Ram Gopal Varma on Lakshmi’s NTR: 'NT Rama Rao’s life story is like the Mahabharata'
If there’s one thing you should know about Ram Gopal Varma, then it is that the filmmaker’s mind is always on overdrive. He’s the cinematic equivalent of Sabu — the character from the popular Chacha Chaudhary comics — who is often described with this side note: "Sabu ko jab gussa aata hai to kahin jwalamukhi phatata hai (when Sabu is angry, a volcano erupts at some distant place)". RGV doesn’t have to get angry. All he needs is a brainwave. And not surprisingly, his latest brainwave, a film on Telugu cinema icon and former chief minister NT Rama Rao, has come as a bolt from the blue, especially considering the final few years of his life were dramatic, to say the least.
The film, titled Lakshmi’s NTR, will focus on the icon’s life after Lakshmi Parvathi entered into his life. No wonder, RGV has already ruffled feathers in political circles and several voices from the ruling Telugu Desam Party have alleged that RGV might malign NT Rama Rao’s image with his take on NTR’s life. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the film is going to be produced by Rakesh Reddy, a leader from YSRCP in the Chitoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Meanwhile, another Telugu filmmaker — Teja — is going to direct a different biopic on NTR’s life, which is being backed by Nandamuri Balakrishna, son of NT Rama Rao. The two films have, in turn, kickstarted a proxy war between the two political parties (TDP and YSRCP), and RGV is once again in the eye of the storm, although he claims that it’s pure coincidence that Rakesh Reddy is a YSRCP leader. “I have never been associated with any political party or ideology, and so I will be partial only to the truth of the matter,” RGV says.
It all started in July 2017, when RGV announced that he’s going to make a film on NTR. Back then, RGV said, “NTR is a name to reckon with for every Telugu-speaking individual. He was not just a great actor but a leader with unprecedented following. I'm very proud to direct a film on his life. My personal relationship with him goes back to the year when his blockbuster film Adavi Ramudu had released. I didn't have money to take the bus to the movie hall. I walked 10 km each time and watched the film 23 times. I was also one among the lakhs of people who had gathered during his first political meeting, soon after he launched the Telugu Desam Party. From being a faceless guy in that large gathering, to getting to direct his life story means something."
While the initial rumours suggested that Balakrishna himself is going to play a key role in this film, it wasn’t meant to be so. Although RGV hasn’t zeroed upon the cast for his version on NTR yet, we couldn’t help but ask him about the timing of the announcement. Considering that he has made films inspired from the lives of Paritala Ravi (Rakta Charitra 1), Maddelacheruvu Suri (Rakta Charitra 2), Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga (Vangaveeti), Bal Thackery (who inspired Sarkar), Veerappan (Killing Veerappan) among many others, what was it about NTR’s life that piqued his interest after all these years and why did he wait so long? Explaining his stance, RGV says, “I was always enamoured with NTR as long as I can remember... mainly as a superstar, but not so much as a politician. Back then, I was never into politics so much and so, beyond appreciating some speeches here and there, I didn’t really follow his political career. In the most tumultuous times of his career, I used to live in Mumbai and in the absence of social media at that time, my information about the goings-on back then was at best, very sketchy. The reason I took so long is that thoughts keep forming and going away, and the information keeps changing depending on the agendas of your sources. It’s only after many years that people now feel comfortable in telling the truth.”
Over the past couple of decades, a lot has been said and written about the last few years NTR's life after Lakshmi Parvathi entered his life, and it’s only in recent times that people seem to have finally moved on, although the debate reaches a crescendo every time someone brings up the topic — “Who betrayed and back-stabbed NTR?”. And it’s precisely this reason — that a legend like NTR had to go through a turbulent phase both personally and professionally — which inspired RGV to finally make the film. “NTR’s life story is like Mahabharata and that kind of epic will have lots of chapters in it. We know of him when he was a superstar and how he rose up to be a great leader. It’s only after she (Lakshmi Parvathi) entered his life, that there are only perspectives and conspiracy theories. So, I thought choosing that part of his life to film will give a most comprehensive understanding of the man in every which way,” RGV says. Interestingly, for someone who was treated (and continues to be treated) like a God for almost four decades after his entry into films, NTR too was vulnerable. And RGV believes that his film will humanise the man behind the superstardom. “It’s the vulnerabilities in a man which would make one understand the person’s true strengths.”
Even though the principal shoot of the film won’t commence until early next year, the filmmaker has a lot to explain about how authentic his film is going to be. Every time he has made a film which was based on a person, living or dead, RGV has often spoken about finding the truth from multiple sources. But even he knows that he’ll have to face criticism, in some form or another, about the authenticity of the material. “It’s right to say that there’s no such thing as an absolute truth but there’s something called the most believable truth — a term that is used even in the courts. Absolute truth can never be believed, even when it told through the eyes of an eyewitness as that will also depend upon the motivation and the agenda of the eyewitness. But when you dwell deep in research into the various viewpoints and perspectives of the happenings, you can surely connect the dots to the point of nearest truth. My sources with regard to my research into Lakshmi’s NTR also include some servants and drivers at that time,” RGV reveals.
Ask anyone who has grown up watching South Indian films, then s/he will tell you how certain screen idols, like NTR, have been lionised and elevated to a super-human status. And when the emotions run so high, how can anyone be objective about the less glamorous details about the actor’s life? Moreover, RGV, by his own admission, confessed to being enamoured with NTR’s stardom in the '70s and early '80s. So, after all these years, has he reached a stage where he can be objective about the subject matter and not imagine that star he worshipped at one point of time in his life? The filmmaker is clear that he has his priorities right and he puts it in perspective saying, “The whole point of me making this film after so many years is only because I truly believe that it’s only now that I am able to see both him and the circumstances around him in a very unbiased and an objective manner.”
It goes without saying that Telugu Desam Party, which was founded by NTR himself, and several others in the Telugu film industry will be watching RGV’s film closely. And inadvertently, the film could spur a controversy for its portrayal of NTR’s life in a not so glamorous manner. While toying with controversies isn’t new to RGV, the filmmaker does acknowledge that in this time and age, people’s sentiments might get hurt and there’s nothing he can do about it. So, is it important for a creator to respect people's beliefs and faith while dealing with any subject or is it the least of his concerns? “This is a question of a democratic right of freedom of speech and expression. It’s a fact that every truth is bound to offend someone or the other but only because it might offend is why you need freedom in the first place. Not mentioning a particular person or group, yes, my film is going to affect and offend a lot of people as any truth coming from such a historical situation is bound to,” he explains.
Having said that, RGV also reiterates that he doesn’t have any agenda to alter historical facts and that he’s only concerned about capturing NTR’s spirit through the film. “The film’s shoot will start towards the end of March and release sometime around October. Anything out there on a public platform is bound to be used by various people as per their own necessities and agendas but my intention is only to state the truth and nothing but the truth,” he signs off.