From Ninnu Choodalani to Jai Lava Kusa, the rise, fall, and rise of NTR Jr, against all odds
Winston Churchill once said, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." No matter how you judge Churchill for his actions, there’s some truth in his famous quote. We often remember people for what they did throughout their lives and what they stood for, and this paradigm gets even more interesting when you shift the canvas to cinema. And Telugu cinema, in particular, has served as a platform for great artistes and filmmakers who wrote their own history. We talk about actors like NTR, ANR, SV Ranga Rao, Krishna, Shoban Babu, Savitri, Bhanumati, and directors like KV Reddy, BN Reddy, Bapu, K Vishwanath, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Dasari Narayana Rao, Adurthi Subba Rao among many others, and the veneration that people have for them manifests itself in various forms even today. The influence of actors like Chiranjeevi, Pawan Kalyan, Nagarjuna, Mahesh Babu, NTR among others spills onto real life as well, in terms of politics or various social initiatives.
Quite often, there’s a general debate among movie aficionados about who’s the best actor in the current generation. It’s an uncomfortable question and your answer might vary depending on whom you eulogise based on their onscreen and off-screen persona. And how does one even define what ‘best’ means in this context? A lot of people tend to uphold an actor’s ability to deliver long monologues as a parameter to judge an actor’s calibre; for some, it’s the grace in their dance moves; for others, it’s a combination of one’s versatility and taking chances to play unconventional roles. Perhaps, the choices will narrow down to a list of, probably, five actors in contemporary Telugu cinema, if one were to take all these aforementioned factors into consideration. Today, we’re going to talk about NTR Jr, whose moniker ’Young Tiger’ has stuck to him for almost a decade now.
In his upcoming film Jai Lava Kusa, there’s a dialogue where NTR says, “Nenu Maha Natunni ani audience lo positive reaction undhi (There’s a positive reaction among the audience that I’m a great actor)”. This might be a situational dialogue from the film, but it’s no mere coincidence that the made its way into the script. In the past 16 years, ever since he turned hero with Ninnu Choodalani to his recent film Janatha Garage, everything NTR Jr has done on screen has been a step forward to justify this dialogue in Jai Lava Kusa. After all, being the grandson of Telugu cinema icon NT Rama Rao, he has big shoes to fill. The burden of having to live up to the expectations of his immense fan base has weighed him down for many many years, but every time he tapped into the true actor in him, he has sprung a surprise and how!
He was just 17 years old when he playing lead roles. Prior to that, as a child artiste, he had already played Lord Rama in Gunasekhar’s Bala Ramayanam, and made a cameo in Brahmashri Vishwamitra which was directed by his grandfather NT Rama Rao. The year 2001 was a major turning point in his acting career with SS Rajamouli’s Student No 1 turning out to be a big hit. The film launched both their careers in a big way and the duo went on to collaborate for two more films — Simhadri (2003) and Yamadonga (2007). NTR Jr became a star with VV Vinayak’s Aadhi (2002) and the blockbuster success of Simhadri cemented his place in the industry forever. Incidentally, the actor is very close to both these directors, whom he counts as his well-wishers till date.
For someone who tasted so much success at a nascent stage of his career, there’s always been a question of consistency in the first decade of NTR Jr’s career. Post-Simhadri, the actor didn’t have a single hit for nearly four years. The much hyped Andhrawala, which brought him and Puri Jagannadh for the first time, turned out to be a dud, and the films that followed after that didn’t quite do justice to his calibre or mass image. There were some successful films in the later part of his career, like Adhurs, Brindavanam and Baadshah; however, it wasn’t until Temper (2015) that he seemed to have found his mojo once again.
Beyond his films, the actor has been through a turbulent phase with politics, family equations taking his focus away from cinema. In 2009 general elections, he actively campaigned on behalf of Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and towards the end of the campaign, he was involved in a car crash which could have turned fatal. NTR was hospitalised for several days, but even then, he continued to campaign from the hospital. Incidentally, TDP lost the elections and Congress was voted to power. After the election debacle, the actor turned his focus to movies, while questions continued to be raised about his active involvement in politics.
The nexus between politics and cinema runs deep in Andhra Pradesh, and more so when the person in focus has links to an influential family. For the lack of a better word, NTR has been somewhat of a tragic figure, who has been the subject of a malicious campaign against his films. At one point of time, rumours suggest that a message was circulated among TDP cadre in towns and villages to not support NTR’s films. While this is no longer the case, tensions do flare up from time to time when it comes to his political inclinations. Following the tragic death of his elder brother Nandamuri Janakiram in late 2014, NTR Jr stood as a major pillar of support to his family and today, he’s inseparable from his brother Nandamuri Kalyanram and his extended family.
There’s hardly been a middle ground in NTR’s life. Both his successes and failures have been extreme over the years, and being the emotional man that he is, the actor made it evident on numerous occasions that he would do everything he can to make his fans proud of him and his work. The change, so to speak, finally happened in 2015 with the film Temper, which was directed by Puri Jagannadh. Playing the role of an extremely selfish cop (named Daya), NTR Jr, once again, showed what he’s capable of doing and the role, along with his physical makeover, marked the beginning of a new phase in his career. In 2016, he proved, yet again, that he meant every word of what he promised to his fans and his performances in Nannaku Prematho and Janatha Garage were highly appreciated.
Last year, during an interview, when he was asked what had changed in his life that led to a resurgence in his career, NTR Jr said, “I am tired of being called a star. I just want to be an actor. It's about standing in front of the mirror and accepting your scars.” He was referring to accepting that he has made plenty of mistakes in his career and trying to resurface from the dull phase. At another event, addressing his fans, the actor remarked, “After Aadi and Simhadri turned out to be blockbusters, I thought the rest of my career is going to be just like that. Like a bed of roses. But God had his own plans to teach me life lessons. I didn’t know how to explain my situation to you, although, I knew how disappointed you were. It was around that time that Vakkantham Vamsi narrated the story of Temper to me, which felt like a ray of hope in my life.”
His recent outing as a TV host for the first season of Bigg Boss Telugu has been a tremendous success, and it would be fair enough to say that his fan base has strengthened and grown even more now. Thanks to all these factors, there’s been a positive wave in his life, and by his own admission, he has changed a lot after he got married and became a father. The NTR Jr people know today is a far cry from who he was a decade ago, and the only thing that can stop him now is his own complacency. However, looking at the way the actor seems to have portrayed the role of Jai, a baddie with a stammering issue, one can only look at the positive side of the equation and be convinced that he’s constantly pushing himself to be a better actor. The scars are finally healing. A decade from now it’s anybody’s guess how NTR Jr’s life is going to turn out, but he’s surely making each year count and writing the pages of his own history.