In the 1960s, a popular joke was that if Krishna were to appear in person, he would have to bear comparisons with NT Rama Rao. We haven’t seen Rama or Krishna or for that matter Krishna Devaraya. But NTR gave us an idea what they might have looked like. It could have been his deep impression on artistes that for many years pictures of Krishna bore a close resemblance to NTR.
Mythologicals and historicals were an important genre of Indian cinema and in Andhra Pradesh, it was also influenced by the traditions of local theatre. NTR was groomed in this very tradition.
Look at him simply walk down the hall here in Karnan (1964). He appears only in the second half of the movie and steals the show.
His tryst with puranic characters began with Maya Bazaar (1957) of Vijaya Vauhini Studios. The producers Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani were reluctant to cast NT Rama Rao as Krishna. But the director KV Reddy was insistent and thus, NTR donned the first of his several Krishna veshams. But NTR did not just don the make up. He read the Srimad Bhagawad to know the character from within. Released for Ugadi in 1957 in Telugu and Puthandu a fortnight later in Tamil, Maya Bazaar was a blockbuster in both Telugu and Tamil. Filmmakers knew that they had struck gold with NTR as Krishna.
The very next year, NTR played Rama in Sampoorna Ramayanam (1958), with Sivaji playing Bharata and Padmini playing Sita, with a quiet dignity demanded by the character. The mischief tinkling in his eyes which was seen a year before in Maya Bazaar was replaced with the gravity and serenity of Rama.
Usually actors who become god in the public eye try to maintain that image. But NTR set out to do the unthinkable. After consolidating his divine image with Maya Bazaar, NTR reversed his persona with AVM’S Bhookailas (1958), playing Ravana to perfection. It is hard to imagine today that in 1958, he was playing Ravana in Bhookailas and Rama in Sampoorna Ramayanam. He repeated the feat in Sita Rama Kalyanam (1961), winning hearts with his portrayal of Ravana. Watch this episode of lifting of the Kailasa from the movie.
NTR comfortably slipped into the role of Brihannala (Arjuna as a eunuch during the 13th year of exile) in Narthanashala (1963). Savithri played Draupadi and Keechaka’s role was played by Ranga Rao in this K Kameswara Rao classic based on the Virata Parvan of the Mahabharata. He even got trained under the Kuchipudi legend Vempati Chinna Satyam for this role.
In 1963, CS Rao and his father C Pulaiah decided to make Lava Kusa, based on the Uttara Kandam of the Ramayana. Many believe the movie was loosely based on Debaki Bose’s Sita (1934) and NTR cast his spell over the masses as Rama, with Anjali Devi as Sita. The movie was a bilingual production and was released to coincide with the new year celebrations in Andhra and Tamil Nadu that year. Lava Kusa became an all-time blockbuster of Telugu cinema and had an uninterrupted run for 75 weeks!
NTR charmed the nation as Krishna in over 17 films but also played Duryodhana with elan in Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam (1966) and Daana Veera Soora Karna (1977, where he played the triple role of Karna, Duryodhana and Krishna), both directed by him. In fact, he was past his prime by the time he played the big gamble of playing the triple role in 1977 and yet, Daana Veera Soora Karna was the highest grossing Telugu film of the year.
One of his famous onscreen roles was as Krishna Devaraya in movies like Mahamantri Timmarusu (1962) and Tenali Ramakrishna (1956). Today you can only imagine NTR in that role. NTR was not just legend and lore. He was the face of umpteen successful social dramas as well. Tapi Chanakya’s NTR blockbuster Ramudu Bheemudu (1964) became a cult classic and remade in Tamil as Enga Veetu Pillai, with MGR and in Hindi as Ram aur Shyam, starring Dilip Kumar. It later spawned a zillion imitations in several languages in India. In the 1980s, BR Chopra even considered him to play the narrator for his television blockbuster Mahabharat but later decided to create the concept of Samay narrating it, with the voice over of Harish Bhimani.
Today, NTR would have turned 100. And there never will be one like him who effortlessly turned movie halls into temples. Leaving you with the clan scene of Maya Bazaar, which propelled him into divinity, which he later used to consolidate his political career. But that story is for another day.