Actor, television presenter, film producer and entrepreneur, Akkineni Nagarjuna Rao—better known as Nagarjuna—has acted in a majority of Telugu films in his career along with a few Hindi and Tamil films. Making his acting debut as a child artist in the 1967 film Sudigundalu, it was almost 20 years later that he debuted as the lead actor in the Telugu film Vikram (1986). In 1988, Nagarjuna starred in the blockbuster Aakhari Poratam, opposite Sridevi and Suhasini. In 1989, he acted in Mani Ratnam’s romantic drama, Gitanjali, which went on to win the National film award for best popular film providing wholesome entertainment. The same year, he appeared in the blockbuster Shiva (1989), an action film directed by Ram Gopal Verma. He went on to make his Hindi film debut with the 1990 Hindi remake of Shiva. Establishing his image as an action star, some of his popular action films include Rakshana (1993), Hello Brother (1994), Govinda Govinda (1994), Criminal (1994), Ratchagan (1997), Azad (2000), Sivamani (2003), Mass (2004), Super (2005), Don (2007), Gaganam (2011), Wild Dog (2021), and The Ghost (2022). Known equally for his works in biographical films, he played 15th-century composer Annamacharya in Annamayya (1997), Yavakri (the son of the ascetic Bharadvaja) in Agni Varsha (2002), Major Padmapani Acharya in the war film LOC: Kargil (2003), 17th-century composer Kancherla Gopanna in Sri Ramadasu (2006), Suddala Hanmanthu in Rajanna (2011), Sai Baba of Shirdi in Shirdi Sai (2012), Chandaludu in Jagadguru Adi Shankara (2013), and Hathiram Bhavaji in Om Namo Venkatesaya (2017). In 2013, he represented the cinema of South India at the Delhi Film Festival's 100 Years of Indian Cinema celebration. In 1995, he ventured into film production, with a production unit operating in Seychelles. He was co-director of an Emmy Award-winning film animation company called Heart Animation. Co-owner of the production company Annapurna Studios, he is also the president of the non-profit film school Annapurna International School of Film and Media based in Hyderabad. Among the numerous awards he has won are nine state Nandi Awards, three Filmfare Awards South and two National Film Awards.
Son of veteran actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao and his wife Annapurna, he was born on 29 August 1959 in Madras (present-day Chennai) into a Telugu family. While his family hails from Ramapuram in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, his father moved to Madras seeking a career as an actor. The family later moved to Hyderabad, where Nagarjuna completed his schooling at Hyderabad Public School and intermediate education from Little Flower Junior College, Hyderabad. He also completed a year of his Mechanical Engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Anna University in Madras, and would go on to earn his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Nagarjuna had begun acting in films as a child artist in 1967 with the Telugu film Sudigundalu directed by Adurthi Subba Rao. Before that, he had also appeared in Velugu Needalu (1961) penned by Sri Sri. Both films featured his father Akkineni Nageswara Rao in the lead role.
He would make his debut as a lead actor in the 1986 Telugu film Vikram. Directed by V Madhusudhana Rao, it featured Shobana as the female lead. A remake of the 1983 Hindi film Hero, the film was a success, serving as a favourable launch-pad. The success continued with films such as the Dasari Narayana Rao-directed Majnu (1987), which won him praise for his portrayal of a heart-broken man. The following year, he starred in the blockbuster Aakhari Poratam (1988), scripted by Yandamuri Veerendranath, and directed by K Raghavendra Rao, in which he was paired opposite Sridevi and Suhasini. The same year, he also starred in Raghavendra Rao’s hit directorial Janaki Ramudu (1988) alongside Vijayashanti.
In 1989, he starred in the Mani Ratnam-directed romantic drama Gitanjali. The film depicted the relationship between a terminally ill young man who meets a boisterous girl at a fog-swept chilly hill station. Love blossoms, but there's a shadow behind the light she radiates. The film won the National film award for best popular film providing wholesome entertainment.
The same year, he starred in Shiva, playing a character who is disgusted by the corruption in and around his new college and, along with his friends, decides to take a stand against the status quo. Directed by debutant Ram Gopal Verma, the film also starred Amala and Raghuvaran. Considered a trendsetter in Telugu cinema, it was the film that made Nagarjuna a superstar.
He would subsequently make his Hindi film debut in 1990, with the Hindi remake of the same film titled Shiva. The Hindi version also became a huge box-office hit. He then starred in Jaitra Yatra (1991), for which he received critical acclaim. Directed by Narayana Rao Uppalapati, Nagarjuna played the son of Seetharamudu (Delhi Ganesh) from the settlement area, where police and politicians still rule the people. It depicted how Teja goes against them and wins the war against the legal bureaucrats.
Growing in stature with box office hits such as Neti Siddhartha (1990), Nirnayam (1991) and Killer (1992), he worked with eminent directors such as Fazil and Priyadarshan. He displayed a penchant for experimenting with different scripts, which led him to be unofficially dubbed the ‘Celluloid Scientist’. He would star in prominent hits such as President Gari Pellam (1992), Varasudu (1993), Gharana Bullodu (1995) and Allari Alludu (1993).
The following year, he starred in his first Hindi-Telugu bilingual - Criminal (1994) directed by Mahesh Bhatt. He also ventured into comedy for the first time with Hello Brother (1994) which was a huge hit, and was later remade in Hindi. Many of his films were also dubbed into Tamil.
In 1996, he starred in and produced under the Annapurna Studios banner the romantic family drama Ninne Pelladata, directed by Krishna Vamsi. The film won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Telugu and the Filmfare Award for Best Film – Telugu. An industry hit, it featured him and Tabu.
He starred in Annamayya (1997), in which he portrayed the role of Annamacharya, a 15th-century Telugu singer and poet. His performance won him the Filmfare Best Actor Award and his first Nandi Award for Best Actor. He also received a National Award for this role. He also starred in romantic comedies such as Santosham (2002), Manmadhudu (2002), and Sivamani (2003).
The same year, he produced Satyam (2003), which starred his nephew Sumanth. In 2006, he starred in Sri Ramadasu, his second period film based on the 18th-century Telugu saint/poet of the same name, receiving the Nandi award for best actor for the same. Among his key films over the subsequent years was the blockbusting fantasy drama Soggade Chinni Nayana (2016), and Vamshi Paidipally’s hit bilingual film Oopiri (2016) in which he played a cripple.
His more recent releases include Officer (2018), Devadas (2018), Manmadhudu 2 (2019), Wild Dog (2021), Bangarraju (2022), Brahmastra Part One: Shiva (2022), and The Ghost (2022).
He also made his debut as a television producer in 2009 with the soap opera Yuva. He was also a major shareholder of the television channel Maa TV before it was sold to the Star Network. He hosted the Indian Telugu-language version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire titled Meelo Evaru Koteeswarudu. In 2015, he was honored with the Entertainment Leader Award (Television) for his work on the show at the TV5 Business Leaders Awards ceremony. He had also hosted multiple seasons of Bigg Boss Telugu.
On the personal front, in 1984 he married Lakshmi Daggubati, daughter of prominent filmmaker D Ramanaidu, and sister of actor Venkatesh and producer Suresh Babu. Lakshmi and Nagarjuna have one son, actor Naga Chaitanya born in 1986. The couple divorced in 1990. Nagarjuna then married actress Amala in 1992, and the couple has one son, actor Akhil, born in 1994. Both Naga Chaitanya and Akhil are actors.