciousness in facing the camera for the first time in a major role. Very few directors had this quality.
With his productions landing him in trouble, he was not a happy man and he passed away on October 1, 1975, much to the regret of his friends and fans in the south Indian film industry.