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Ramoji Rao, The Telugu Colossus

By Aditi Phadnis
June 10, 2024 13:51 IST
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Ramoji Rao lived as the interface between business and politics and was an active participant in both for most of his remarkable life.

IMAGE: Telugu Desam Party President and Andhra Pradesh chief minister-elect N Chandrababu Naidu, left, carries the mortal remains of Ramoji Rao, founder of Ramoji Film City and head of the ETV network in Hyderabad, June 9, 2024. Photographs: ANI Photo

Cherukuri Ramoji Rao, Padma Vibhushan, died on Saturday at 88. He began as a small-time exporter of Indian goods to the Soviet Union, started and ran a highly successful chit fund business, sold bottled pickles, and founded a hospitality group.

He launched Telugu and English newspapers that ruled over undivided Andhra Pradesh for several decades, made many award-winning films on a low budget, and was one of the most important forces behind the rise and growth of the Telugu Desam Party.

He reached the height of his power and fame before he turned 50 and even months before he died, was brimming with ideas that could give smart young entrepreneurs today a run for their money.

Nearly 30 years ago, speaking to Business Standard, he explained: "The secret is to use capital wisely. You have to know how to squeeze every drop from it."

He was, of course, talking about the days when banks were State-owned and credit was costly. But this was a principle that was the kernel of his business till the end.

Contrary to general belief, Ramoji was not born to money -- he married into it when his parents arranged his marriage with Rama Devi, his quiet right hand in business and politics.

Ramoji belonged to the Kamma caste, mostly landowners in the fertile irrigated Krishna district of undivided Andhra Pradesh (now in Andhra Pradesh). He understood power even though there was little money to back it. He started the Margadarsi Chit Fund in 1962 when no one had much idea what a chit fund was.

Today, Margadarsi's turnover is estimated at Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 100 billion), and it is present in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.

Subrata Roy 'Sahara' was to emulate his idea many years later. Enthusiastic successors like Bandhan Bank followed.

When it started, it consisted of agents collecting small savings from distant villages in the state in an account with Margadarsi that would advance the money when needed.

The account qualified customers to enter a prize lottery. The chit fund business was based on credibility, trust, and a certain chutzpah: A quality Ramoji was never short of.

With the capital from Margadarsi and support from his wife and her family, Ramoji scouted for business ideas. He launched an advertising agency, but by 1970, was already thinking about a Telugu newspaper.

Eenadu (Today) was launched in August 1974. It was a newspaper different from anything Andhra Pradesh had ever seen, dominated as it was by the reverential Andhra Jyothi and Andhra Prabha.

Existing newspapers had content that was of little value to readers -- localisation was largely absent. Eenadu upended all that, becoming irreverent, hyperlocal, and therefore, the first with the news.

Ramoji, always an enthusiastic votary of new technology, localised the production and printing of Eenadu with multiple editions, especially when the facsimile machine entered India and editions could be updated via fax. By 1979, he told interviewers, the circulation was around 180,000.

"Two out of every five readers of dailies in the state are Eenadu readers," he said.

Meanwhile, Indian politics was going through political upheavals, and Andhra Pradesh was no exception. Ramoji flirted with the idea of joining politics but saw other possibilities that could involve money and increase political capital.

By the time the 1983 assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh came around, Eenadu was staunchly supporting the TDP, formed in 1982, fronted by the mercurial but widely recognised actor, N T Rama Rao.

Ramoji was one of those who provided the 'ideology' for the TDP: Telugu self-respect or 'atma gouravam'. This followed a rapid turnover of chief ministers by the then ruling Congress at the Centre (six between 1971 and 1983 with a short stint of President's rule), and the 'insult' of a sitting CM, T Anjaiah, by the then rising star in the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi.

In 1983, the TDP contested elections for the first time. The results astounded everyone: The party got 202 out of 294 in the assembly.

Eenadu's page one at the time was widely discussed in newsrooms both in India and abroad: It carried a huge picture of NTR with his arm raised as if ordering the Congress out of the state. The headline was: 'NTR sooper hit', a twist on movie lingo.

Conservative newspapers got a shock from which they never recovered. The Eenadu success prompted him to launch an English version, Newstime in 1983. That, however, was an experiment ahead of its time and it closed later.

He also launched a film production house that made a movie on the story of a local girl who was a classical dancer and lost a leg in an accident but continued dancing with an artificial leg. The film won many awards and broke box office records.

However, Ramoji soon wearied of NTR's tantrums and attitudes. He strongly backed the rebellion of Nara Chandrababu Naidu, known as Alludu Garu (son-in-law), both financially and in terms of media resources. The TDP split and NTR would slowly sink into oblivion along with his wife, later widow, Lakshmi Parvati.

Ramoji later distanced himself from the TDP, though backing Naidu continued. By 1999, Naidu would become Andhra Pradesh's longest-serving CM and continued to enjoy Eenadu's unflagging support.

It was only natural that when Naidu was defeated in the 2004 assembly elections and the Congress won 185 out of 294 assembly seats the state government would go after Ramoji and the Eenadu group which, by then, had a flourishing television empire.

Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, who became CM, and his son Jagan Mohan Reddy, launched Sakshi, a rival television channel.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi posted this photograph with Mr Ramoji Rao on his X account while condoling the media titan's passing, June 8, 2024.

Ramoji had several personal setbacks. The loss of his wife was a shock. Both his sons, Kiran and Suman, predeceased him. Other members of his family are now managing the business, though, from his lair in Ramoji City on the outskirts of Hyderabad, Ramoji was still strategising on business and politics until a few years ago, especially during the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Ramoji lived as the interface between business and politics and was an active participant in both for most of his remarkable life. He was always known as 'chairman' and only wore white.

The state funeral ordered for him by Telangana Chief Minister Revanth Reddy is a measure of the respect the state accorded this colossus.

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Aditi Phadnis
Source: source