In Mahesh Babu’s Sarkaru Vaari Paata, a young boy attends a village fair to get a tattoo. An old lady asks him if he wants a tattoo of Krishna or Chiranjeevi. This line is more than just a passing reference to Mahesh’s real-life father, Krishna, the ‘Super Star’.
Many of Mahesh’s films have paid tribute to his father; Prakash Raj, Mahesh’s on-screen father in Dookudu (2011) praises his off-screen father’s daring choice to play Alluri Seetharama Raju at a time when NT Rama Rao was still contemplating to make a movie on the freedom fighter; a sequence in Aagadu (2014) ends up listing all the novel technologies his films introduced to the Telugu screen, from Eastman colour to 70 mm. But the one in Sarkaru Vaari Paata is special because it defines a particular point in the history of Telugu cinema when the Chiranjeevis and Nagarjunas were beginning their ascension towards stardom and the then-aging NTR and Akkineni Nageswara Rao gradually taking a back-seat. Where does Krishna fit in here? You may ask. He was the bridge that connected the NTR era and the Chiranjeevi era.
Krishna, Krishnam Raju and Shoban Babu were the stalwarts of the ’70s. Shoban Babu, who enjoyed tremendous success as a ‘family’ hero during that period, quit acting in 1996 and passed away in 2008. Krishnam Raju, who was conferred with the ‘Rebel star’ title for playing angry young man roles, breathed his last in September this year. With the passing away of ‘Super Star’ Krishna, curtains have officially dropped on another era of Telugu cinema.
It is an interesting story of how Krishna earned his ‘Super Star’ title. “In the ’80s, a cinema weekly named Jyothi Chitra conducted a poll among readers. For five consecutive years, Krishna was chosen as the best actor. So Jyothi Chitra conferred him with the title, Super Star,” film columnist ML Narasimha says.
Film historian SV Rama Rao, who closely observed Krishna’s rise, being his college-mate and having worked with him as a co-writer and co-actor, recalls the early days of the actor. “In my review of Adurthi Subba Rao’s Thene Manasulu (1966), Krishna’s first major role and the first social colour film in Telugu, I wrote that his co-star Ram Mohan looks like Dev Anand and has a great future while Krishna looked dull. After reading it, he asked why I had put him down despite our shared history. I told him to pay attention to the future and not my words. And as we all know, Krishna went on to make waves later with back-to-back hits.”
1966-67 was a rewarding time for Krishna, ML Narasimha says, “He played roles with different shades. During this period, he played a spy in Gudachaari 116 (1966), which was his big break and the first spy film in Telugu. He starred in his first and only villain role in Private Mastaaru (1967), played a compassionate youngster in Marapurani Katha (1967), and featured as the innocent villager in Bapu’s Sakshi (1967), which was shown at Tashkent Film Festival in 1968.” It is noteworthy that Krishna acted in over 20 production ventures by Doondi, the producer of Gudachaari 116. For the millennial generation, a fun trivia would be how Adivi Sesh requested Krishna to do a cameo in his 2018 film, Gudachaari (2018), but the veteran politely declined the request.
One criticism levied against Krishna was prioritising quantity over quality. The actor used to appear in more than a dozen releases every year, which meant he had to work three shifts every day. “He would shoot for 18 hours day after day. Yes, comedians and supporting actors tend to have such extensive call sheets but for a lead actor, this was a rarity.”“He used to believe that if he acted in ten films and six failed to leave a mark, he would still have four to help him sustain as an actor,” journalist BK Eshwar says.
ML Narasimha adds that Krishna was aware of his limitations as an actor. Recalling an incident from the filming of Bapu’s Krisnavatharam (1982), he shares, “One particular shot demanded multiple takes as the filmmaker was not completely satisfied with Krishna’s performance. After a point, Krishna benignly asked Bapu gaaru to choose a shot from one of the takes canned till now as it would be difficult for him to perform beyond his limitations. He communicated it quite casually.”
Veteran filmmaker K Vishwanath once opined that Krishna was a curious actor. “While filming Thene Mansulu, Krishna doubted how he would be using his hands while delivering lengthy lines. I told Subba Rao garu the same and we felt it was such a valid question. The director then assigned me to keep an eye on such minute gestures as actors performed,” K Vishwanath had stated in 2013 at the launch of Adurthi Subba Rao’s biography.
However, action films remained Krishna’s forte, and he delivered some of his career’s biggest hits in this genre. Films like Mosagallaku Mosagadu, Ooruki Monagadu, Athani Kante Ghanudu and Gharana Donga, to name a few, made him the action star of that era. “Tamil dubbed versions of his action films like Monagadu Vasthunnadu enjoyed success in Tamil Nadu too,” SV Rama Rao adds.
A common feeling expressed by everyone—from the filmmaking community to journalists—is admiration for the generosity and kindness extended by Krishna to his producers. “He helped many producers finish their films when they ran out of funds or the films didn’t work at the box office. The man never forgot his roots,” ML Narasimha shares.
BK Eshwar adds, “Adurthi Subba Rao, a mentor figure for Krishna, once said that apart from talent, being a good person was equally important for being successful. Krishna’s long sustenance in the industry was also because of his kindness.”