He embarked on that far-fetched mission of becoming an actor against all odds those days. Dr. Mohan Babu, one of the most vibrant personalities in Andhra Pradesh – as an actor, producer, educationist and an individual with daredevil integrity in real life too, saw the seedlings of the dream spurting when his debut movie “Swargam Narakam” was released on November 22, 1975. The ship had just cut into the ocean of film industry and must sustain many a storm before it could reach the other end of stardom. Thirty years were over. The goal is attained. The multi-dimensional transformation of the artiste in Mohan Babu – from a comedian to villain’s side kick to a notorious villain to a hero of the masses is astonishing in the annals of Tollywood. As the President of the Movie Artistes’ Association, he represents the gallant victory of a “true warrior”, who salvaged the reel-business from the dreaded piracy menace. Having acted in 506 movies, he had produced 44 movies under his prized banner Sree Lakshmi Prasanna Pictures till date. Apart from this, he is a proud father with two successful heroes as sons – Vishnu and Manoj.
When you look back into your own life and what it has realized for you, definitely it’s a quiz. “I can’t make a rock and roll over my successes and nothing deters my advancement from the gutters of failure. I owe my life to mother Telugu film industry. Did it succor my life, bless my kids? I am ever grateful to my parents who gave me this life, and to Dr. Dasari Narayana Rao garu, who erected a pedestal for my reel-life,” he says in all humility.
Modugulapalem, six kilometers away from Yerpedu Vyasasram across Swarnamukhi river between Tirupati and Srikalahasti in Chittoor district of Rayalaseema, is his birthplace. The family consisted of parents Manchu Narayanaswamy Naidu and Lakshmamma, four brothers among which Mohan Babu, the first and a sister, the last of the siblings. Faith that he was born with the grace of Lord Shiva, the father named him “Bakthavatsalam.” In a nutshell, along with dad’s small job as a teacher, the family made a modest middleclass range, holding four acre-land for cultivation
Mohan Babu contends in all humility: “I would not claim that the Goddess of Arts (Kalamatalli) was there since my birth. But, one thing is sure, my father had interest in arts. He used to arrange small plays for the students, besides participating in plays at neighborhood villages himself. One thing is sure. It is definitely the beginning of interest in me towards acting. I completed college education in Tirupati and was trained in physical education at YMCA, Chennai. My father’s dream was to see that I settled as a drill master in a school in the vicinity of my village, so that I would assist the cultivation too. Of course, he didn’t shelve his hope that I would become an actor. Indeed, my father was the first witness to my first slip in the film industry. It might even evoke laughter. One day, he brought a newspaper with an advertisement – Artistes wanted. Send Rs. 15/- for further correspondence was the gist of the advertisement. Yet, hope is everlasting. We didn’t have the required amount. Just Rs 5/- was sent and thereafter no reply.” Mohan Bab
Studying at YMCA at Nandanavanam in Chennai, his fascination for films used to drag him to Pondy Bazar in the evenings and he reveled on sighting Krishna, Sobhan Babu, Krishnam Raju, Kanta Rao, Rajanala, Satyanarayana and others. Now that his studies finished, he must seek a job. A certain man prompted him to bribe a counselor for this purpose. The amount got on interest by father was handed over to him. Days, weeks and months were over without results. The political party is still there in Tamilnadu. To pull on in Madras, he stayed in the room of one Hanumantha Reddy hailing from Chittoor district. Parallel search for a job and cinema chance went on as he started rendering dialogues of NTR from the scenes in Pandava Vanavasam, but in vain. At last, a recommendation letter from Prof B.R. Reddy got him the first job with Kesari High School at T. Nagar; and Rs. 197/- was the salary.
His ramblings into the Pondy Bazar did not stop. As days went on, he got acquainted with Giri Babu (then Sesha Rao) and both became roommates. Ashok Kumar of Nimmakur too was with them. It was then that he began to get closer to uttering chaste Telugu; and the same helped him overcome the force of Tamil dialect. In the meantime, he had to lose the job on the grounds that he didn’t belong to the caste of the school management. It only helped him consolidate his mind towards acting and cherish a vision to establish an educational institute above caste and religions.
A sense of shyness and difficulty in the practical sense made him avoid getting money from house for maintaining life in Madras. There came a moment of relief through association with actor Thyagaraju, who gave him shelter. Their relationship got thickened to the level that Mohan Babu started calling him – “Bava” (Brother-in-law).
First, though insignificant break, came with director Lakshmi Deepak as a trainee in the direction department. The film was “Koothuru- Kodalu”, starring Sobhan Babu as hero and co-direction was by Dasari. After six months of drudgery, Rs. 50/- was paid. “When I questioned it, the reply came that I was provided with food and was transported in cars.” In the days that followed, he got introduced to James Bond King KSR Das through Thyagaraju. With a monthly salary of Rs. 150/- he worked as assistant director to the movie “Kathhula Rattaiah,” starring SVR. In the same company, with an increase in salary by Rs. 50/- he worked for “Babu”, starring Sivaji Ganeshan, which was later remade in Telugu as “Marapu Rani Manishi”, starring Nageswara Rao with producer as Tatineni Rama Rao. It didn’t last long. “It was a sort of fun. Persons who gave a chance rejected it for the second time. Naturally, I used to do some extras on the sets. Love for acting prompted me force the artistes to render dialogues. I was chided with a strong suggestion to stick to either acting or direction. At this time, I got associated with Gummadi garu, who is also my relative. He in turn introduced me to director Pratyagatma. For the first time, I had the opportunity to act in a small role putting colors on the face for the movie Deergasumangali, starring Krishna and Jamuna.”
His efforts searching for chances to be an artiste would never stop and he used to meet Dasari now and then by virtue of his earlier contacts. He began to taste the rough side of life. A car shed was his shelter for days at Rs. 40/- as monthly rental. A small drizzle was enough to drench him from the pores. One rupee in pocket provoked his thoughts for the morrow and made him walk long distances. Another time, he would buy an egg and an onion with fond hope of preparing omelet. Reaching the shelter, he would find the utensils damaged by the owner owning to long delay in clearing the rent. “I still remember how I slept and pulled on life with no proper food on several occasions,” he recalls.
In 1975, he got a call from Dasari. He reached Viajayawada by bus. Tests were put. Among the twelve, including Kodi Ramakrishna, Ravi Raja Pinisetti, Relangi, Nandam Harishchandra Rao, Kota Reddy and his assistants, only two were selected – Eeswara Rao and himself. During the press meet, Dasari pointing his finger at him (then Bakthavatsalam), said: “Your name is Mohan Babu.” “I thought he (Dasari) mistook my name, but when I tried to correct, some good soul cautioned me, saying I would lose the chance if I do so.” From there, he reached the Kanaka Durga temple by auto and prayed to the Goddess: “Mother, they said I am Mohan Babu. Bless me.” By coincidence, the role played by Mohan Babu was Mohan Rao. Thereafter, a new life began to unfold.
Once he was tested for the villain role in the movie under production by Vijaya Nirmala. After selection, he was removed on the grounds that he would not suit as villain before hero Chandramohan on the grounds of height. He advanced yet with a feeling of hurt. “Don’t you know that the hero is short, while taking the stills of mine.” Another instance which whetted his zeal not stop was that removal from the character of a rowdy fighter as suggested by Akkineni. “Because I was a new face. And that old faces would do better.” The film was “Marapu Raani Manishi, produced by Tatineni Rama Rao.
Mohan Babu was then not in the habit of touching the feet of the elders. He continued to dwell in liberty with Dasari, which made others point out: “What are doing? You know. He is on fire.” From that day onwards, Mohan Babu started calling Dasari “Guruvu garoo”, and touching his feet. “Though the habit began that way, I would insist that if ever there is a need to touch the feet of an individual with utmost respect, I do so for Dasari gaaru. He is my great mentor, who ushered in the versatile chapters in my life as comedian, character artiste, villain and hero. He is the man who offered me the chance to act with great actors my brother NTR and Akkineni Nageswara Rao gaaru. I will never ever forget these moments. Because I know – those who forget their past are but corpses on the pyre.”
One of the producers of “Swargam Narakam” was the proprietor of Kakinada Lakshmi Talkies, P.S. Bhaskara Rao. He told him, “ If you continue to maintain this body language, you would sure become a great actor one day.” He still remembers the words of Producer Raghava: “ The film industry would never shun you as long as you live, until and unless you prefer to quit.”
Over years, Mohan Babu has become a byword for mannerisms. He started hoisting each of his talent in this field. Capturing the main villain role in “Bale Dongalu”, which was originally intended for Satyanarayana, he created a sensation with the mannerism: “Sikkar Me Rakka”. “To cultivate multiple mannerisms has become my mannerism. Of course, I can proudly say that there would none who had done so many mannerisms as I did in the country – cutting across all languages.”
He said he would desire nothing for the rest of his life from the audiences, who had crowned him as “Dialogue King” and placed him on a par with late NTR. He learnt the art of dialogue delivery from Dasari and NTR. He further displayed a strong attitude to deliver dialogues uninterruptedly – let it run into pages. “I said that way. Still say that and would ever say that.” Coupled with the teachings of NTR and Dasari, he developed his own style in this department, which is considered just inimitable. Apart from perfection in acting, he came to be regarded as an icon of discipline, perseverance and concentration. The luck factor from the Unseen force is a must, but it would not work without these three elements, he believes.
His sway as an actor was not limited to Telugu alone, but extended to Tamil, in which he did about 14 movies. Though he got offers in Bollywood and from Mohan Lal in Malayalam, he could not take up for one or other reasons. “Now, I intensely feel to do in other languages,” he expresses his wish.
There were special reasons as to why Mohan Babu returned to villainess on the screen from the herodom. It was through hero character that an actor could exhibit most of the dream roles, though the villain too holds equal importance. “When series of defeats welcomed me, I resorted to villain roles once again, but without any remorse. I produced my own movies as hero, and helped other banners also. After continuous flops after “Pratigna” in my banner, my second innings began with “Alludu garu”, which continued with blockbuster “Allari Mogudu”, for the banner of Raghavendra Rao, for whom time delayed the success for long, and I too cleared my responsibility as hero.” When “Pedaraayudu” released, it rewrote the history of Tollywood Box office. As a producer, he reached greater heights with “Major Chandrakanth,” starring his “Anna” NTR. It also helped him fulfill the last wish of NTR – I want to give a hit before I die.
“I always want to live life with ethics. Irony is that most of the people who were helped by me had ditched me, while those who received little or no help from me have succored me well. Its only a puzzle. When I love you, I desire the same from you. But, things turn sore sometimes. I feel this also might be a greedy thing to desire so.”
Mohan Babu makes a modest remark that though he would never clear the indebtedness to his guru Dasari, he represented his faith in him through christening the auditorium at Sree Vidyanikethan Educational Institutions as “Dasari Auditorium”, constructed at a cost of Rs. 1.7 crore.
His educational institutions were the replica of his dream to realize education for all irrespective of caste, creed and religion. His commitment in this direction includes offering of 25% free education and other facilities to the students from the downtrodden sections.
Coming to his personal life, he recollects the moments when none came forward to provide him a bride in marriage, even from the zone of his relatives, thick and thin. “For a man like me, in the beginning of a journey in the film industry was a wilderness. It’s a risky job to pave a trail removing the thorns and thistles. When you make known your desire to enter the film industry to others and do not attain success, you become a laughing stock. When I accompanied my parents to “marriage-looks”, they would insist that my brother, second in order, would be better. A farmer is preferred to an artiste. You know, it was my younger brother, who got married before mine. I believe, marriages are made in heaven. Once I was coming from Madras to my village that I got information that a girl who is related to my family was there in Naidupeta in Nellore district. Elders went and fixed the proposal. And marriage, over.”
There are certain special feels in his profession as an artiste. “Sridevi acted as daughter-in-law to NTR in the movie Badipantulu. Later, she acted as his heroine. Similarly, my first heroine in “Swargam Narakam” was Annapoorna, with stunning complexion. She played my mother in “Assembly Rowdy”. It’s the game of destiny.”
His political voyage is interesting to watch. He maintains that it was NTR who gave him the pedestal in political life. “He made me the MP and sent me to Rajya Sabha. In the interest of party, I supported one person, who happens to be a good friend of mine, relative and business partner. For compromise, I even brought Rajnikanth. Later, that person ditched me. But, I failed to grasp that he would not hesitate to that. It hurt me a lot. A vague condition grips me as to whom I could believe and whom not in politics. That’s why; I want to remain away from its stench. Of course, my coming again into politics to cleanse it of corruption from grass root level is certain. But, how and when? I will tell soon.”