Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (Jr NTR): Celebrated Yet Underrated
Here’s why Jr NTR is one of the most celebrated, yet underrated actors in Tollywood today. Watch!
(This story was first published on 19 May 2018. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Nandamuri Taraka's birthday.)
Nandamuri Taraka is NT Ramarao's grandson.
For those who believe all of South India is Madrasi, NTR is the Rajinikanth of Andhra and Telangana. Rather, he's the MGR of Andhra and Telangana. Rajinikanth is a more current reference, so I used him here.
My point is, NTR was huge, he ruled the industry for forty yeas, then became Chief Minister and ruled the state for almost a decade after.
Taraka, his grandson, is burdened with his on-screen legacy, whether he likes it or not. But the good news is, he's actually got the talent, moves, the body language, and that elusive, million dollar X-factor; Charisma, to pull it off! He's one of the most influential, and biggest stars in Tollywood.
And yet, he’s underrated.
Let’s Start From the Beginning
Student No 1, directed by Baahubali's SS Rajamouli, was an awesome launchpad both for Rajamouli and NTR Jr. Great drama, great fights, unbelievable dance from someone on the plumper side!
But then, he looked so much like his grandfather, that almost all the movies, right up until 2006, were misfits for him. The movies did well, but here was someone barely out of his teens mouthing dialogues that were written to remind people of his grandfather. Over the top melodrama, bouts of weeping that would soak his whole torso, fights that would fill the screen with blood like that scene in the shining.
Don't get me wrong. Most of these movies did well. Rakhi and Simhadri, for example, were blockbusters. Aadi, Naaga and Subbu did well. But then there were the flops; Andhrawala, Samba, Naa Alludu, Narasimhudu, Ashok.
All almost consecutively.
To put this in perspective, this is 2018, and Taraka is just 27 films old as of now. And he's had his fair share of box office bombs. But then something happened in 2007, that made his success or failure at the box office immaterial.
It started, with SS Rajamouli's Yamadonga.
This is the film, where he fully, openly accepts his grandfather NTR's legacy, by playing one of his iconic characters; Lord Yama. He even goes so far as to pick one of NTR's legendary dialogues from the movie Karna, and twists it to serve the narrative of his film.
Two things happened. One, despite the fact that there were others; NTR's sons and grandsons - who claimed to be his true descendants; the audience latched on to Taraka.
Two, Taraka proved beyond a doubt that he was his own man, a separate breed of actor, who might look like his grandfather, but is a brilliant performer in his own right.
He dropped NTR’s mannerisms and style of dialogue delivery, and started to focus on his performance, trying to isolate each character he played. Despite Shakti and Dammu, two of the biggest flops in his career which followed, Taraka grew undeniably svelte on screen.
He went from out of shape, to suddenly lanky, to comfortable in his own skin.
The sucky, shirt untucked, sleeves folded halfway up the forearm, sandals wearing look was scrapped. You may not be able to lift a 250 kilo rowdy up in the air, knead him like aata and slam him to the ground like Taraka does in Rabhasa. But you'll definitely want his coolers, and those cargos. And all the while, he worked on his dance, in which he was impressive even in his debut movie.
With me so far? Now here's what he's actually the unsung expert in; Body Language!
Temper, Janata Garage, and Jai Lava Kusa (in 2015, ’16 and ’17 respectively). I'd call these landmark films in Taraka's career (So would he). In fact, they're a landmark in the history of Telugu cinema as well. Insert Paranthesis;
There have been movies in Telugu and Tamil cinema that have challenged the status quo without deviating from the 'mass-masala' format. Chiranjeevi's stuart Puram, Kamal Haasan's Devar Magan and Rajinikanth's Thalapathy are prime examples. There's the comedy track, loads of songs, fights, melodrama; but there's also a sudden leap in aesthetics, performance and the overall art of telling the story.
It is impossible and IMO, unnecessary to eliminate a comedy track or songs in foreign locales to consider a Telugu film matured. Maturity of the medium lies in the performance, and the story. Enter Temper.
Puri Jagannath is the source of most of Bollywood’s hit films, especially Salman Khan’s, beginning with Wanted, all the way to Akshay Kumar’s Rowdy Rathore. Stories with a social message set in an ultra-violent, hyper nationalist world. Temper was written and directed by Puri Jagannath.
Taraka plays a dirty cop in temper, who thinks in terms of money and possessions and not honour. In fact, he considers his girlfriend his 'sound system'. There's no semblance of courage or even bravado for most of the first half. And then, when his ego is triggered, he transforms, literally into a different man. Everything from his diction to the way he moves, changes. It was beautiful to watch!
Then came Janata Garage, where Taraka plays a badass environmentalist, who then becomes a Sarkaar of sorts in Hyderabad.
Cerebral people move and talk differently. Introverts and extroverts have different brain structures. In Janata Garage, Taraka plays an introvert, who never once raises his voice in anger, and makes it look like his default reaction.
This might not seem like a big deal to you, but you've got to remember that his career was built on his ability to mouth dialogues with utter clarity at high decibels and speeds! That's why Temper worked!
And then came Jai Lava Kusa, where he plays triplets, each with a completely different personality and past. It was like getting three heroes for the price of one ticket.
Lava is an introvert, soft spoken, straight backed, and always wears a crisp shirt and a half-smile. He blinks obviously; like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Kamal Haasan in Sippikkul Muthu or Rajkummar Rao in Newton.
Kusa is a thief, a brilliant dancer, and has a couple of ticks that are not obvious, but nevertheless hard to miss.
Jai is the villain. He's the one entire villages are afraid of. He's the one politicians fear. Jai stutters.
And he does it with such conviction and naturalness, that it turns into his strength, not weakness. Taraka figured out that a stutter isn't a problem in one's mouth, but in the brain, and you can see he used this to deliver an authentic, unfunny, impressive stutter!
The movie was also the culmination of decades of Telugu screen-writing; the only art form that still thrives in Andhra and Telangana.
There aren't many actors in the country who are willing to put in such thought into their roles. Physical training and transformations are one thing; but to invest enough into a role to change one's own body language to fit it, is worthy of praise.
So next time you think of a Telugu movie, think of Nandamuri Taraka, the man who carries NTR’s legacy. That he’s his grandson, is only incidental.
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