2019 is poised to be a year of biopics in Telugu cinema, resonating with the election atmosphere. For the films that unfold, it will be tough to match the ‘meta’ moment from NTR: Kathanayakudu . Balakrishna, reprising the role of his father — the legendary actor-turned-political leader NTR — is at the naming ceremony of his son. Surrounded by family and well wishers, he christens his son Nandamuri Balakrishna and prophetically states that the boy will take on his mantle and shine in cinema. This scene where Balakrishna (as NTR) showers blessings on Balakrishna, is received with much cheer and ‘jai Balayya’ chants.
Kathanayakudu is an ode to NTR, produced by his son, and expectedly has the reverential tone. Director Krish Jagarlamudi has his hands full in recapping NTR’s illustrious career. Krish plays director K V Reddy, a role he had enacted with candour in the Savitri biopic Mahanati last year. K V Reddy, at the helm of Mayabazar, is the only one who firmly believes that NTR can pull off the part of Lord Krishna. The scene that follows is among the defining sequences of the biopic. The deifying begins here, showing how NTR was revered for his roles of Krishna and Rama, to the extent that it was considered risky for him to play Ravana.
- Cast: Balakrishna, Vidya Balan
- Direction: Krish Jagarlamudi
It takes a little getting used to, to watch Balakrishna as NTR. It’s a larger-than-life personality, and the shoes are daunting even for his own son to fit into. Balakrishna tries with all earnestness, but looks a lot more at ease in the later potions as the older NTR. The film has the unavoidable hangover of Mahanati , especially when it flits in and out of film sets of 1950s and 60s. Prakash Raj as Nagi Reddy, Jisshu Sengupta as LV Prasad (again, one has to shake off the memories of Srinivas Avasarala in this part).
Keeravani’s background score and V S Gnanashekar’s cinematography are huge strengths to Kathanayakudu . The former has a ball shifting between the decades, with a Chaplin-esque score in some of the vintage portions and gets more poignant as the actor is drawn to politics. Gnanashekar gently moves between black and white and colour on the film sets, romancing the props and cameras of the era as though he’s paying an ode to cinema of yore.
We get to see a lot of NTR’s films, from Pathala Bhairavi to Daana Veera Soora Karna and more, with a battery of stars stepping in as yesteryear stars and directors — Prakash Raj as Nagi Reddy, Murali Sharma as Chakrapani, Raja (as NTR’s brother), Kalyan Ram as Harikrishna, Hansika as Jayaprada, Pranitha as Krishnakumari, Brahmanandam as Relangi, Rakul Preet Singh as Sridevi (there’s the famous Vetagadu rain song), and Shalini Pandey as Sowcar Janaki. Some of these are just a little more than walk-on parts, but the biopic doffs it hat to the friendship between NTR and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, and more importantly to the bond between NTR and his wife Basavatarakam.
Vidya Balan is a treat to watch, her quietude and eyes that speak a thousand words contrasting NTR’s histrionics. Sumanth fits the bill as ANR, with a measured portrayal that nearly matches the doyen’s body language. These portions break the monotony of the film sets, with little asides to the personal lives of the actors. There are references to ANR being health conscious while NTR revelled in being a foodie. The two also sound a note of caution on Savitri’s (Nithya Menen) extravagance at the peak of her career.
Kathanayakudu rarely moves away from idolising NTR and the lack of drama makes the biopic seem like a long re-creation of his filmography at a languorous pace. We would have liked to know more of NTR as a person, with his shortcomings, beyond his unerring punctuality and dedication towards work. It’s only when the narrative is punctuated with situations that eventually lead NTR to turn to politics, that the biopic regains its momentum. Rana Daggubati enters as the slim, young Chandrababu Naidu with a mischievous glint in his eyes, probably hinting at the drama that will unfold in part two, Mahanayakudu .