Cast: Nandamuri Balakrishna, Vidya Balan, Rana Dagubatti, Prakash Raj
The film's title is a telltale. It's not just 'Kathanayakudu'. It's 'NTR Kathanayakadu'. The legend is always going to precede the man, which isn't an unreasonable thing considering the man in question. I knew this going in, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the prelude featuring a picture of both NTR and his wife together. Maybe the film is going to be about a man in a synchronous marriage, his name is Tharaka Rama and she calls herself Rama Tharakam, rather than his myth—an assumption swiftly backed by the titles that follow, where the only two names credited are Bala Krishna and Vidya Balan.
NTR's Kathanayakudu is primarily about NT Rama Rao's eventful journey in the lanes of cinema—his love for the medium, the medium's reverence for him, and everything in between. Even though it also browses through his personal/political life, in bits and parts, it mostly deals with his films and the people in it, ending on a rather rousing political note.
This film too, like Mahanati, begins in a hospital where Basavatarakam is receiving treatment. While looking through her husband's old pictures, she takes us into a flashback that starts after their first son is born and lasts throughout the film. But not before remarking that her husband has the features of a god. Fittingly enough, the most arresting moments of the film—his entrance as Krishna, his omnipresent stint for the film Daana Veera Soora Karna, and the filming of the iconic Raavana scene— have to do with gods as well. The fact that people used to visit him to finish their pilgrimage to Tirupati is so extraordinary a thing to have happened to an actor that it's impossible to not be overwhelmed by that moment on–screen. Sadly, the music by Keeravani and the weirdly untheatrical screenplay lets you down and leaves you wanting, especially in such scenes.
In one unintentionally hilarious scene, Bala Krishna, the actor playing NTR, holds Bala Krishna, the baby, and talks about how his birth chart predicts an illustrious life and career, as an actor. I mean, we are an understanding audience, but one propaganda at a time, please.
Krish's writing is known for its nuance and insight that both informs the cinematic experience and the audience. The way the film breathes without suffocating everyone around is all Krish. Yes, NTR is the protagonist, but that doesn't mean the others are dispensable. Every cameo that is featured has a reason to be there and a story, no matter how minuscule, to tell. Even though I was taken aback by the passive hand-wringing Savitri receives—which Mahanati neither had time or interest in indulging, I was okay with the way it was tackled. The way brotherhood replaces one-upmanship between NTR and ANR—impressively internalised performance by Sumanth—is a sign that Krish knows what he is doing. So is the way the women in the family are used to gently criticise the way his films used to cast young women who then would get physically tackled by him in the name of romance. The voices are rarely silenced.
Bala Krishna, obviously, looks the part and knowing his penchant for histrionics, it's not a surprise to see him live it too. Vidya's Basavatharakam—the first person to see the god in her husband before a whole state did—is neither a silent spectator nor a sufferer, even if it isn't always apparent. If it were some other director, I'd think this character would be feminist bait, but Krish has always made it a point to write strong female characters. We can see that she has real power in the way her husband behaves, but she chooses never to use it against him. Only someone like Vidya can carry off a character like this that rarely speaks, but her screen persona makes sure that her character isn't sidetracked…not once. The supporting cast includes Prakash Raj, Murali Sharma, Rana. Daggubati Raja—does a great job as the supportive brother, and others were impressive as well.
My grouse is this. With every ingredient in place—great casting, impressive production/art design, and the perfect subject, why does the final product taste so bland? Is it the flat second-half due to the lack of obstacles in this man's path or is it the rather long runtime? Or is it that the gravity of the protagonist is diluted by the presence of his family members tooting their own horn? In one unintentionally hilarious scene, Bala Krishna, the actor playing NTR, holds Bala Krishna, the baby, and talks about how his birth chart predicts an illustrious life and career as an actor. I mean, we are an understanding audience, but one propaganda at a time, please. The film gets meta again when Basavatarakam says Padma Shri with innocence and mirth, and Vidya having received one, makes it a fun detail. But then Hari Krishna is played by his son, Kalyan Ram, and this exact incestuous nature of the film transforms what could have been a gripping drama into an exercise in self-absorption.
To its credit, NTR: Kathanayakudu does try to humanise NTR. He is shown as someone who is willing to learn and take cues from the people around him. The whole Dhivi Seema stretch is rather heartbreaking and moving, but such moments are rare to come by. At a defining point in the film, his elder son dies—an occurrence the film has been foreshadowing from the beginning—and he still continues to work leaving his grieving wife at home. A moment like this could've created a greater impact if it were handled well. The film knows where it is coming from and it regretfully lets that knowledge divert it from where it is supposed to go. The scenes pertaining to the historical Emergency are so ill-conceived and shallow in their message that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. The supposed disdain Telugu people carried with them for being recognised as Madrasis feels misplaced as well.
The scene that introduces NTR to us says it all—it includes a dialogue supporting working women, disowning class structure, and his moral rigidity. He was the man of the people and a man of principles even before he was a film actor. I understand the filmmaker getting swayed by this mammoth subject. I even understand a film getting carried away by its hero, more so when the protagonist is played and financed by the prodigal son—the film's words, not mine. It won't be fair to expect a son to be pragmatic about his father either. But at the same time, is it fair to ask a viewer to humour his indulgence, without giving him/her something in return in terms of cinematic payoff? Depending on the answer to this question you'd either enjoy the film immensely or hate it dearly.