NTR: The Star Who Became A God

NT Rama Rao has played God so often on screen that he’s best remembered for those roles. What was it that attracted the Telugu people to a man dressed in fake jewellery and painted blue, asks Aman Basha, who delves deep into Telugu mythologicals and wonders why there are not many scholarly works based on them.
NTR: The Star Who Became A God

Loved as a hero, applauded as a villain

Irrespective of either God or demon

Adored were the teller and his tale

Was the teller loved for his tale or the tale for the teller

How do I start, what can I tell

For who knows need not be told

And who is told may never know well

It was in 1982, as NTR turned 60, that the star still ruling the box office officially launched his political party campaigning for the self respect and pride of Telugus. He achieved a historic victory in the elections held less than a year after his party's founding. His campaign speeches were said to have the same fervour and energy displayed in his dialogue delivery and he even turned up for events in costumes from his mythological roles. So, what was it that attracted the Telugu people to a man dressed in fake jewellery and painted blue?

Man? For them, He was a God

The Telugu film industry (TFI) is one of the largest and most successful in India. An industry with such history and diversity does not get sufficient recognition for its artistic merit. There are also not too many scholarly articles to deconstruct and dig into a film, making us appreciate the finer nuances and themes. It almost makes one wonder if Telugu films are routine and passe, with nothing special to speak about.

Nothing special? But then, the TFI did produce the highest-grossing Indian blockbuster till date, causing a frenzy from other industries to top its success with epics and period films. Perhaps, it was only from here that a film like Baahubali could have emerged, for which other film industries have a strong culture of successful, well-made films based on Indian mythology.

Not just traditional mythological renderings, but also weaving mythology into the modern day, like in Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari where an apsara falls in love with a guide or Yamagola, where NTR lambasted Indira Gandhi's policies from Yama's court. 

It is impossible for a Telugite to imagine mythology without recalling the vast pantheon of roles NT Rama Rao played from our epics. From Rama and Raavana to Krishna and Keechaka, he's done them all, although the most popular deity he enacted and forever associated with was Lord Krishna. Photos of NTR dressed up as Krishna and Lord Venkateshwara could be seen in prayer rooms across the two States and even pilgrims visiting Tirupati would make a stop at NTR's residence.

His broad frame, statuesque presence and handsome face were quite the advantage, but he prepared for his roles in quite an interesting fashion. For example, he would read the Gita and consume only vegetarian food so as to present the serenity and calmness of godly characters, and follow a non-vegetarian diet while playing villainous roles. Possibly the first instance of method acting in mythology? 

Culinary choices still fail to explain what is easily NTR's grandest and most successful foray into mythology – Daana Veera Soora Karna, based on Karna's story, which had a runtime of over four hours and was shot in only 40 days. NTR was  director, producer and writer, besides the actor playing the triple roles of Krishna, Karna and Duryodhana. The "emantivi emantivi" scene is justly venerated and celebrated; however, its encapsulation in cultural memory seems to underplay the brilliance of its other parts. 

A particular highlight is how subtly different all three parts are, not only in their physical appearance, for only Krishna looks different by default due to the skin tone, but in their diction and tone. Krishna has an almost feminine and gentle voice and body language replete with swishy hand gestures, Karna has a slightly lower tone with a more earnest genteel body language while Duryodhana is peak masculinity, all regal walk and arrogant smile. The distinctness of the three characters is quite clear in the sequence where Krishna comes to the Hastinapura Court as a messenger from the Pandavas.

Krishna, in V Ramakrishna's voice, sings of the Pandavas' offer to settle for even five villages, and though Duryodhana laughs mockingly at him initially, he slowly seems to consider this at the behest of his elders till Krishna warns him of the consequences of war with the Pandavas, including a surreal scene of Bheema drinking Keechaka's blood and bathing Draupadi's hair with it. Karna, seated next to Duryodhana, reacts only minimally, toned down and introspective than his friend, yet rises in arms when Krishna mentions Duryodhana's death. His pride and ego hurt, Duryodhana launches into a powerful monologue where he states reasons for denying this request. When he questions the Pandavas' parentage, Krishna puts a hand to his ear, almost hilariously and yet smiles deviously in the background as Duryodhana continues, pleased that he provoked Duryodhana as he intended to all along. 

The Mahabharata, like any other epics such as the Iliad or the Ramayana, is deepened by its discussions on Dharma, honour and other themes. DVSK has a similar emphasis; a parallel is drawn between Karna and Ekalavya, both victims of their circumstances, and Duryodhana, of all people, makes a stirring argument against birthright and caste. National unity is the reason used to reject the Pandavas' offer. Through this film, we see not only Duryodhana, the fierce warrior, but Suyodhana as well, the one well versed in the finer nuances of Dharma and supporter of the downtrodden. The Pandavas are not only the defenders of Dharma, but also upholders of a system that suppresses merit. Karna is the most complicated character of them all, the great tragedy of his life garners great sympathy, but it is Krishna who is most fascinating. His self aware behavior makes you wonder what his true intentions are, and question if he stands for Dharma or only the victory of the Pandavas?

NTR played Krishna in numerous other occasions, and his interpretation of Krishna is not constant. The Krishna we see in Mayabazaar guiding Ghatotkacha is different from the Krishna wooing Satyabhama in Sri Krishna Tulabharam, and so on. 

There seems to be critical, academic and audience neglect of such a significant genre. We need renewed appreciation and recognition for these films. They may be overly verbose, but looking around today, there seem to be very few who could pull off these characters, let alone three at once. 

There must be reams of articles and books written on Ingmar Bergman and his search of God in art and life, yet only a sliver of such academic analysis, acclaim and dissection of NT Rama Rao who brought mythology and tales of gods and demons to life for millions to see, enjoy and admire. They didn't just stop at being an audience, but were devotees too of the man who became God. It is not through mere worship, but through questioning, analysis and criticism that his legacy will flourish and live.

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