NTR Jr is a peculiar actor and star. While most actors need to be nudged to really explore and express themselves on screen NTR Jr comes pre-exploded onto the screen. The trick is to restrain him rather than let him scribble all over the screen. So films like Temper (2015), Simhadri (2003), Yamadonga (2007) and Rakhi (2006) struggle to tone down his histrionics. While Janatha Garage (2016) and Brindavanam (2010) temper him down they maybe stretch it too far to the point of making him too bland.
Until RRR, directors have struggled to contain him and use his potential which is odd because if you are a Telugu director looking for a star NTR Jr almost seems like the perfect specimen made in a lab. He is a supremely talented actor and has the legacy required to promise a guaranteed audience and a general sense of mainstream cinema and the skills required to shoulder one. And yet in his career, there are more flops than hits. But what makes him compelling are the highs he provides as a star and actor eclipse those provided by most other actors and stars. Being patient with his films is about waiting for that cinematic masala-flavored bliss point where everything come together for an epic moment in Telugu cinema. This is why Telugu audiences have been patient with him through his lows. There is a certain guaranteed reward for the wait. To find a comprehensively good film in his filmography is impossible (barring RRR) but the highs delivered by a few films are unmatched by any other star.
Therefore the rankings of the following films are based on those highs he hits and if the film overall holds up without being too problematic (hint: Simhadri doesn’t and is therefore eliminated).
Adhurs has the honour of being the most joyous film NTR Jr has done. A story about identical twins separated at birth where one grows up as a traditional ‘Hero’ Narasimha — dull, only important for songs, dance, and fights — and the other is raised as a priest Chary, who is full of life, always complaining, and never knowing when to shut up. The film is never about the story which is outdated and predictable but rather a way to watch NTR Jr flex his comedic chops playing a priest who is never comfortable with his identity or caste. Much like playing the role of a cop announces the intention of an actor to announce his arrival as a star, Telugu cinema of the 2000s and 2010s had a rite of passage for comedy - go toe-to-toe with Brahmanandam in the comedy scenes and not be chewed up by him. In these comedy portions, the punches and punchlines are all on the character Brahamanandam plays but the joke is always on the star trying to compete.
You may have your dances, fights, and heroines, but you’ll never have the love and comedic timing that Brahmanandam has. If a star walked out not paling in comparison that was a success. Only Ravi Teja in Kick (2009) seemed to match Brahmanandam by channelling his manic energy to match Brahamandam’s comic timing. But in Adhurs, NTR’s Chary competes with Brahmanandam with the comic timing and nearly eclipses the veteran who is playing Chary’s unscrupulous mentor Bhattu. It’s a pity that neither NTR showed similar comedic chops in any of his later films (despite an attempt to replicate this magic in Baadshah) nor did Telugu cinema have the vision to plan a stand-alone Bhattu and Chary film. But for now, we have Adhurs and the countless memes it inspired. The fact that NTR Jr and Brahmanandam share equal space in these memes is a testament to how much NTR Jr brought out his comedic best for Chary.
This premise of the film sounds like a pitch for a Flipkart advertisement - have child actors play out the Ramayana. There is nothing unique about the film beyond its central gimmick. But NTR Jr playing Rama (who was only thirteen when the film was being shot) shows you how while the others looked like they were children who were acting, he was a professional. He’s clearly been told to emulate his grandfather who perfected a certain divine interpretation of Rama but there are a few scenes where NTR Jr’s own spirit comes through. Instead of a stoic or more “divine” Rama, NTR Jr churns out a fearful Rama who is plagued by guilt that his wife has gone missing. It’s a far more empathetic interpretation of Rama and some credit must go to director Gunashekar for reimagining the character in such a way but for NTR Jr to display such depth at thirteen shows that before the ‘star’ there was an actor.
Based on the promotional material before its release, this film felt like it was destined to be a celebration of the worst of Telugu cinema. It promised to revive the dead and toxic sub-genre of the violent faction cinema which celebrates archaic caste structures and morality. NTR Jr had been squeezed dry in such roles and his over-commitment to such roles became fodder for unintentional humour. Director Trivikram Srinivas coming off of one of mainstream Telugu cinema’s poorest films Agnyaathavaasi didn’t bode well for Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava.
But it is to the credit of both the actor and director that they showed restraint where it mattered. The film tells the story of Raghava (NTR Jr), the son of a local strongman returning to his ancestral village in rural Rayalaseema. As soon as he returns he finds himself embroiled in the same conflict that has taken the lives of his grandfather, father and countless men of his village as collateral. But Raghava notices that the never-ending conflict between two warring families takes a toll on the women of the village by orphaning the mothers, wives, and sisters at home. The film itself has the feminism of a Mother’s Day WhatsApp forward by your most toxic uncle but considering that in the previous year mainstream Telugu cinema celebrated Arjun Reddy slapping his girlfriend we have to consider ASVR in 2018 as progress.
It is almost a meta-commentary on NTR’s career. NTR Jr chose to play countless hyper-masculine characters in pursuit of the image of the masala star. But now that he chose that violent mass path and the young men thronged to his screen - what of the women who never saw NTR Jr’s movies? All were abandoned by the star and left at home. Maybe this was his attempt to bring them back by showing calculated restraint.
The only portion in the film where he is unrestrained is the action set piece that the film begins with and that works not only because of its superb staging but because the central conflict of the film rests on the protagonist reflecting upon his actions in perpetuating violence. There is almost an Ashoka-like touch to the film’s conflict where a war is won but the king is lost in regret.
It’s not that the role is particularly challenging for NTR Jr but it’s that he shows he can reimagine a character done to death by him and adapt to changing times - not just in politics but in his craft too.
Rajamouli has constantly stated that NTR Jr is his favourite actor. And yet Rajamouli’s best work never came with NTR Jr and none of it was the actor’s fault. In Student No 1, Simhadri, and Yamadonga the actor is nearly faultless in how he plays what is demanded of the character but other aspects weigh those films down. So nearly 21 years after their first collaboration NTR Jr finally gets his due in writer Vijayendra Prasad’s and director Rajamouli’s interpretation of Bheem (NTR Jr) in RRR. This film relies on NTR Jr to play a wild child with a heart of gold and almost zero cunning who wants to retrieve his imprisoned sister from the clutches of an evil British general. This arc of a brother trying to protect his sister has been done by NTR in the film Rakhi but that film overflows with excesses - in acting, in overacting, and in melodrama. But there too it’s hard to blame NTR Jr because it’s clearly the fault of the directorial vision in attempting to present a “brother” in such a melodramatic fashion.
But in RRR, Rajamouli finally sets the perfect meter for NTR Jr and rather than unleashing the beast he tames the tiger. I will die on the hill that 'Komuram Bheemudo' song is not only the finest work in the actor and director’s career but that sequence is perfectly representative of mainstream Telugu cinema — epic, full of drama, and cinematic. If ever you need a litmus test for whether mainstream Telugu cinema is for you watch that sequence.
Look, if you haven’t already seen Aadi or experienced it, don’t bother because by any measure - craft or politics - the film doesn’t age well. But it wasn’t about ageing well as much as it was about instant gratification. Aadi is a classic example of you had to be there because like a perfect photograph it captured a moment, a time, and a place. It’s the unadulterated child-like joy in watching an 8-year-old boy ( my age too when I first saw the film) throw grenades at bad guys to protect himself. It’s a celebration of testosterone in watching NTR Jr summoning thunder and lightning like Thor when he slaps his thighs in prison. It’s about watching NTR Jr championing his grandfather’s political and film legacy and announcing himself as heir apparent as if the film industry were a medieval kingdom that once belonged to his grandfather before it was wrongfully snatched away. It’s the goofiness in watching a boyish NTR Jr blow up SUVs and then immediately transition into a scene complaining about how often he’s fat-shamed as he gobbles a tin full of laddoos. Aadi has this fervent energy of a Telugu Western — a Gongura Western if you would indulge me — set in the parched landscape of southern Andhra Pradesh.
It’s the film that defined NTR Jr but also its success ruined the actor and star. In this film, NTR Jr plays Aadi Kesava Reddy (NTR Jr) a son of a village landlord living in exile who returns to his ancestral village to take back what is rightfully his — land, people, and legacy.
While most films that use a similar template like Baasha and Indra use a flashback to give it the semblance of two distinct stories in each half of the film Aadi chooses a linear path. What that does is rely on its actor to power the audience through till the end without the promise of a “second story” in the second half. Aadi is further burdened by the fact that films like Baasha and Indra work because they use older actors who can play such larger-than-life roles with ease and when they pretend to have a “flashback” it’s easier to buy that because of their age.
But during Aadi, NTR Jr was 19 which meant he had to play a college student and then had to transition into a mature role of playing a convincing village chief. Like a son wearing his father’s shirt NTR Jr could have appeared silly and small for the role but he fills it up with ease. He gets the action right, the diction perfect, and sets the perfect tone for the film. Director VV Vinayak and editor Gautham Raju should get equal credit for the film’s success but it’s NTR Jr who keeps delivering moments that hit you like a drug.
And sadly, that drug was not just for the audience but for the actor too because the success and highs of Aadi caused him to try and repeat this formula for nearly half a decade before he changed his ways. He got similar success immediately after with Simhadri but that film with its highs and lows is a Rajamouli film. Aadi is a pure NTR Jr film. It was so defining for NTR Jr that it nearly derailed his career. Aadi has the unbridled joy of watching NTR Jr explode on screen like a grenade in a manner that has never been replicated by any other Telugu actor on screen - not even himself.
Like I said you just had to be there to enjoy Aadi for what it can be.