‘You may win a dozen Oscars or Padma awards or churn out countless jubilee hits, but you can never be a god. Because one and only one man in Indian Cinema has that divine aura – Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao or just simply NTR.’
For millions of Telugu people, Rama Rao, whose death anniversary is observed on January 18, was the darling of the masses, silver screen idol, much-loved politician and a visionary.
As special correspondent of The Hindu, I had followed the length of his phenomenal political journey and interacted almost on a day to day basis. Much has been said or written about his outstanding contribution to the cinema or to politics. For my part, however, I prefer to remember him as just a great human being with sterling qualities which were amply in evidence during my close association with him.
I fondly recall many episodes I was witness to and many more shared by his confidants which reveal him as deeply human and vulnerable to basic emotions like happiness, sorrow and anger; the same emotions he had so excelled in portraying on the silver screen.
We were travelling to Nellore by train for the ‘Telugu mahila garjana’. A few minutes into the journey, NTR ordered ‘chiru thindi’ (snacks) for the entourage. Two reminders later, he thundered “Eviraa chegodilu?” (Where are the snacks?). His staff discovered to their dismay that they had forgotten to bring the homemade snacks that he had ordered. And nobody, including sons-in-law Chandrababu Naidu and Daggubati Venkateswara Rao, had the nerve to break the news to him. In those pre-mobile phone days, Venkateswara Rao got home-made dinner delivered at an intervening station, but NTR refused to touch it.
The Peddaayana had gone into a sulk. The ‘protest fast’ continued until the next day, when, buoyed by the good response to the meeting, he relented. A repeat drama was enacted at Bhadrachallam during the Sri Rama Navami festival when Endowments Minister N Yethiraja Rao, was left to face the music for some goof-up. So much for the tantrums!
This was in Hindupur. Lakshmi Parvathi visited the centuries old Lepakshi shrine and was fascinated by its exquisite sculpture and mythology. As she waxed eloquent about her experience, I watched NTR gaping in open-mouthed wonder, like a curious child in grandmother’s lap. It was as if he, who had portrayed countless historical characters, did not know anything about Lepakshi. It was not the story, but the story-teller that captivated him. This was NTR the child.
In the years when he aspired to play a larger role at the national level, he hired a Hindi teacher who would turn up at four in the morning. The pre-dawn Hindi class was disturbed by a telephone call. NTR’s eyes turned flaming red as he ticked off the poor caller, reducing him to ashes. Visibly shaken by the outburst, the tutor feared it would be his turn next. Casually, as if nothing had happened, NTR asked him “Cheppandi ekkada unnaam?” wondering at which point the class was interrupted! The tutor took time to recover from the sudden change. That was how the accomplished actor switched emotions. People cowered and ran for safety when the boss was angry.
The life of this screen-god was full of vicissitudes, one moment joy, despair the next, now victory, and now setback. The suffering and humiliation he underwent evoked pity and sympathy, but he took them all in his stride.
I was at his Road No.13, Banjara Hills home to pick up my scooter, after accompanying him on a tour. He was then the leader of the Opposition. One of his security men, having seen me the previous evening, took me aside to confide about what happened after I left.
On return, NTR found no one in the house except a few security guards. No dinner, no servants, no driver, no family members. On learning this, Dr. Alladi P. Rajkumar, MP and trusted aide, rushed home-made food to the starving leader. NTR’s children, who lived elsewhere in the city, knew nothing of this.
The journey was not always smooth, nor was the road paved with roses. He suffered humiliation, and swallowed insults with stoic patience.
In the mid-1980s, angry Secretariat employees ransacked his office, stomped on his desk, and mouthed choicest obscenities. He did not lose his cool, nor did he badmouth them. “We are all part of a family. They might have acted in the heat of emotion,” he said. On another occasion, he received Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the airport. Both drove in an open jeep on the tarmac. I observed how he, despite being CM, was rudely pushed out by a Congress leader.
At the height of the August 1984 crisis, supporters of the ‘usurper’ chief minister N. Bhaskar Rao surrounded NTR in the Assembly and rained abuses on him. Despite the chaos and provocation, he sat still with a bowed head.
He could also be gracious on occasions. It was the customary post-budget dinner hosted by the Finance Minister on the laws of the Public Gardens. The Speaker, G. Narayana Rao, arrived pretty late. NTR patiently waited at the entrance and escorted him.
Another time, the CM was leaving for the Secretariat when I met him to seek an appointment for S. Rangarajan, managing director of Kasturi & Sons, proprietors of The Hindu. “Get in. We will talk while on the way,” he said. I didn’t get to say much at all, because throughout the drive he extolled my newspaper’s high standards of credibility and objectivity.
When Rangarajan arrived, he received him warmly and spoke about his connection with the Kasturi family. The visitor was pleasantly surprised to know that NTR had bought his first plot of land in Madras from the Kasturi family. In a rare display of camaraderie, the Chief Minister came out of his chambers to personally see Rangarajan off.
NTR was gifted with a hypnotic aura that made even VIPs and celebrities look small in his presence. Sample this. It was the muhurtham function of the movie Major Chandrakant. NTR, attired in traditional dhoti and angavastram, was seated in the front row flanked by Ramyakrishna and director K. Raghavendra Rao. The actress never took her eyes off the leading man, as if hypnotized, while Raghavendra Rao was busy all the time adjusting the angavastram on ‘his majesty’s’ shoulder.
In the wake of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, anti-social elements ransacked and damaged theatres and other properties owned by NTR and his family. NTR sat on a ‘mouna deeksha’ on the busy tank bund road. Hundreds of people lined up for a darshan while womenfolk received pasupu – kumkuma packets from him. Former prime minister, V. P. Singh and leaders of non-Congress parties travelled to Hyderabad to express solidarity with the fasting Telugu Desam patriarch. The mode of interaction was through exchange of slips of paper on which NTR scribbled his response. “Sir, please show us the slip and its content?” a reporter asked VP Singh. “Sorry. I cannot. It is a precious souvenir,” replied Singh. Imagine a former Prime Minister treating a piece of paper as a treasure.
His style was a sight to behold
At the height of the 1984 crisis, NTR travelled to the AP-Karnataka border to receive party MLAs, sheltered at the Nandi Hills in Karnataka. As he rode atop his majestic Chaitanya Ratham through Mahabubnagar district, people lined up to greet him. Some just ‘touched’ the ratham and felt ‘blessed’ as if it were God’s chariot.
The Telugu Desam president’s style of addressing the gatherings was equally awe-inspiring. Delivered with his characteristic dramatic flourish, his opening “naa thammullaara, Teluginti aadapaduchulaara…” was as much of a game-changer as Swami Vivekananda’s ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.
I also remember and cherish some private moments with the inimitable Rama Rao. I followed him from Srikakulam to Eluru during the 1994 Assembly elections. He came to know that a colleague was to take over from me at Eluru. He asked his close aide and PR man, Kambhampati Rammohan Rao, “Can’t Kesava Rao garu continue with us? Please find out.” I was tired and had also been long away from my family, but agreed to continue up to Vijayawada. This was his subtle way of commending someone’s work.
On a more personal note, I well remember the occasion when my wife and I invited him for our son’s wedding in the summer of 1995. He and Lakshmi Parvathi received us warmly. They presented us Srivari prasadam – an oversized laddu. As I rose instinctively to take it, he said, rebuking “Ummm. Idi meeku kaadu. Ammayiki,” and handed it to my wife. The twinkle in his eye betrayed mock anger.
Another moment that will always stay with me happened barely a few weeks after NTR had won his first election and become Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh I was entering the Secretariat when I noticed, alongside me, an elderly lady slowly negotiating the steps of the CM’s block in the Secretariat with a lunch box in hand. It was Smt. Nandamuri Basavatarakam who could have used the lift. The self-effacing lady chose to climb the stairs.
The man who personified Telugu atma gowravam will continue to live in the hearts of the people.
Dasu Kesava Rao is one of the senior journalists in Hyderabad. He has served The Hindu as its AP Bureau Chief before working for other newspapers.