For decades, the abode of VAK Ranga Rao has seen a constant stream of visitors. From researchers and journalists to musicians and dancers, they have all thronged at his home, Ram Mahal in Nungambakkam to get the information you won’t find anywhere else. Hailing from the royal family of Bobbili, near Vishakhapatnam, he has spent a large part of his life in Chennai. His formidable collection of 78 rpm records, video cassettes and books are all arranged meticulously at Ram Mahal. He now lives with his nephew at Sterling Road.
As he settles down for a conversation, Ranga Rao talks about his long association with the magazine Filmfare, for which he wrote occasionally. “Initially, the only magazine to cover films was FilmIndia, a monthly by Baburao Patel. It had a lot of gossip. On the other hand, when Filmfare began, it only had film news and reviews. Then there were magazines like Star & Style, which was edited by Devyani Chaubal, which dwelt on scandals. I began writing for Filmfare and through it, I formed a good relationship with people like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Helen and Kumkum. I had also done the first interview of Ilaiyaraaja for Filmfare.”
Ranga Rao is not known to mince words. Even if it meant telling Amitabh Bachchan that he found Jaya to be a better performer in Abhimaan. “I had gone to meet them with a record of Abhimaan and got Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s signature on it. I told Amitabh that I would like Jaya’s signature first as she had done a better job. He called Jaya, who was present there and conveyed what I had said. She simply came forward and signed on the record and later, Amitabh also signed it.”
Ranga Rao has written for numerous publications as a critic of dance, music and cinema. “A film critic’s job is to build a bridge between a prospective viewer and a film. I will say what kind of film it is. I, as a viewer, found Bhuvan Shome by Mrinal Sen a bore. But I didn’t say it is a bad film.” He learnt dance to write knowledgeable reviews about dance performances. “Similarly to write about films, I learnt film editing by watching the films edited by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.”
We talk about film dancers. Names like Vyjayanthimala and Padmini are brought up but Ranga Rao has another favourite. “These ladies were trained dancers and hence it wasn’t a surprise that they danced well. But the one man who held the attention of the audience just with his grace was Bhagwan Dada. Just watch him and Geeta Bali match steps in the song Mehfil Mein from Albela (1951) and you will know what I am talking about.”
“Bhagwan was a street-side wrestler and when I went to meet him in his last days, he was unwell. His nephew gave me 10 minutes and barred me from asking disturbing questions. I saw the condition in which Bhagwan lived. At the peak of his career, he had seven cars – one for himself and five for the women he kept. Not many know that Bhagwan and C Ramachandra came to Madras in the 1930s and did two films – Jayakkodi and Vana Mohini. Both bombed and they returned to Bombay.”
Another person he adores is the legendary V Shantaram, who founded Rajkamal Kalamandir.
“I have seen several films of Shantaram. When I first went to see his Navrang in the theatre Leela Mahal, in Vishakhapatnam, I clutched the arm rest of the seat I sat on when I saw the brilliance with which the credits rolled. I had a dinner engagement after the film and I cancelled it. I sat for the next show as well. I saw Navrang (1959) 16 times in the theatre. It wasn’t Shantaram’s best film. But it was my favourite film. There is a difference between the two.”
In his collection are over 800 books on cinema. He takes out some of those books and you see bookmarks and notes written on the sides. “I make notes when I read and I have pointed errors in over 25 books I have read and written to the writers and publishers. Encyclopaedia Britannica brought out a book on Hindi films and Gulzar had written one or two pieces for it. I wrote to him pointing out some errors on a piece about Lata Mangeshkar that he had written. Lata is just a telephone call away from him. Yet those mistakes were there. Gulzar forwarded them to the publisher. Similarly, Kiran Shantaram wrote a book on his father V Shantaram, and in that too I found a few errors. Similarly, I pointed out errors in Gemini Ganesan’s biography written by his daughter Kamala Selvaraj.” For a writer who has written for several decades, Ranga Rao feels nothing is objective.
“It’s personal and based on several factors that colour your judgement. Objectivity is the ideal. In my writings I have praised people I did not like personally but you will see the undercurrent of animosity there.”
In his formidable collection, he has the first records cut by Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, P Susheela, Talat Mahmood and several others. He has also developed a unique insight into the lyrics of Annamacharya. “I collected records wherever I travelled. Once we went on a pilgrimage and our family had booked a saloon in a train. We toured through Varanasi, Prayag, Delhi and several cities. I gathered around 600 records in that trip alone.” Today, Ranga Rao has more than 50,000 records. “I don’t want to give them to any private collector where it will be locked and kept inside. I would like to give them to a place where the public can access it.”