Bring up the name of Nadamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR) to a Telugu person and chances are it will be followed by the phrase 'Telugu Pride'. For the Telugu audience, even the ones who might not have watched his older films, any talk about cinema cannot be completed without a mention of his name. Affectionately referred to as Annagaaru (elder brother) in the Telugu speaking states, it is said that thousands of homes had pictures of him (in his iconic Krishna and Rama roles) in their place of worship. Gaining unprecedented popularity and admiration for his mythological roles, the man rose to become as mythical as his iconic characters. If playing the God to perfection was not enough, he picked some of the traditional “antagonists” from the same epics and brought them alive in all grandeur: Karna and Duryodhana (among other characters he played) in Danaveera Soora Karna and Ravana in Bhookailash. With a sharp mind such as his, it did not take him long to figure out that the complexities in these characters is ideal for a good screenplay.
The 70s and 80s saw him in huge hits like Vetagadu, Adavi Ramudu and Yamagola (to name just three of many). What I would like to mention here are some of my favorite NTR roles from his initial years as the leading man. The years that made him a superstar before he became the national icon. These are five films where he wasn’t necessarily at the center of the plot. Films he did not yet carry on his broad shoulders like he would do in the later years. These are films where the rising star had a cast around him that contributed substantially (and at times, equally) to the plot. A powerful antagonist (SV Ranga Rao as Mantrikudu) in Patala Bhairavi or an ensemble cast in Gundamma Katha and Missamma – characters that remain as memorable as the ones played by NTR.
This fantasy film was a huge hit on release. What always excites me about this film is that watching it seven decades after it release and couple of decades after the great man had passed away, one does not see the future superstar in it. One sees Thotaramudu, a daring young man whom destiny and an evil sorcerer send on multiple adventures. With the Arabian Nights style setting the visual effects might look dated but the performances by NTR and SV Ranga Rao have not. This makes it an engrossing watch even today.
Inspired from the novel Brewster’s Millions, in the Indian context this was the precursor to later films like Malamaal (starring Naseeruddin Shah and a now part of film trivia having featured Sunny Gavaskar as himself) and the Rajinikant blockbuster Arunachalam. A poor artist, blissfully unaware of anything materialistic is posed a challenge by the girl’s father when he goes to seek her hand in marriage. He must spend 1 lakh rupees (a princely amount in the 50s) within 30 days to win his lady love. Spend, being the key word. He cannot donate any of it. The misery that a simpleton goes through in his efforts to spend the money make for some sidesplitting moments. He reaches a point of aversion to even the mention of dabbu (money) before the film ends on a happy note(pun intended).
There is a minor comic moment in which NTR’s character is paid a visit by two girls. One of the girls has a dog on leash. Witnessing NTR’s reaction to the dog in front of him (he has a fear of dogs) and too shy to express it in the company of a stranger is comedy gold. As someone who shares an irrational fear of dogs, I can testify that it is how I have reacted in such situations. Later in the film he is in a situation that is a nightmare for anyone with a fear for dogs – getting stuck in a room with dogs of various breeds and sizes.
My favorite NTR performance from the ones listed here. He played the romantic lead in this romcom while the other legend of Telugu cinema Akkinenni Nageswara Rao (ANR), popular for his romantic image, played the out and out comic part. One of the classic duets 'Raavoyi Chandamma' is from the same film. My favorite NTR song moments from Misamma are in the song 'Aaduvaari Maatalaku Ardhale Verule' where he playfully teases Savitri as his face switches between multiple expressions seamlessly. In a movie with performers like SV Ranga Rao and ANR with the plot centered around the titular character, it is the softspoken MT Rama Rao (played by NTR) that one sympathizes. It is the harmless drama played by this unemployed youth to find a job which triggers the events of the film. Through the film’s running length, NTR plays a man constantly in an inner conflict because of the charade he is putting up.
Probably the most famous movie from this list, even among people who have not seen it, Mayabazaar cannot be called a NTR film. That is only if you consider his screentime or the importance of other characters (Shashirekha played by Savitri and Ghatotkacha played by SV Ranga) to the plot. However, Mayabazaar is a monumental milestone in NTR’s filmography since this is where he played the character that would in the future take him from the silver screen to the hearts (and pooja rooms) of countless admirers. Krishna as portrayed by NTR became the benchmark of the character for any subsequent portrayals. The all-knowing half smile, the breaking into laughter while providing a solution, the walk, the talk: it went beyond segregating portrayals of Krishna as pre NTR and post NTR. Krishna, on silver screen meant only NTR.
If in Misamma, ANR played the funny character, NTR competed with himself in this madcap comedy to tickle the audience's funny bone. The iconic, "You are my brother” scene in which NTR (masquerading as the servant) must take care of a drunk ANR is easily one of the finest comedy scenes from Telugu cinema and has both the superstars letting their hair down. This scene in many ways is a predecessor to the 'Chal Mere Bhai' song from Naseeb featuring Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor. Like in Misamma, the titular character here is played by Suryakantam. As one half of the brothers out to teach Gundamma a lesson, NTR is at his comic best while also taking the time to lip sync to the song 'Nidra Lechindi Mahila Lokam” on women empowerment'
Needless to say, like any list, these are strictly personal favorites from the 1950s and early 1960s. I can only hope that a new set of audience that is not averse to watching black-and-white cinema gives these films a chance to witness the diversity in the filmography of a man whose later (and popular) work was largely in the mythological, patriotic and masala space.