In her soothing and captivating voice, actor and animal rights activist Amala Akkineni reminisces her astonishing journey so far as Radhika Rajamani listens in rapt attention
Entering Amala’s lovely house in Hyderabad, I realise that it is not just a serene living space for this famous family, but also a haven for dogs, even stray ones too. As I am ushered in by well-trained staff, Amala enters almost immediately and makes me feel comfortable. I have an instant feeling that this is going to be a very memorable meeting. Indeed, Amala Akkineni’s journey is an interesting one – she started out as a dancer trained in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra under Rukmini Devi Arundale; bloomed into an actor having starred opposite many, many superstars in a successful career spanning seven years, gave it all up to marry superstar Nagarjuna Akkineni and found happiness in tirelessly crusading for animal welfare. Hailed as the “Maneka Gandhi of the South” for passionately espousing the cause of animals, Amala’s shelter, the Blue Cross, has entered the twentieth year now. Serene and tranquil with a pleasant smile on her face and a cheerful demeanour, Amala is an achiever, a woman of substance and yet one who is unfazed by the accolades and laurels. Deeply spiritual and down-to-earth, she continues working tirelessly to make the world better for animals!
Initial years: Not the run-of-the mill life
Growing up in a multi-cultural and artistic background made all the difference to Amala’s life and thought process. “My mother was Irish and my father Bengali, so my family was hardly run-of-the mill. Since my father was with the Navy, there was a lot of travel and a lot of exposure. We moved from Delhi to Mumbai, Kharagpur to Vizag. I got used to making new friends, adapting to different cultures, and learnt to speak new languages. I’ve learned Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Telugu. It was a different lifestyle and that was my foundation.”
She began learning dance at the young age of seven. “My dance teacher advised my mother that I had the talent for dance and that it should be encouraged. She suggested that I go to Kalakshetra.” Little did Amala know her destiny would change after entering the hallowed portals of Kalakshetra.
Dancing the dream: Kalakshetra beckons…
Amala set off with her mother during a summer holiday, to Chennai. Even now she is nostalgic and happy as she remembers her alma mater. “I fell in love with the place. It was so beautiful. They gave me a written test and a dance test and admitted me in Class Five immediately. I was eight when I joined Kalakshetra and left when I was 18. I loved it as there was so much to do. I am so happy that I had those special years there.” The institute gave her a holistic perspective about the arts and her initial lessons in culture, environment, animal welfare and spirituality shaped her thinking as an individual. She also had the freedom to explore and imbibe a whole lot of things. Education and dancing progressed simultaneously, so the knowledge gained was tremendous.
At Kalakshetra, Amala got the rare opportunity of interacting closely with none other than the doyenne, Rukmini Devi Arundale, whose talks she loved hearing. “She definitely had us all in awe. From 8 to 13, like every other student, we would see her on special occasions when she would talk beautifully on animal welfare, theosophy, dance, Indian art and culture and spiritualism. It was a real treat to listen to her. Those were the days before television overtook our lives, so we weren’t in a rush to go and watch it. We could listen for hours to elders sharing their learning and understanding. Athai (as we called her) was always there when the dance students had their exam. She would watch from a corner silently and would ask us to do a few movements, and then ask us to explain if we understood the meaning of the songs we were dancing to.”
“When I was about 13 she asked me if I wanted to be a dancer. I’d like to be a vet, athai, I told her. A dancer vet she asked, laughing. Yes, it sounds nice, I told her. She asked me if I wanted to take part in the arts festival. I said, sure athai, if you would like me to. We weren’t performing till then. My dance teacher Sharada Hoffman started teaching me the part of Vasanthavalli in Kuttrala Kuravanji. Sharada teacher was like a mother to her students and took great pains to train me. That year I performed at the inauguration of the Arts festival in the new Kalakshetra auditorium in the role of Vasanthavalli, in Kuttrala Kuravanji. My life changed. Both expectations and aspirations multiplied as I started performing with the Kalakshetra troupe, travelling all over the world.”
While dance was assuming centre stage, education was a cause of worry. “My school principal would worry about my studies because I would have to miss school when I had to travel with the troupe. And athai would say “What better way to learn than the University of Life!” So apart from whatever I learnt in school, my real education was from travelling, performing, meeting great artistes and dancing with them.”
Blitzing the silver screen: When acting called
Even as a dancer, Amala was flooded with acting offers. “After dance performances film directors used to come backstage and ask if I wanted to act. Back then, I hadn’t watched much cinema at all. That was my concern. A couple of directors said they had a classical dancer’s role. T. Rajendar was particularly insistent. I said let me try. That’s how the film, Mythili Ennai Kaadhali, happened. Srividya who worked with me in the film was a great support and guide.”
Although dancing and acting are two completely different media, she managed acting well. “It was extremely long hours and very hard work. There were so many songs where I performed Bharatanatyam. At the end of the first film, I realised I had a career. The film did extremely well. Everyone appreciated what I had done. People recognised me, thanks to T Rajendar.”
Amala moved forward facing the ups and downs of showbiz. “Movies were gruelling work, and with every movie the expectations got higher. After one big success, I had several failures. But then you have to learn to aceept both.”
She worked with senior stars at that time. “It was an honour to be working with them. I tried to deliver my best, to live up to the expectations of my director, perform the role well and most importantly, learn the language. You see, I was working in five different languages most of which I didn’t speak. That is a challenge because not only are you trying to emote in a language you didn’t speak, you must also make it seem natural.”
Films are strenuous and demand long hours. Acting does take a toll on one’s health at times. “My call sheet was from 7 am to 9 pm – 14 hours, 365 days a year. It was immensely rewarding on the one side, yet exhausting on the other. I remember physically collapsing on several occasions because any human being who works like that will be burnt out. It is not that I planned it that way. When you get busy and successful, that’s how life becomes. Even if you want to take a day off nobody allows you to do so. The pressure on your time becomes unreasonable. Finally when Nag (Nagarjuna) asked me to marry him, I realised I don’t have to worry about a career because his was good enough for several of us.” She pauses to laugh and then continues. “I realised that it would be so simple if I quit and focussed on the family. I was just so happy not to get up at 5 am and go to work, eat out of a tiffin-carrier and live out of a suitcase. I think it was not just the seven years of my film career – it was from the age of 13 that I was doing that. When you become an early achiever, the burnout also happens fast. From 13 to 24, I had a long performing life. Suddenly I wanted to stay home. It was so wonderful! I moved to Hyderabad. Nag was extremely busy shooting. I could travel with him and spend time with him. Then Akhil came along. I felt so blessed to have that privilege to take off and be with them totally,” she says contentedly.
Recently, Amala faced the camera for Sekhar Kammula’s Life is Beautiful after two decades. The fact that it was a sweet role of a mother and it involved just seven days of shoot made her do it. “I was a little apprehensive, but once I got there the youngsters were so talented and easy to work with. It was lovely and a lot of fun. Sekhar was excellent. He told me he was very particular that I play the role.
She’s open to doing such cameos but she wants “something inspirational. It’s difficult to put everything I do now on hold and go back to a full-time film commitment. There are too many people in my family doing that. I’m not looking to restart my career,” she laughs.
Fighting for a cause: When Amala turned an activist
Instead of choosing to choosing to return to showbiz after her wedding, Amala chose another path: crusading for animal welfare. “The roots of animal welfare go back to Kalakshetra and even further back home. Ever since I can remember, I would bring these mangy little puppies, kittens or injured birds home. My mother never told me not to bring them into the house. She would always give me a corner somewhere, a cardboard box for an injured animal or a store room where I could have the little thing recover. She would show me how to clean it up and feed it and we would find a home. When I went to Kalakshetra I missed my pets as we had always had them. Very soon the stray dogs there became my brood.”
Rukmini Devi Arundale was an early inspiration as she was a champion of animal welfare having got the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act passed in 1960 and setting up the Animal Welfare Board of India in 1962. “Athai spoke so fondly and with so much conviction, she encouraged us so much that it only fuelled our own love for animals. Even when I was shooting, I would find a local vet for any injured animals on or off the sets on the road. I made friends with Dr. Vijayakumari at the Shanti Nagar Government Hospital in Hyderabad. Every road you went on, you’d find animals run over in traffic. I had been rescuing so many sick and injured animals and my house was like a zoo. Nag came home one day and asked me, ‘Why don’t you do this in a more organised fashion? Even if you are not around, the animals will be rescued.’ He put the idea into my head. He donated to my cause, his outdoor van which became my first ambulance. I stripped it down to accommodate animals and Dr Vijayakumari at Shanti Nagar Government Hospital became the resident doctor and after a few years we applied for land and built up the shelter at Road No. 35, Jubilee Hills.”
Amala works with 12 different organisations – spanning animal welfare, women, and to some extent child welfare. Her main focus is animal welfare. It is the twentieth year of the Blue Cross and its journey has been significant thanks to the efforts of Amala and her volunteers.
“The growth has been a beautiful, organic one. When you set out to do something and people see that your intentions are sincere, they join you in hundreds. That’s how Blue Cross grew. Every year Blue Cross extends help to 20,000 to 30,000 animals. Government officials, children, citizens and communities have come forward to make the lives of animals better in their capacity.”
The Blue Cross has to be credited for establishing an organised animal rescue system and bringing about a more sensitised attitude towards animal welfare in Andhra Pradesh. “We helped establish systems that will deal with all animals in the long run – systems like the ABC programme which were never there before and the sterilisation programme for stray animals. We have helped train over 40 animal welfare groups in the State and more than 80 activists in the country who have gone on to start their own groups. We mentor animal volunteers on a regular basis. We have school education programmes. In the last six months, we have reached out to more than 10,000 students.
“For the 20th year we want to ensure there are professionals running every service so that whether I’m there or not, the services will happen. We have a wonderful group of youngsters – around 30 of them who pitch in when the services aren’t running. We don’t run the services at night so the volunteers pitch in for emergencies that happen at that time. Another significant achievement in the 20th year is the construction of a full-fledged surgery space with state-of-the-art equipment which will be ready in March. We had a basic setup which did the job and was appreciated but we wanted to make sure we have a modern one. We also want to take up an awareness campaign regarding exotic pets.”
“Our rescue service in the last 6-8 months has rescued more than 10,500 sick, injured and abused animals, while our clinic has served more than 5000 cases. We have had many adoptions. School children are being addressed. We’ve had training programmes for government officials – such as the training in the Marri Chenna Reddy Institute, AP Police Academy and the National Police Academy. I have come to realise that my role now is of a fundraiser, a spokesperson and a mentor. I sit on Governing boards that have a slightly more serious role of laying down systems, legislature and norms for various issues concerning animals,” says Amala modestly.
On being known as the “Maneka Gandhi of the South” she reacts, “Oh, it is definitely an honour to hear that. I am nowhere near her league. Manekaji has ensured far-reaching change. I am truly privileged to be able to do what I can. I love what I do. I don’t think I can ever retire from this.”
It’s been a while since Amala turned vegan. “As I grew to love animals more and more, I began to question the need to eat them, being born in a meat-eating family. Rukmini Devi and Sharada teacher helped me turn vegetarian. Later on as my body aged, I found I turned lactose intolerant. Nothing in the world could tell me how to overcome my annoying health issues till I turned vegan.”
She adds “at some point as Animal Welfare Board member I had to inspect slaughter houses and in one instance I saw all the dairy cattle there. Then I realised that my dependence on milk and milk products was bringing those creatures there. I turned vegan and you won’t believe how all my health problems cleared up within one week. Suddenly I realised I was so energetic and all my health issues were gone. I’ve learnt to rethink my diet and I have wonderful recipes to replace the protein and calcium through vegetable sources.”
Tuning in: Dabbling with the spiritual side
If you see the calm and serene side of Amala, you can easily attribute it to spirituality. “The Kalakshetra upbringing itself is very spiritual. One is exposed to the religions of the world. You learn to respect and appreciate the essence of every great teaching without getting bogged down by ritualistic aspects or the differences. The spiritual upbringing definitely made me seek a deeper meaning in life.”
“Within just a year or two of being involved in animal welfare, I was an emotional wreck because I got so involved in it. Later I realised that however much you do, it’s just a drop in the ocean and that you can’t save the world. I realised I can’t be a mess if I want to do something of value and I need to be at peace first. I have to acknowledge my husband’s role here. Nag has been my friend, philosopher and guide, besides being the love of my life. I took a little break, went and learnt Vipassana meditation. I was expecting Akhil at that time and it was a wonderful tool to de-stress.”
Since then Amala has been practising Vipassana. “I meditate every day. Since October 1993, I have been going back every year for a 10-day retreat. The practices of a retreat, where you can unplug everything, shut down and go away where you are not disturbed, where you use a very powerful tool like Vipassana and go inside and clean up or let go of all the conflicts within, help you create a space of inner peace. When all the confusion is removed there is pure maitri inside. When you operate from a space of maitri, you realise you can do so much more when not upset and disturbed. It also opened my heart to so many different causes. I could resonate with people, their issues and suffering and somewhere I find an answer for them, a way to help them and if I don’t, then I can at least spread good will. When it comes from the heart, it reaches the heart. That was a really significant turn in my spiritual path and I have used vipassana as my guiding light.”
She also practices yoga which was part of her curriculum at Kalakshetra. “Yoga helped prepare my mind and body to meditate.”
Ask Amala about being a superstar wife, and she says, “That is the exciting part. That’s the part which made sure I never missed the movies, never missed the glamour. I share it all with Nag. I am so grateful that he allows me to channel all that on to causes that are dear to my heart and he is very supportive.” She finds motherhood as a time to “experience wonderful things. It takes up all your attention when the children are young and suddenly when they grow up you find your life back. I’ve never been an obsessive parent. If you are willing to learn along with your child, your child is also willing to learn with you. So it has been a journey of self-discovery and a very joyful one at that.”
The Akkineni family is a huge name in films. So questions about her son’s entry into the movies are a given. She retorts, “Oh dear! I would like to see Akhil happy. I know he’s full of surprises and he’s tremendously creative and talented. He’s good at doing more than academics, which was never his cup of tea. For him it is all about getting things done. He has tremendous leadership skills. I’m his mum so I’m naturally biased. I have seen him seize an opportunity with a lot of clarity and purpose and I’ve seen him turn that opportunity into a success not just for himself but also for his whole team. He’s definitely a team player. I’ve seen him make things happen. I’m as supportive as I can be. Youngsters need that opportunity to discover. My advice to everyone – people in the media, audience and fans – is to let my boys be – let them discover, explore and perform. Appreciate what they do because they will do it well.”
Reading has been one of her interests and Amala is a voracious reader. She quips, “But there’s less and less time these days. I love reading in airports and on flights, I actually wait for the opportunity. I do make a trip a week.” Her list includes fiction and non-fiction. Movies are another pastime. “Both Nag and I are movie buffs. We watch at least three movies a week at home. Taking Nag to a theatre is quite an ordeal (laughs). We definitely have much more now than before due to technology (movies on iTunes, Cube). I’m a great technology buff. My international NGO meetings are on Skype. I even do my yogasutra lessons with my teacher in Chennai on Skype!”
Amala has enough on her plate as she juggles different roles with felicity. Her life cannot be strait jacketed. “There is so much to do. Life is beautiful. I try not to plan too much. I’ve learnt to go with the flow and to be ready for life – whatever the day has in store. I feel blessed I’m at this day, this time, getting this opportunity.”