Yesteryear Telugu diva recalls unexpected film debut 50 yrs ago

Yesteryear Telugu diva recalls unexpected film debut 50 yrs ago
Roja Ramani won many awards and accolades including the National Award for the Best Child Actor for her debut film 'Bhakta Prahlada'.
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Roja Ramani had conquered the South Indian film industry in the 1970s with her acting prowess. However, the Malayali audience remembers her as ‘Chembarathi' Shobana, the pretty actress who wowed in the Malayalam classic movie ‘Chembarathi’. The actress began her career as a child artiste in 1967 and ruled the South Indian cinema for the next 16 years as a leading actress.  She won many awards and accolades including the National Award for the Best Child Actor for her debut film 'Bhakta Prahlada'. In Malayalam Shobana had acted in more than 20 movies.

The actress had quit acting following her marriage with Chakrapani, the yesteryear superstar of Odia cinema, in 1981. However, years later she made an amazing comeback as a leading dubbing artist. She is now known as the mother of Telugu actor Tarun who acted in the hit Malayalam movie ‘Pranayamai’. As Shobana completes 50 years in the cinema industry, the actress speaks to the leading women’s magazine ‘Vanitha’ about her experiences as a leading lady. 

“It was 37 years ago that I came to Kerala for the last time. I still speak to actresses like Menaka Suresh and Vidhubala. I am surprised that a noted publication like 'Vanitha' has come to me after all these years,” says Shobana. She is excited to know that the Malayali cinema lovers haven’t forgotten the 1972 movie 'Chembarathi' and its superhit song ‘Chakravarthini ninaku njanente..’ 

Yesteryear Telugu diva recalls unexpected film debut 50 yrs ago
Roja Ramani with her husband and children.

Where have you been all these years?

I quit movies after my wedding, and hasn’t returned to acting ever since. I debuted as a child artiste in 1967 with the movie ‘Bhakta Prahlada’. From then until my marriage I was very busy in the movies. I had acted in around 135 films. Initially I had planned to return after taking a short break. But when I had my son, I became busy with him. Meanwhile I got offers to dub for some Telugu movies. I said yes to it as I thought it would be a good pastime for me. Besides, there wouldn’t be any busy schedules that required me to stay away from my son. In the beginning I dubbed for Suhasini, and that movie became a superhit. Suhasini was bombarded with offers in Telugu after that film. I lend my voice for the actress consecutively for 20 movies. Lots of actresses from other languages were making their foray into Telugu cinema during that time. It was me who dubbed for all of them. So dubbing, which I began as a leisure activity became my career. I was a leading dubbing artist for almost 18 years and have worked in more than 500 movies as well.

How did you begin your career?

Though I was born in Rajamundry in Andhra Pradesh, I grew up in Chennai. One day, a blue van came at the place where we were staying, and the children in the neighbourhood were getting into it. I too went and sat inside the van. However, the driver had asked me to get out of the van as my name was not on the list. This incident upset me. Later we came to know that the children were taken for the screen test of the movie ‘Bhakta Prahlada’ at the AVM Studio. A few days later my father took us to the AVM Studio. As soon as we reached there, an elderly person came to us asked, “Aren’t you here for the character of Prahlada?” The filming had been stalled as the crew couldn’t find a kid to play the role of Prahlada. Though we told him we were there to see the studio, that man was adamant. He took me to the director. They made me sing and dance, and took some photographs as well. 

Three days later I was called again to the studio and they clicked my pictures in which I was dressed as a boy. After that they did a photo shoot of me in the costume of the character. I was also made to perform with real snakes and elephants, and gave dialogues for me to learn. Finally, I was taken to meet AVM Chettiar who was the owner of the studio. He held me close and asked my name. He then asked what I wanted. I told that I wanted a radio, which was the most amazing electronic equipment during that time. I got a brand new Murphy radio within half an hour. Later he gifted me a cycle and said, ‘Take a ride around the studio. From today onwards you are not Roja Ramani, but Prahlada.’ That is how I became a part of that epic movie.

Yesteryear Telugu diva recalls unexpected film debut 50 yrs ago
Roja Ramani with late actress Sreedevi.

What are your memories of that movie?

I only have beloved memories about that movie. The first print of ‘Bhakta Prahlada’ was shown to Dr Sarvepally Radhakrishnan who was the Indian president then. Halfway through the movie he said, ‘The boy who acted as Prahalda did a fabulous job’. Chettiar’s son then told him that it was not a boy but a girl who essayed the role. He couldn’t believe it, and told the crew that he wanted to see me. My father took me in the early morning flight the very next day to Delhi. We watched the movie with the president and dined with him.

How was your entry as a heroine through ‘Chembarathi’ at the age of 12?

I acted in the Hindi and Tamil remakes of 'Bhakta Prahlada'. After that I did the movie 'Irumalarkal' with Sivaji Ganesan. By the time I had become extremely busy. I was only 10 years old when I acted in the Malayalam movie 'Poombatta'. I had acted in around 50 movies in just two years. 

My father had advised me to quit movies and study for some time before getting married. I couldn’t accept it at all as I hadn’t gone to school until then. Though I had private tuition, the instructor was more interested learning about my film experiences with superstars than giving me lessons. I too enjoyed it. As I did not have the courage to oppose my father, I used to sit alone and cry. It was during that time I got the offer to act in the Malayalam movie 'Chembarathi' through Narayana Rao, who was a family friend. Director PN Menon and producer SK Nair had come home to narrate the story. 

I considered that opportunity as god-given. Else how could I have become a lead heroine at that younger age?  But my father too had to agree. They told my character was that of a housemaid who did not require any makeup and wore a simple blouse and mundu. Though I loved to continue my acting career, I was skeptical whether anyone would watch that movie. But everything went well as my father liked the story.

How was the experience of filming 'Chembarathi'?

The movie was shot at various locations around Kollam. A funny incident took place on the first day of the shooting. My mother and I  noticed that everyone on the sets was apparently drinking whiskey during the intervals. We were shocked. A person offered us two glasses of it and we refused saying that we didn’t drink whiskey. Hearing this he couldn’t stop laughing and said, ‘This is just cumin (jeera) water’. We had stayed at Hotel Leela which was owned by the producer SK Nair. His wife often gave us company. There weren’t many luxuries on the sets. 

I was upset on the first few days as Madhu sir was the only big star in the movie. Raghavan and Sudheer were newcomers just like me. Gradually I began to love my character. However I still wasn’t sure whether people would watch it in theatres. 

After the movie got released, Rao came home with a bouquet to congratulate me. He said that the movie was a huge hit in Kerala. We couldn’t believe it. PN Menon sir called after a while and he was extremely happy. 

Wasn’t yours a love marriage?

When the superhit Hindi movie ‘Chotti Bahen’ was remade into Odia, Chakrapani and I had essayed the lead roles in it. He had just graduated from the Chennai Film Institute and it was his debut movie. Though he was born to Telugu parents, he grew up in Odisha as his father was working in the Railways there. We went on to star together in five more films, and we fell in love. We spoke about it at our respective homes and there wasn’t any opposition. We tied the knot in 1981.

My husband quit movies and now he is the head of the ETV Odia channel. My son Tarun too started as a child actor. He acted in many superhit movies including 'Anjali' and 'Abhayam'. Daughter Amulya has returned from the United States after graduating in interior designing. Now my biggest dream is their wedding. Many ask me whether I don’t get bored sitting at home. To be honest, 24 hours is just not enough for me to do my things. 

Can we expect a comeback into movies?

I will not be making a comeback into the movies. However, I will consider if it is a telefilm or short film. I am getting many offers from Telugu movies and TV serials. Most of the roles are that of mothers and I don’t want do those. I am happy and contended with the honours that I got from the movies as a leading lady. 

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