Cast: Balakrishna, Vidya Balan, Rana Daggubati, Sachin Khedekar
Director: Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi (Krish)
If the first part of the NTR biopic, aptly titled NTR Kathanayakudu, made an earnest attempt to trace the acting career of NT Rama Rao and the circumstances which led to his political entry, the second part, NTR Mahanayakudu, goes a step further.
Here, the focus is solely on how NTR overcame several odds to become the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in the mid-80s. If you’ve followed the life of NTR, you pretty much know the whole story and the political landscape which led NTR to fightback against the political machinations of his contemporary, Nadendla Bhaskara Rao.
There’s a great deal of information about the origins and initial years of Telugu Desam party, and how Chandrababu Naidu held the party together during a volatile period. It’s got all that you expect from the film, but it still feels sketchy because of the break neck speed with which it unfolds.
The entire story is staged as if it’s unfolding from Basavatarakam’s perspective. In the beginning of NTR Kathanayakudu, we are told that she doesn’t have much time to live after she’s diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. The second part of the biopic too begins with her recounting the political career of her husband, NTR. However, we see very little of Basavatarakam and her point of view for most part of the film. What could have been a deeply personal film about a doting wife’s memories of her husband turns into a showreel of newspaper headlines. It’s almost as if the Wikipedia trivia section on NTR’s political life has been brought to life.
The story is fast-paced, and the runtime is less; however, both these factors don’t give enough scope for any of the characters to bring in their emotion or sustain it beyond 60-80 seconds. Even the most dramatic sequences seem so matter-of-fact that you barely get time to soak into the political upheavals of the early ‘80s.
The silver lining, however, is the presence of Basavaratakam (Vidya Balan). The film finds its soul every time NTR and Basavatarakam spend time together. It might be short lived, but it’s also, perhaps, the only few times in the film that you empathise with both of them.
For instance, there’s a beautiful scene, set in a hospital in New York, where NTR tells his wife that he’s going to spend the entire day with her, and requests her to sing his favourite song. Her eyes lit up with joy, and she wants to capture that moment till her last breath because she rarely gets to spend time with him. Then, there’s another sequence, where Basavatarakam refuses to go to a hospital unless her husband promises to achieve his goal. There’s a lot of tenderness every time NTR talks about his wife and her innocence. The film makes you yearn for a lot more of these moments. It’s probably the only time in the story where both of them look extremely vulnerable.
NTR Mahanayakudu is pretty much on cruise control mode right from the word go, and the pace doesn’t drop at all. The film throws light on how NTR locked horns with Indira Gandhi over the issue of empowering individual states. As dramatic as it might seem, the confrontation is treated like a montage scene with very little implications. For that moment, a lot of sequences in the film unfold like a series of montages which don’t let you soak in and process the subtext of the original events. Everyone talks and stares, but it also feels quite distant when you witness the story in 2019 - it’s like reading a series of headlines and boxes of information, without getting into subtle details.
The weight of his wife’s failing health crumbles him, but he draws strength from her resolve to see him win. You can feel it in those subtle reactions of shock and anguish, when he doesn’t speak a word. There are also quite a few moments where he begins to question the distortion of politics and how everyone has their own agenda, instead of serving the people.
Then, there’s Sachin Khedekar who hits it out of the park as a scheming politician. He might be the villain in this story, but Khedekar is one of the very few people who holds the film together. Rana Daggubati is equally impressive in his role as Chandrababu Naidu and he anchors the story especially in the latter portion. Vidya Balan is a sight to behold and brings a lot of gravitas to her role; however, you can’t help but think that she deserved more.
The film, directed by Krish, might come across as political propaganda since it turns the story of NTR and his legacy into a clarion call to trust the noble intentions of Telugu Desam Party (TDP). The political symbolism is everywhere in the film; however, that’s the least of all the problems which the film grapples with. It focuses so much on the power corridors that it forgets the strength of NTR and his rise to power were fuelled by the people and a vacuum of strong leadership. We got plenty of this in NTR Kathanayakudu which delved into what led to NTR’s entry into politics, but in NTR Mahanayakudu, the same people are relegated to being a filler on screen. You see them everywhere, in political rallies, villages, towns, and cities, yet you don’t feel their pulse.
Maybe that’s also why NTR Mahanayakudu feels so empty from the inside. There’s so much drama, but it doesn’t make you feel its pulse. The drama alone can't be a substitute for emotion, and that's where NTR Mahanayakudu faulters.