Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao was a journalist’s delight. Anything he did or said became a story and the actor that he was, knew the craft of posing for photographs, with just the right tilt of the head, hint of a smile and body language. I remember during one of the first television interviews with NTR, he asked my cameraperson sternly to adjust the lights to ensure that the light left no shadows on his face and shoulder. Even after he had turned politician, the actor in him knew once it was time for `lights, camera, action’, he had to perform. The minute the lights came on and the camera was rolling, he would be a transformed man. A pity he passed away before the age of 24×7 news television.
Ironically, a popular journalistic term in Hyderabad in the mid-nineties also was inspired by NTR. Pun-loving print journalists when they did not find anything newsworthy to report on a non-NTR story, would say `NTR’, which expanded to `Nothing To Report’.
Seventeen years after NTR passed away, his family seems determined to ensure there is nothing to report on NTR’s memorabilia. Why else would the house the thespian lived in during his last years and breathed his last in Banjara Hills in Hyderabad be demolished? The house, the property of Uma Maheshwari, one of his daughters, was reportedly given to a developer who ordered it to be brought down.
During his first term as CM in the eighties, NTR lived at a house in Abids in Hyderabad, which was given to one of his sons and subsequently sold. In the 90s, he lived in this house on Road no.13, Banjara Hills, which when NTR stormed back to power in 1994, was designated as the official residence of the chief minister. That has now been reduced to rubble.
In any other country, an actor of NTR’s stature would have been celebrated with a museum to house all his memorabilia. NTR, who made his screen debut in 1949, acted in 320 films and his portrayal of mythological characters like Rama and Krishna was so popular that often the face of the Gods even in religious art work ended up with an uncanny resemblance to NTR. His wife Lakshmi Parvati tried to build a museum to house all his film costumes, jewellery, wigs etc but the venture is embroiled in litigation. NTR today is reduced to a figurehead, in whose name the Telugu Desam – the party he founded in 1982 and was virtually thrown out of in 1995 – seeks votes.
To make matters worse, his sons, daughters and sons-in-law are embroiled in an ugly quarrel over who should install his statue at Parliament. The demand to install one has been pending for long and despite son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu’s considerable clout in Delhi during the NDA regime, he did not show any urgency to get it done. Later, when NTR’s daughter Purandareswari, who is a minister in the UPA, claimed she had secured the Lok Sabha Speaker’s permission to install a statue, all hell broke loose in the TDP, with the party accusing her of playing politics over her father’s statue.
NTR did not come across as a typical wily, cold and calculating politician. In fact, he seemed quite the opposite – whimsical, temperamental and charming. He carried his film persona into his real life and knew exactly how to charm people, whether at a tea stall on the road or employees at the Secretariat. Old-timers still recall nostalgically about what struck them as the more humane side of his personality whereas the political calculation was not overtly obvious in the welfare schemes he pursued – be it the Rs 2/kg rice scheme or announcing prohibition in the state after women groups agitated for it.
The August 1995 coup by his sons-in-law Chandrababu Naidu and Daggubati Venkateswara Rao (Purandareswari’s husband who subsequently repented and made amends), and son Harikrishna, broke him and he never quite recovered from that shock. Either he did not receive good intelligence inputs or he simply did not want to believe them, but till the very end, NTR never quite thought his own kith and kin was doing this to him. Just eight months back, in December 1994, the MLAs had been elected after campaigning using his name. And now they had decided to dump him and switch loyalties to Naidu. NTR lived for just six months after he was stabbed in the back.
NTR was the first non-Congress politician from Andhra Pradesh to make a mark on the national stage, as one of the brains behind the National Front that saw VP Singh becoming prime minister in 1989. If he was alive as the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, one can be reasonably certain that he, and not Deve Gowda, would have become Prime Minister of the United Front government in 1996. If not anything else, India would have seen a more entertaining personality as PM.