‘Kottina pindi’ is a popular Telugu phrase usually referred to a skillset that comes to a person quite naturally and effortlessly. It’s a phrase that fits perfectly for the Nandamuri clan when we discuss their proficiency in the mythological and historical genre of films. From the legendary NTR himself to Nandamuri Balakrishna to his late brother Harikrishna and Jr NTR in the third generation, their physique, body language, dialogue delivery and persona lend perfectly to such stories and it’s a reason why they are second to none in this space.
The unseen stills of Balakrishna in the look of Bhishma for NTR Kathanayakudu released earlier today commemorating Bhishma Ekadasi, only affirm that belief. Balakrishna’s elderly avataras on-screen, be it Legend, Chennakesava Reddy or Adhinayakudu, have always won appreciation and it’s no surprise that he aces the Bhishma look quite well too.
“My father NTR (garu), played the role of Bhishma, which was more than his age at that time and impressed audience with his impeccable performance. I like that film and the character very much. That’s why we shot some scenes in NTR Kathanayakudu but they had to be cut due to length issues,” he said in a media release.
After all, what makes NTR’s 1962 release Bhishma special? It came at a time when NTR was in the form of his life, even his so-called flops fared better than the collections of hit films of other heroes and there was nothing that could stop him. He’d played the roles of Lord Rama and Krishna in many films by then and even earned plaudits for his portrayal of Ravana in Bhookailas and Seetharama Kalyanam. The popularity of mythologicals was soaring and director-producer B A Subba Rao, who gave NTR his first commercial success in 1950 with Palleturi Pilla, approached him to play the lead role in Bhishma. This would require him to appear as an elderly figure for a major part of the movie, but NTR was always the risk-taker and saw no issues with it.
Upon NTR’s approval, B A Subba Rao had carefully supervised the bearded look for NTR in the film and approached writer-producer Chakrapani to give his views on it. “NTR is an actor who can use the subtlest of gestures and expressions to enhance a situation. What’s the use of casting NTR if you fill his face with beard completely? It wouldn’t matter even if you cast a junior artiste in that role that way,” the writer remarked in his trademark sarcastic tone. B A Subba Rao, however, took it in the right spirit and did the required changes and the film went ahead. Haranath, Anjali Devi, Sobhan Babu and Dhoolipala were cast in key roles.
Bhishma is a role that captures NTR’s acting range to perfection – from being a dutiful son to have taken a vow of celibacy (to ensure his father Shantanu’s marriage) to being cursed by a woman Amba (whose marital life is shattered owing to his actions) and watching his descendants helplessly warring in his later years, the character’s death on a bed of arrows is metaphorical too. Bhishma sees life in its complete depth and it needed a performance from NTR that could capture his worldly wisdom and vulnerability at various phases of life.
The kind of maturity NTR displayed in the portrayal when he was barely 38 is truly why he is considered peerless in mythological films. He not only presents the physical transformation of the character in three stages of life – as a proud young man, a responsible family man, a grieving elderly man – but also alters his diction appropriately for the age and the situation of the character. It’s as complete a performance you could expect from NTR. It went much beyond his aggressive, comic histrionics in his previous films and depicted a composed, subtle side to him that not many filmmakers had explored.