Y.V.Rao was born in Nellore in the then Madras Presidency of British India in 1903 in a prominent and wealthy Telugu Brahmin family. On completion of his education, Y.V.Rao plunged into drama and did a few stage plays before moving to Kolhapur and Bombay to act in silent films. In the late 1920s, he moved to Madras. Impressed by Rao's handsome looks and agility, Prakash cast him as hero in many silent films like "Garuda Garva Bhangam", "Gajendra Moksham" , and "Rose of Rajasthan" .
Eventually,by the start of the 1930s, Y.V.Rao moved to film direction and made silent films like Pandava Nirvana (1930), Pandava Agnathavaas(1930) and Hari Maya(1932).
In 1932, a Marwari businessman, Chamanlal Doongaji from Bangalore, launched South India Movietone. The company made the first talking picture in Kannada language called Sati Sulochana. Y.V.Rao was given the privilege of directing this film thereby making his name immortal in the annals of Indian film history.
Sathi Sulochana was shot at Chatrapathi Cinetone, in Kolhapur and the shooting took eight weeks. Produced at en enormous cost of Rs. 40,000, Sathi Sulochana created a sensation in Bangalore.
In 1937,Y.V.Rao directed the Tamil film 'Chintamani' which eventually became a blockbuster and went on to create new records in the Tamil film industry. More importantly, it was the movie which propelled M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to superstardom.
His next film in Tamil, Lavangi (1946) was based on the life of a poet called Pandit Jagannath, who was believed to have served the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
The heroine was Kumari Rukmini, daughter of dancer Nungambakkam Janaki. During the making of the film, the Rao fell in love with her and the two got married.
Noteworthy amongst later films of Y.V.Rao was a mythological in Tamil language called Savithri starring M. S. Subbulakshmi and Shanta Apte.
The 1950s saw a decline in Y.V.Rao's career till he stopped making movies for good. Apart from a decline in his career, his personal life too suffered setbacks. He was plagued by legal cases and financial problems during the later years of his life. His marriage to Rukmini ended in a divorce. Many film projects were announced but did not take off, and the few, which did, fared badly. He died in 1973,at the age of a 70, a very much unhappy man.