The influence of mythology has inarguably been instrumental in building stardom, especially in post-Independent India, when it comes to cinema and politics. MGR in Tamil, NTR in Telugu, Rajkumar in Kannada or Prem Nazeer in Malayalam - all of them were the demi-gods of their times, stars whom people worshipped, giving equal stature to them as their deities.
With the widely anticipated biopic on NT Rama Rao releasing on January 9, NTR’s celluloid appearances merit a revisit, something that shaped his career not only as an actor but also helped him in his later plunge into politics. NTR, who was the typecast mythological deity of his time, used to receive pilgrims at his home who were en route to Tirupati, after he played the role of the Tirupati deity in the 1960 movie Shri Venkateshwara Mahatmyam. Such was his "aura" that many film experts say it was a calculated move in portraying himself as a political alternative in the south through the stronghold of religion.
Nationalism and mythology
One consistent feature that the celluloid demi-gods have exhibited is to turn their wide fan-base to their political advantage. From MGR to NTR, all of them had been successful politicians; not just successful but also leaders who formed their own political parties and shaped the political discourse of their respective states. According to film historians, the depiction of mythology in movies was so effective that it made the viewers forget the difference between the original and the constructed.
Speaking to TNM, Raghurama Raju, a film studies professor at IIT Tirupati, says that it was the interesting cocktail of nationalism and mythology that convinced viewers to accept stars like NTR as demi-gods in the 60s and 70s. The Indian nationalism movement had a political agenda closely associated with Indian films.
“When the Lumiere brothers introduced the montage, they decided to film realism and magic. But when Dadasaheb Phalke began Indian cinema, he made a conscious decision to set aside realism and magic, where realism was poverty and colonialisation. He replaced it with mythology, but made sure it reverberated with the essence of colonialism. It set an agenda for the identity of a nation. So, the Telugu cinema followed this larger schematics where NTR made very big headway in portraying mythological characters. So even before a film was made, there was a political motive behind it. If NTR made mythological movies bereft of politics, it would have remained as mere spiritual ones,” says Raghurama.
Preminda Jacob, professor of art history and museum studies, in her book Celluloid deities: The visual culture of cinema and politics in South India corroborates the fact that NTR’s depiction of mythological characters was a deliberate move that encouraged his fans to view him as a living deity.
“MGR’s fantastic success in perpetuating confusion between the actual and the constructed spawned several imitators - most strikingly in the strategies of NTR. NTR gained celebrity status by being typecast as a deity in mythological movies and by deliberately encouraging his viewers to view him as a living deity….When the politically inexperienced NTR campaigned for political office in 1982, his newly formed Telugu Desam party dislodged the veteran Congress party…As Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, NTR continued to cultivate the mythical aura he had acquired from his film roles,” Preminda writes in her book.
He would also dress like a deity and appear on his terrace at home, waving at the thronging crowds below who had come for "darshan".
How mythical characters became a political alternative
Such was the aura of NTR among his fans that he was cast as Lord Krishna in seventeen films, the first being the super hit film Maya Bazar in 1957. He even used to appear for public meetings during his stint as the CM in costumes of mythological characters. But how exactly did this depiction of gods help NTR in swaying the political discourse to his favour?
“The god that NTR depicted in each movie reverberated with the rejuvenation of India. In his portrayal as Krishna or Ram, the God as a just ruler became an alternative to the British or even the then state government. Interestingly, he even went against the grain of mythology, and portrayed Karna in Daana Veera Soora Karna as a hero, unlike the villain he is in Mahabharata. And all this happened at a time when there was a dire need of political leadership in India. In these mythological characters, people of the time saw potential leaders who could rule their subjects, like the just Gods from their mythological texts. The socio-political scene was such that viewers found it difficult to distinguish between the real actors and the characters they portrayed,” Raghurama opines.
If nationalism had such a profound impact on the viewers’ mind, why was it done under the garb of political movies? Why wasn’t nationalism depicted as it is?
“If makers went ahead with nationalism in its truest form, it would have been difficult to capture the imagination of people’s mind. So the makers simply used the mythological structure that was already available, something which people had placed their trust on for a long time,” adds Raghurama.
NTR - The leader of the masses
The last time we saw the Kauravas painted as heroes would be in Anand Neelakantan’s Ajaya, a spin on the mythological tale of Mahabharata. Neelakantan’s work interestingly portrayed the Kauravas as victims of fate and evoked sympathies for the characters who had till then been on the other side of history.
According to Vamsi Vemireddy, a professor of English at the Humanities and Social Sciences department, IIT Tirupati, NTR’s mythological movies were one of the first ones that redefined the characters from the holy books and addressed the issues of caste and class in the society. In Daana Veera Soora Karna, Vamsi says, the issue of caste was ingrained.
“In Daana Veera Soora Karna, NTR played three roles - Krishna, Karna and Duryodhana. The movie brought Ekalvya and Karna together and depicted them as the victims of fate, fighting against the Pandavas, who were shown as the villains in the movie. Though his mythological characters captured the attention of people irrespective of class, caste or creed, the movies he acted in the later part of his career made him a leader of the masses,” Vamsi adds.
According to Vamsi, even though mythological movies undoubtedly made NTR the star of his times, the socially relevant movies he acted in mobilised immense support from the backward sections of the society. Srimadvirat Veerabrahmendra Swami Charitra, where NTR played the role of a fortune-teller, was a movie that fought against Brahmanism and casteism. NTR himself played the character of a man belonging to the lower caste while Balakrishna played the role of a Muslim man in the film.
“In Gandikota Rahasyam, NTR deliberately included a discourse on democracy and talked about corruption and how women and minorities should be treated in the society. In Yamagola, he talked about the Emergency under Indira Gandhi in India. He addressed issues that the Congress, who was then ruling the state, had chosen to ignore. So when NTR finally formed his political party, it was people from the lower castes who first radically mooted for his party,” Vamsi explains.
Even though film experts perceive NTR’s mythological movies as deliberate attempts at garnering public goodwill, they all agree on a common fact: NTR’s indisputable charm that made him the hero of innumerable stories.
Like Prof. Raghurama Raju put it, “Akinenni Nageshwara Rao was an actor equally popular as NTR but never was considered a demi-god. ANR himself had once confessed how his physical stature and slightly feminine voice didn’t allow him to play stellar roles and how he turned these features to his advantage by acting in movies that were home-grown. He had said his creativity lay in hiding his limitations and turning them into virtues in front of NT Rama Rao. Such was the charisma of our demi-god.”