Those who worked in arc lights will never like to leave them till their end. Very rarely do we find a person who can boldly retire with no obvious reason than a personal choice to stay away for oneself! We do find it sometimes, yes, with heroines who get married or who can't resign themselves to be character artistes, but it is seldom that a hero retires by his own will! The only one that comes to anyone's mind after reading this much is 'Natabhushana' Sobhan Babu. As he celebrates his 70th birthday in a few days, TeluguCinema.Com spoke with him at length, over a period of four years during which the interviewer was in touch with him personally, about his life and career and presents it to its readers.
Sri: Please tell us about your childhood, sir!
Sobhan Babu: I was born as Uppu Sobhana Chalapathi Rao on January 14, 1937 in a middle-class family. Born as the eldest son to a farmer Suryanarayana Rao gaaru and housewife Rama Tulasamma, I have three sisters Dhanaranga, Jhansi, and Nirmala, and a brother Sambasiva Rao. As the eldest son of the family, I was aware of the financial problems and other domestic issues and I was a responsible child always...
Sri: Hailing from a small village, how did you get interested in films?
Sobhan Babu: (Laughs) Even I do not know exactly where it all started, but I did my first play while I was still in my native place Chinna Nandigama, and I even completed my high school there. Interestingly though, that stage drama was in English, based on the Greek legend "Damon and Pythias". This story was later adapted on Telugu silver screen, making NTR and ANR heroes...
Sri: Which was the first film you saw, and is there a particular film or incident that inspired you the most?
Sobhan Babu: It was Keelugurram. I remember having gone to a neighboring village, Tiruvuru. However, the films that inspired me the most to become a hero were Pathaalabhairavi, Malleeshwari, and Devadasu, which was when I was a student of Intermediate in Guntur. I watched Malleeshwari 22 times, I remember! I then joined in A.C. College, Guntur for my graduation, where Ramarao gaaru was a student earlier.
In fact, one of the reasons that I found myself admitted in that college was because of this reason, and I even read in newspaper at that time that Ramarao gaaru had acted in plays in the college's open air auditorium! (Laughs) I wanted to become a hero like him too, and thus joined there to start my career like he did! (Laughs again) ...In two years, I did three plays there. One of those plays was "Punarjanma", which made me a bit famous locally as an actor, giving me enough drive to catch a train to Madras!
Sri: How was the struggle? Did you get any offers right away?
Sobhan Babu: (Laughs) Not so easy as it may seem! I joined the Law College there and attended classes in the morning, roamed around studios and producers' offices in the afternoon with an album full of my photos in hand. Ponnuluri Brothers felt that I was good and did a makeup test and screen test, and offered me a small role in the film Daivabalam (1959), which made me even happier since Ramarao gaaru was the hero of the film! It was like a dream come true to me to be able to work alongside of him. The film released on September 17, 1959 but failed at the box-office.
At the same time, I got my second offer, to do a role in Bhakta Sabari; the director of the movie Chitrapu Narayana Rao gaaru liked me and gave me the role of a saintly youth (muni kumaaruDu) in the film. The film was released on July 15, 1960. It became a decent hit and people started knowing me by face...
Sri: So, was it a cakewalk since then?
Sobhan Babu: No, nothing at all yet! (Laughs) People knew my face but getting more chances was not that easy! It was Ramarao gaaru and Nageswara Rao gaaru who saved me at that time. I used to meet both of them frequently then, and they used to encourage me a lot. Ramarao gaaru gave me roles in his films such as Seetarama Kalyanam (as Lakshmana), Bheeshma (as Arjuna), Lavakusa (as Shatrughna) and Punayavathi. Nageswara Rao gaaru got me roles in films like Chaduvukunna Ammaayilu, Poola Rangadu, Iddarammaayilu, Buddhimanthudu, etc. They both helped me in getting a foothold in the filmdom. Without their blessings, I might not have survived as an actor!
Sri: I thought Veeraabhimanyu gave a lot of boosting to your career.
Sobhan Babu: Before Veeraabhimanyu, it was Narthanasaala that gave me a boost. Though many people came with recommendations for that role, Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao gaaru chose me for the role of Abhimanyu in that film. It was after this film that I played the same character as the title role in Veeraabhimanyu in 1964. The film was a high budget film at that time, made with about 25 lakhs. Even for this movie, many artistes wished to do that role but V. Madhusudana Rao gaaru wanted me to play the role! The film was released on July 12, 1965, and with this movie, I got the big break I needed for my career to rise!
Sri: You gave some memorable hits in V. Madhusudana Rao gaari combination later too, right?
Sobhan Babu: He's like a godfather to me. He gave me a big hit like Veeraabhimanyu and made me a bankable hero with the film Manushulu Maaraali. Though Veeraabhimanyu celebrated a hundred-day run in eleven centers, I had not got many solo hero roles. Potti Pleader-u was a good hit, and it brought me a good name too, but I wasn't the solo hero of that film either!) It was Gemini's Manushulu Maaraali that gave me a solo hero hit finally, and brought me the so-called "star status". Later, I did many films such as Kalyana Mandapam, which was also my first solo color film, Jebu Donga and the critically acclaimed Mallepoovu...
Sri: But there was a four-year gap between 1965 and 1969. What were you doing during this time?
Sobhan Babu: Like I said, I was not poured with offers though Veeraabhimanyu was a big success. At this time, I was married and even had kids, and I thus needed to earn to make a living not just for me but for my own family. So, I did small roles for small remunerations in films like Sumangali, Gudhachari 116, Paramaanandayya Sishyula Katha (a short role as Lord Shiva, for a remuneration of Rs. 1500/-), Pratijnaa Paalana (as Narada, for Rs. 750/-), etc. I had four children already, and these four years had taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of having money. But, this period also gave me the stability and confidence to became a big hero like Nageswara Rao gaaru and Ramarao gaaru. My grand father always used to say, "People will laugh at us if we don't have any possessions, but they'd also get jealous when we have more!" It's an absolute truth, and I had it on my mind always...
Sri: So, you didn't do any solo hero films during this time?!
Sobhan Babu: No, I did a couple of films... a good hit like Potti Pleader-u and a flop like Loguttu Perumallakeruka (produced by S. Bhavanarayana and Directed by K.S.R. Das) as a solo hero. If the latter was not a flop, I might have settled for a crime hero image (laughs)! In 1967, I did a secondary hero role in Punyavathi with Ramarao gaari recommendation. He recommended to the director Vasu Menon to give me a couple of songs too, which were also hits! (pedavula paina sangeetam... and intElE nirupEdala batukulu...), but the film was not a hit, though I did make a name with that film. I also did average grocers like Kambhojaraju Katha and Rakta Sindooram the same year.
The next year, M.S. Reddy gaaru made two films with me as a solo hero, Bharya and Kalasina Manasulu, but of them ended up as flops. And then came my first real solo hit Manushulu Maaraali in 1969. The film was a huge success and made me a family hero; it was a silver jubilee film, and it was all because of V. Madhusudana Rao gaaru! (The film holds the record of being the last 100-day black-and-white film in Secunderabad!) Actually, I did two more good films the same year, before Manushulu Maaraali hit the screens. One of them was Bangaaru Panjaram with B.N. Reddy gaaru.
It was a great opportunity to work with the legend, and he gave me a lot of freedom while doing that role, and I had great hopes on that film, but it failed at the box-office, terribly disappointing me. The other film was Buddhimanthudu that brought a lot of critical acclaim and good success. It was a great achievement for me to the role of Lord Krishna in the film, thanks to Bapu gaaru. I then appeared in Devatha in 1970, but I again had two 100-day hits in 1971, in the form of Kalyana Mandapam with V. Madhusudana Rao gaaru again and Tahsildaar Gaari Ammaayi.
Then came Manavudu - Danavudu, which brought me closer to the masses. Sampoorna Ramayanam followed, and thanks to Bapu gaaru, it made me Lord Rama too, after Ramarao gaaru played this role successfully too. The film was a huge hit too!...
Sri: Of all these people, who do you think helped most in shaping your career?
Sobhan Babu: How can I say only a couple of names? There are so many directors and producers who were with me all through. I cannot leave out anyone really! Even if one of these people was not with me, I might not have been in the industry!
Sri: Well, let me reframe the question. Which directors gave you the greatest hits?
Sobhan Babu: No, this is not any fairer question either! The list is still quite big, I should say! Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao gaaru, V. Madhusudana Rao gaaru, Dasari Narayana Rao gaaru with Balipeetham, Gorintaaku, Swayamvaram, Dharmapeetham Daddarillindi), K. Raghavendra Rao (his debut film Babu, Raja, Devatha, Iddaru Dongalu), K. Bapayya (his debut film Soggadu, Mundadugu, Dandayathra, Mande Gundelu), Tatineni Rama Rao gaaru (Manchi Mithrulu, Jeevana Tarangaalu, Devudu Chesina Pelli, Illaalu, etc.), K. Viswanath gaaru (Chelleli Kaapuram, Saarada, Jeevana Jyothi, Prema Bandham, etc.), T. Krishna gaaru (Khaidi Babai, Monagadu), and Devalayam with another T. Krishna gaaru, Bapu gaaru (Buddhimanthudu, the evergreen Sampoorna Ramayanam, Jackie), A. Kodandarami Reddy (Premamurthulu, Baavaamaradallu, Sravana Sandhya, Illaalu-Praiyuraalu, etc.), and there are a lot more ? Muralimohana Rao's Adavi Raja, Rajachandra's Bandham, B.V. Prasad's Ooriki Soggadu, Katta Subbarao's Kodallosthunnaru Jagarattha, Boyina Subbarao's Driver Babu, Kodi Ramakrishna's Jailupakshi, Samsaaram with Relangi Narasimha Rao, E.V.V. Satyanarayana's Emandee!... Aavida Vacchindi, Sarpayaagam with Paruchuri brothers, Ravi Raja Pinisetti's Balaramakrishnulu...
In such an exhaustive list, I might have omitted some films or directors because I can't get them on my mind right away! I sincerely apologize for that... but all of those were great directors to work with, surely!
Sri: Your son looks handsome, hero-like, and he did get several offers, I gather. Why didn't you make him a hero?
Sobhan Babu: Though I have a lot of respect for films, I should admit that I know the job is practically very tough. Expressing all the emotions and enacting the scenes is not as easy as it seems! We practically live in the role for some time, which is quite a deal. I respect all our stars and actors for their dedication for the work, but well... I didn't want my son to go that way!
Sri: I think you were one of those rare showbiz celebrities who maintain working hours, like a regular employee, though you were in the top notch at a time!
Sobhan Babu: From 1972, I started working only one shift, from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and I didn't work during the weekend. By then, I had already decided that I shall retire from the "job" before I reach 60. Like any other job, one needs to be physically and mentally healthy to be an actor, and this job also needs a lot of mental involvement, which is tiresome!
Sri: Yeah, I did hear that and you retired like you said, a year in advance too!
Sobhan Babu: A year? (Laughs) Well, yeah, I retired when I was running on 59.
Sri: You were still a saleable hero, and there's a good deal of money involved in movies...
Sobhan Babu: That's why I wanted to retire... while I was still a saleable hero, I mean! To retire respectably is better than to retire when audience start rejecting me! Hello... Guru! in 1997 was the last film I worked for. The title read "hello", but I actually bid "adios" to the silver screen! (Laughs).
Sri: From what I know, you were offered films after that too, on several occasions, and at least some of those moviemakers came up with important and special roles tailored for you. How come you didn't get tempted by any of those?
Sobhan Babu: To tell you the truth, they were indeed tempting. But, one needs to control oneself from temptations, I thought, and I tried and succeeded in that, I guess! (Laughs).
Sri: And you got busy with real estate business, so much that Muralimohan et al. call you fondly as their guru in the business!
Sobhan Babu: (Laughs) I just told them what I was doing. Even now, I just advise my son who now looks after the business. Today, almost sixty families depend on our business. This feeling is what gives me enormous pleasure that I cannot buy with something else! Such a satisfaction keeps me going, and it's all I need.