NT Rama Rao’s Lord Krishna roles in Telugu cinema gave him a cult status he leveraged to become a chief minister, but the actor-turned-politician had almost lost his debut chance to don the mythological character, according to his widow Lakshmi Parvathi.
But for sustained efforts director KV Reddy made to convince the producers of Mayabazar about Rao’s suitability as Krishna, the 1957 film would have cast somebody else as the Yadava king who was its central character, she told Hindustan Times.
NTR, as the actor-writer-director-producer later gained name, served as the chief minister of (undivided) Andhra Pradesh for three times during 12 years from 1984, after founding the Telugu Desam Party. A native of tiny Nammakuru village in coastal Krishna district, he died of a heart attack at his Hyderabad residence in early 1996, aged 72.
Parvathi, who married NTR in the evening of his life, is a biographer of the celluloid icon. In a recent conversation with HT, the 61-year-old writer-politician recalled that B Nagi Reddy and A Chakrapani, who co-produced Mayabazar, had initially rejected the filmmaker’s proposal to cast NTR as Krishna.
NTR was those days a largely struggling actor, having shown face in two dozen movies in a career that began in 1949 with a walk-on role as a policeman in Mana Desam.
“KV Reddy took special interest in NTR’s case, and persuaded the producers into eventually believing that he is a better choice than anyone around,” she said. “The director also gave NTR acting tips on how to present the protagonist. NTR followed them to the core.”
The epic fantasy film, under the banner of Vijaya Vauhini Film, turned out to be a landmark work in south Indian cinema, earning both critical acclaim and commercial success. “It was a roaring success. NTR became an instant god for the audiences,” pointed out Parvati, about Mayabazar that had a theatrical run of 100-plus days in 24 theatres.
Parvathi said NTR had to work hard to excel in Mayabazar. “He had broad chests, which the director said needed slight narrowing to give the perfect Krishna look,” she said. “Also, NTR extensively read the Mahabharata, Bhagavata and other Puranas to understand his character and present them in the best way possible.”
NTR went on to essay Krishna in 17 films. “As the lord, NTR displayed all his characteristics. Naughty for the gopikas, a statesman while playing the mediator between Kauravas and Pandavas, and a philosopher while preaching the Gita to (friend and brother-in-law) Arjuna,” she said.
“During the last two years of his life when I was his wife, NTR used to share with me his experiences of playing Krishna-his favourite role in cinema,” Parvathi said. “I was keen to see him in the make-up of Lord Krishna in real life. That did not happen, because he was too old.”
The Krishna-stemmed fascination for NTR exists not just with his widow.
Watch NTR’s Mayabazar here:
Veteran journalist Bandaru Srinivasa Rao recalls his association with NTR, and says Telugus of his generation had seen several actors playing the role of Krishna in the movies of their language, but could relate none of them with the character as intensely as they did with NTR.
“He perfectly suited that role. He was an embodiment of the Krishna tatva,” said the former All India Radio artiste. “It remains so even two decades after his death for the people.”
Echoing the point, a septuagenarian NTR fan from Vijayawada says he had grown up watching the films of the actor. “In my childhood, we had pictures of NTR as Lord Krishna in our puja room and calendars in the front room,” says P Venkata Ramana Sarma, 75. “To me, Lord Krishna resembles NTR; it’s not vice versa.”
Popular character actor and script-writer Tanikella Bharani said disciplined life gave NTR’s face a “divine glow” that heightened the effect of his Krishna roles in films. “NTR used to get up early in the morning, perform yoga, read ancient scriptures, took vegetarian diet. He used to be very pious,” Bharani told HT.
NTR came “closest” to the image of Lord Krishna paintings one saw in calendars, he added.