Sunday, May 28, 2023

On NT Rama Rao's centenary, remembering the early NTR

It is NT Rama Rao’s birth centenary tomorrow. I wrote this little tribute for Money Control (through the lens of a north Indian viewer who came quite late to some of his superstar-making 1950s films)…

One of the pleasures of watching the 2018 biopic Mahanati – about the celebrated actress Savitri – is the film’s affectionate, detailed recreation of famous scenes from 1950s Telugu and Tamil films. Playing the title role, Keerthy Suresh channels the Savitri spirit in musical sequences of the era, including an uproarious one from Maya Bazaar; Dulquer Salman plays Gemini Ganesan; and Naga Chaitanya has a small part as his real-life grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR). Here are legends of a rich period in South Indian cinema being paid tribute to by contemporary actors.

With one exception. In an early scene – where young Savitri visits the set of Shavukaru (1950) – we see a muscular actor doing an action shot. At first he is shown only from the back, but as he turns around the camera zooms in, the colour film fades into black-and-white – and the face that appears in close-up (aided by computer-generated imagery) is unmistakably that of a people’s superstar in one of his first lead roles.

Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao.

In this moment, it is almost as if Mahanati is saying: when it comes to NTR, we have to show the original – nothing else will do. It feels like a form of darshan – the real NTR “blessing” this film with his presence – that is part of the cult surrounding movie stars in India (especially with south Indian superstars who often played mythological Gods onscreen while being adored like deities in their everyday lives). Watching the scene, even as a north Indian who did not grow up watching this superstar, I could feel the magic; I could imagine how his first appearance in a film, back in the 50s and 60s, would have affected viewers.

As a boy, my only encounter with NTR was through a glimpse – on Doordarshan’s Regional Cinema slot – of Daana Veera Soora Karna (1977), which he directed and in which he famously played Karna as well as Krishna and Duryodhana. Enthralled though I was by anything Mahabharata-related, this felt like overkill and I wasn’t much taken by the portly middle-aged man preening on his chariot and declaiming sentences in a language I couldn’t understand.

But it was a completely different matter when, decades later, I watched his first Mahabharata screen performance – as Krishna in the masterful Maya Bazaar (1957). There is a startling early scene where Krishna – seated with his family to watch a stage show about his own boyhood adventures! – is distracted by Draupadi’s cry of distress from faraway Hastinapura (where the dice game has led to her attempted disrobing). Within seconds, NTR shifts from one rasa to the next: relaxed enjoyment – beatific smile on his face as he watches his own mythologising – yields to a perturbed state as he processes the new signals coming to him; anger and pity commingle; he channels his inner divinity, performs the long-distance miracle; then shakes out of his trance as his concerned family members ask what is going on.

For a Mahabharata acolyte, the scene was fascinating because in all other movie or TV versions the “vastra-haran” scene takes place in the Hastinapura hall: we are with Draupadi and the Pandavas and Kauravas, and Krishna appears as a sort of hologram on the wall. But in Maya Bazaar the perspective is changed completely. We see Krishna’s everyday life being interrupted by the demands of godly intervention.

Vamsee Juluri’s book Bollywood Nation: India Through its Cinema notes how the Telugu mythological films of the 1950s and 1960s moved between the mundane and the divine: when required there were the “big moments” where the Gods revealed themselves in all their glory; but for the most part the stories were intimate, like drawing-room plays, focusing on a minor side-story from the epics. NTR’s charismatic but approachable Krishna fit this scheme very well.

Maya Bazaar can be seen as a culmination of his early work in the 1950s – a decade that showed the gradual evolution of a star-actor with many possibilities open to him. Two wonderful examples are in the fantasy Pathala Bhairavi (1951) and in the comedy-drama Missamma (1955). In the former – almost as if in preparation for playing a relatable God – NTR is Ramu the gardener’s son who transitions into a dashing action man (and looks very good shirtless) when the situation demands it; Ramu is fated for larger-than-life encounters when he falls in love with a princess and gets involved with an evil sorcerer. In the film’s second half, NTR is somewhat overshadowed by the great SV Ranga Rao’s juicier part as the antagonist, but his easy-going charm anchors the film, and much of Patala Bhairavi’s lasting power depends on our identification with this hero.

As an actor, NTR didn’t have the reputation of being a heavy-lifter in the way that Sivaji Ganesan (for instance) did, but he had a real knack for light comedy in different settings. He could pull it off while playing Krishna bantering with Balarama or Ghatotkacha, or while playing a dashing, Errol Flynn-like lead in Pathala Bhairavi, but he also did it in the modern story
told in Missamma – about two young people of different religions who masquerade as husband and wife to get a job. As the earnest, sometimes goofy MT Rao, he revels in the many comical double-takes necessitated by the film’s plot, but is equally persuasive as the romantic lead slowly falling in love with Mary (Savitri) while also indulging the attention of Sita (Jamuna). Or the unemployed young man who ruefully tells a conman that as a BA graduate he doesn’t have the option of using underhanded ploys to get money.

Later in life, like almost every big male star with a long career in Indian cinema, NTR fell back on familiar mannerisms and tics, offering variations on earlier performances (with a few inventive choices along the way). In his three roles in the aforementioned Daana Veera Soora Karna, one sees the intuitive ability to tap into this or that mood depending on the part – along with the hubris of a superstar who believes he has earned the right to do anything. However, to watch his first outings as a screen star on the cusp of becoming a screen deity is to see a performer who moved easily between the big gesture and the intimate one – someone who could be mischievous God, vulnerable human, intrepid adventurer, or all of these at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such an insightful write-up on NTR. I hope you also watch Malleswari, NTR's romantic movie with Bhanumathi. This was a facet of his acting that I never truly appreciated. My Dad was fanatic about the movie songs and the movie in general, scarred me with the repetitive viewings of the movie. I learnt to enjoy the movie only much later.