By Pavan Nanduri
New Delhi, May 28 (IANS): In the year 1949 when India was barely two years old as an independent nation, a young and an honest cop in Madras, the present day Chennai, ruthlessly started bashing a mob that was protesting and shouting slogans for the freedom of the land.
The lanky boy rushed expressionlessly, albeit dutifully towards the group. Suddenly, the group, rather than shouting slogans against police tyranny, started complaining that the boy was indeed beating them.
Such was the commitment of Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, or NTR, towards the art of cinema that catapulted him to the most unassailable summits of honour and glory, probably impossible to reach to or emulate for any actor of the Indian cinema, on the same scale.
Let us now go back to the bashing episode involving the British Raj cop. It was on the sets of 'Mana Desam', and was the debut for NTR, where his involvement in the scene became a folklore.
Notwithstanding this, 'Mana Desam' was the beginning of a golden chapter in the history of Indian cinema that was just finding its feet, technically evolving, diversifying in terms of plots, and of course, getting ready to welcome future doyens and thespians.
One of them was undoubtedly Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, a young government employee who was then working as a sub-registrar in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur district.
Married and decently placed in a government job, then, it was indeed NTR's tryst with destiny, and his passion for cinema that eventually compelled him to resign from his job and land in Madras. A baritone that still reverberates in the millions of Telugu hearts across the globe, and handsomeness personified, it should have otherwise been easier for him to instantly become a star.
But the time was not yet ripe. After a brief period of struggle, his first break was to come in the form of 'Palleturi Pilla'. But luck decided otherwise and 'Mana Desam' became his maiden release.
This was also the period when the other matinee idol of the Telugu film industry, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao was ruling the hearts of the audience. ANR as he was popularly referred to, was by then a senior actor who was enthralling young and old audiences alike, especially women.
From playing a lover boy, to a charming warrior, ANR created a distinct space for himself. This was when NTR stepped in to carve his story of glory. The duo shines as the brightest stars in the Telugu film galaxy.
Following 'Mana Desam', 'Palleturi Pilla' released in 1950 and NTR's magical presence was to sway the silver screen for the next four decades. His subsequent performance as a lighthearted young man in LV Prasad's 'Shavukaru' instantly connected with the audience as well as the industry captains.
But the historic moment in his career that ensured for him the coveted star was the release of 'Pathala Bhairavi' in 1951.
Inspired by an Arabian Nights sort of folk story, 'Pathala Bhairavi' cast NTR opposite the legendary S.V. Ranga Rao.
The style and ease exhibited by NTR was so powerful on the South Indian celluloid that 'Pathala Bhairavi' was declared a blockbuster in Tamil as well. In the same year, a love story had adorned the Telugu screen with a screenplay that captured a melange of emotions.
Titled 'Malleswari', and directed by B.N. Reddy, the musical firmly established NTR as an artist who could stir the hearts of the audience with his stellar performance as a helpless young man who was separated from his love interest by none other than the emperor. With back-to-back blockbusters attaining cult status, NTR had no looking back.
Half of a decade had then passed, as Rama Rao consolidated his position as a versatile artist and an adorable star. His audiences encompassed people of all walks of society. Yet, his portrayal of the characters that stood for the people's cause and selflessly fought for the society predominantly made him a hero of the masses.
In 1956, serendipity struck NTR and the Telugu screen simultaneously and thus was born celluloid Krishna and silver screen Rama. The year saw the release of 'Maya Bazar', a subplot picked from Mahabharata where NTR played the role of Lord Krishna.
This did not happen smoothly for Rama Rao, for the producers rejected him for the role. However, famed director K.V. Reddy trusted his instinct and signed him for the character. A new chapter unfolded in the history of Indian cinema and Telugu cinema in particular. NTR became synonymous with Krishna first, and later as Rama. with his portrayal of the 'puranapurusha' in a Tamil film.
Later, the 1963 release 'Lava Kusha' brought him eternal fame as Rama. In his career, he played Lord Krishna for a whopping 17 times, and many times as Rama.
The indelible mark cannot be explained in normal words, nor can be fathomed with a simple narrative. For, there used to be aartis and pujas inside the theatres when NTR appeared in those characters. Even today, visualizing both Rama and Krishna as NTR is customary among several Telugus.
By the turn of the 60s, NTR became a colossal star who began to set records and break them too. With enviable blockbusters featuring a broad array of characters, Telugu households witnessed portraits of NTR hanging on the walls of their homes. The sights were not uncommon where a poster carrying NTR's portrayal of either Krishna or Rama had passersby stop and offer him pranam.
The highlight of his fandom lay in the fact that tour operators ran buses to Madras for pilgrims who visited Tirumala and would arrive at his Madras home, just to watch him wave his hand and greet them.
In a career spanning 44 years, NTR played an exhaustive range of characters, be it mythological, social, folk, and historic. In the mythological genre, his unmatched portfolio has a record yet to be broken. He played Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Bheema, Arjuna, Bheeshma, Ravana, Duryodhana, Lord Balaji, Valmiki, and Harishchandra among others.
His commitment and veneration for the characters was such that his routine would be filled with self-set discipline and simplicity. Rama Rao's forte lay in his ability to render complex dialogues in orthodox Telugu, and his lightning transition from one character to another with utmost conviction.
In the next two decades, NTR attained new heights of adulation and left his peers way behind on the road to popularity. His films assured minimum commercial guarantee for producers, while most of them actually set cash registers ringing. Churning out industry hits while inspiring youngsters to take to cinema as a career was a feat that only NTR could achieve.
A little while before his pathbreaking foray into Andhra Pradesh politics, he gave three back-to-back blockbusters, a testimony of his superbrand status.
On May 28, millions of Telugus, both film lovers and political fans, inside India and overseas celebrate his centenary with pride and joy. While doing so, they enlighten future generations and get an opportunity to introduce them to a legend who had not only reigned hearts, but also inspired many to achieve and excel.
For the Telugus, NTR will continue to be the most venerated film personality who made them proud and gave them a distinct identity, culturally and socially. The Hall of Fame shall always welcome connoisseurs and film lovers alike to relish and relive the magnificent and timeless performances of the thespian.
As the famous saying goes: He came, he saw, he conquered.