NTR Kathanayakudu is a mixed bag, depending on which kaleidoscope you choose to watch the movie through. As a documentation of a great man's life, someone adored and revered, the movie ticks a lot of boxes. As a pure cinematic experience, the movie doesn't quite wrench your heart and neither does it have the goosebumps-evoking drama that anyone who has read or heard about NTR's life would come to expect. It feels like director Krish was equally conflicted - to show the man who would become god, or to show the god who was at one point, just a common man?
The movie begins with NTR (Balakrishna) resigning from the Sub-Registrar office, tired of the corruption. His wife Basavatarakam (Vidya Balan) is adoringly encouraging when he wants to leave for Madras, to take up an invitation he had received from LV Prasad (Jisshu Sengupta is a scene-stealer), who mentors him to an extent. His first offer is from Subbarao. But neither HM Reddy nor Subbarao manage to keep their original word, due to bad finances, leading him to leave Madras in a fit, only for his good-samaritan attitude to stop him from boarding the train in a stroke of luck. Nevertheless, what stands out is his discipline and sense of self-esteem, qualities that make him the celestial figure he became eventually.
He gets a brilliant offer from Nagi Reddy and lands a role as Thota Ramudu in Pataala Bhairavi, largely because of KV Reddy's obdurate belief in him. And the first real superstar in Telugu cinema is born or in GV Reddy's words, "the real first superstar on an Indian screen is born".
NTR Kathanayakudu, the movie, blends two interesting dimensions of his charismatic persona - his love for cinema exceeded only by his love for the people, without discrimination. The movie highlights his role in collecting funds for the Rayalaseema famine. His passion and self-respect see him script a victorious path as an employee of Vijaya Vahini Studios. Much to Chakrapani and Nagi Reddy's chagrin, NTR bags the role of Krishna, probably the high point of the movie, introducing audiences to the times when NTR was viewed as an avatar himself.
The movie also exults in Rama Rao's role in bringing alive the story of Ravana in Bhookailash (he had to stand unmoving for 20 hours so the ten heads could appear one by one on screen, a first of sorts for Indian cinema). NTR's professionalism shines through when he finishes a shooting (an unflinching attitude of taking everyone along and putting others first) despite the news of the loss of his son.
The second half sows seeds for highlighting NTR, the national leader. It also picks up pace and builds several layers into the story. There is NTR, putting his fans and movies ahead of his life, during the Emergency, carrying his own movie prints to the distributors during curfew. There is the great NTR-ANR bromance, Sumanth doing really well to bring the camaraderie alive, especially the initiative of NTR ANR fund for cyclone relief, and the stern pride-driven decision to make Hyderabad the new home to Telugu cinema.
There is NTR, the visionary who creates Dana Veera Soora Karna, playing three roles, while producing and directing the movie (as an answer to the challenge posed by younger stars like Krishna). There is a constant side-track, the bond between NTR and his younger brother, and producer for a lot of his movies, Trivikrama Rao. It also introduces the domestic dissatisfaction in NTR's family for Yamagola, for acting with a much younger woman actor. There is Harikrishna (Kalyan Ram) who pretty much follows NTR like a shadow.
There are two ways of looking at the movie. One can't help but get nostalgic as the narrative gives a hat-tip, one by one, to the greats of Telugu cinema. From the long collars, aviators and bell-bottoms to hit movie references, the film gives NTR fans a walk down the memory lane.
Balakrishna's uncanny resemblance in several shots, especially as the older NTR contemplating his entry into politics, not to mention in several roles like in Bobbili Puli and Vetagadu, makes the second half exhilarating. However, though he fits the bill perfectly in the latter half of the movie where NTR has matured as a statesman and has become a leader of the masses, for a fan, it is hard to really enjoy the early NTR film-career as enacted by Balakrishna. This, despite the obvious effort that has gone into it.
It would have helped if the soundtrack had given us a little more than a layer of cottoned elevation hidden behind - like everything else - the intention to show how a mortal became a demigod. Comparisons to another biopic, Mahanati are obvious, given the music that the earlier movie had delivered, tracks which stayed with us for a long time.
The other aspect of the movie is the way it develops the perception of the actual NTR people remember, a leader cherished by the masses, a leader who was made God by the masses and who was willing to turn into a mere mortal again to enter into the dirty world of politics. Chandrababu Naidu (Rana) and YSR also get mentions. The movie ends at the inception of the Telugu Desam Party.
Krish does a great job in picking the right moments in the life of a demigod. A soft touch with Savitri's scene, a humane touch with an old lady, a feminist touch with the way he encouraged women, a thought for the foundation of various schemes he later envisaged - the makers have ensured that NTR is shown in an otherworldly aura. Vidya Balan is understated but brilliant, and so are actors who play important roles in his life, e.g. his brother's.
While the movie does a fair job, and emotional moments are aplenty, one wonders if this is the best way in which the great NTR could be portrayed. The documentation was perfect but one can be sure there was a lot more about the man than the legendary tales we have already heard about him. It is also very noticeable that the movie is an altruistic vision - barring the Emergency and the comments about all south Indians being Madrasis (not to mention the strong anti-Congress stand), the movie rarely treads away from being politically correct.
Where NTR Kathanayakudu scores is in upholding what many lovers of nostalgia would expect from the movie - reel conversations, idiosyncrasies of greats like Chakrapani and GV Reddy, old sets, a lot of trivia. Unlike in Mahanati, NTR doesn't start with how the actor was created. He was already fully-made!
The director's constraints while making a movie on a figure like NTR with his own son playing the lead, and with even the politics and history of the state at stake, are obvious. These aren't exactly shortcomings but they stop the movie from developing a flair like Mahanati had. One needs to laud the art-direction/make-up/costumes for reproducing the period of NTR's stardom beautifully though.
For true-blue NTR fans, the first part of this biopic is still a treat, and builds up nicely into Mahanayakudu, which would probably move on from the reel to real, a socio-political thriller.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.