Chittoor V. Nagaiah is one of the finest method actors of Indian cinema, the first South Indian actor to receive Rs 1 Lakh remuneration and to receive Padma Shri title from the Government of India. During the days when stage actors and film actors are looked down upon, he brought the respect to film actors. He was a thespian, actor, playback singer, composer, writer, director and producer. The audience remember him for the pioneering works such as Bhakta Potana (1942), Tyagayya (1946), Ramadasu (1964) etc. He was a man of virtues and extremely sympathetic towards fellow human beings. Many people took advantage of his benevolence which resulted in his financial difficulties. He had to accept minor roles in films just for the sake of money. Chittoor Nagaiah is the first matinee-idol of Telugu cinema.
Vuppaladadiyam Nagaiah was born on 28 March, 1904, in Repalle, Guntur. His family moved to Kuppam and later to Tirupati in Chittoor district. He discontinued his studies for his interest in music, learned Carnatic and Hindustani music. He worked as a clerk in a local Government office and as a News reporter for the acclaimed Newspaper ‘Andhra Patrika’ in Chittoor. Inspired by the Indian freedom struggle lead by Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, he participated in Salt Satyagraha and went behind the bars for around 18 months. He worked for the Congress party as a member without expecting anything in return. During this time, he had association with the drama company, Rama vilasa sabha, and he became popular as Chittoor Nagaiah. He performed several stage plays including ‘Sarangadhara’, ‘Viswamitra Citra Nilayam’, ‘Savitri’, ‘Bruhannala’ and ‘Ramadasu’. During this time, he married Jaya Lakshmi, who died during child birth. His daughter died due to an undiagnosed illness. He then married Girija, who died due to miscarriage in Eighth month. Girija’s demise drove his father insane and he too left the world. These personal hardships destroyed his mental peace and he stayed at Ramana Maharshi ashram for long. He then travelled on religious tours.
He met the leading filmmaker, B N Reddy, while working for the Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha (CAMS). H M Reddy started a firm called ‘Rohini Pictures’ with the association of B N Reddy. Nagaiah got a minor role in their first venture Gruha Lakshmi (1938). He received a payment of Rs 750 for the film. The film became successful and brought fame to Nagaiah. The song ‘Kallu maanandoi baabu kallu teravandoi’ sung by Nagaiah became highly popular. Later B N Reddy separated from H M Reddy and started the firm Vahini Pictures, where Nagaiah took part in.
He played the lead role in his next movie, Vande mataram (1939). Kanchanamala is the lead actress in this film. The film was a runaway success for its theme and the music composed by Nagaiah himself. His bonding with Vahini pictures resulted in continuous hits Sumangali, Devatha, Bhakta Potana, Swarga Seema, Tyagayya and Yogi Vemana. He started getting offers equally from Telugu and Tamil industries and was the highest paid actor by the time of Beedala Patlu (1950). He was the producer, director, music director and lead actor for the film Tyagayya which was a remarkable hit and remained a classic. His subsequent ventures Naa illu (1953) and Bhakta Ramadas (1964) failed at box office and he lost his wealth. He then switched over to character roles and minor roles for livelihood. He acted in around 200 Telugu films, 160 Tamil films and some Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi films.
It is said that his performance in ‘Yogi Vemana’ influenced a boy who later became a saint and became popular as ‘Balayogi’. He used to have 5 houses, 2-3 cars and huge crowd surrounding him during his prime. Andhra Film Journalists Association selected him as the Best Actor in film Ballot in the year 1939. He donated majority of his wealth in charities. Moreover, he used to provide food and accommodation to the artists and technicians while he was a producer. He used to offer lunch to the audience to who visit the sets to watch shooting. During the starting of academic year, crowd used to gather in front of his house for his recommendation letter for admission into colleges. Tyagayya is a milestone in his career. The Travancore Maharaja made him sit in the throne, tendered Padapuja and ennobled him in the middle of court consisting of great pandits and royal veterans amidst glissando of Nadaswaram. Maharaja honoured him with the title ‘Abhinava Tyagaraju’. The Mysore Maharaja honoured him with Silver shovel and awarded him with 101 silver plates consisting of gold coins. In addition, he bestowed him with a gold chain with a pendant of Lord Sri Rama.
Nagaiah, who was once the highest paid actor, had to accept roles for Hundreds of rupees remuneration. He had written in his autobiography, “My life is a lesson for everyone. Never donate to people who don’t deserve it and don’t do charities that you are not capable of. There will be wolves in sheep’s clothing, so don’t blindly trust everyone. I trusted everyone and got cheated several times. This resulted in my financial problems.” He lost all his wealth, houses and properties and lived in a rented house in his last days. The legendary actor Chittoor Nagaiah passed away on 30th December, 1973, at the age of 72. His contribution to Telugu cinema is unforgettable.