Tuesday, August 04, 2009
A note on KANTRI (Telugu; 2008) and the NTR Legacy
[Warning: this piece contains spoilers.]
Kantri is a rather run-of-the-mill film (there's a complete review here), and would be unremarkable were it not for the film's symbolic staging of the biography of its hero, NTR Jr. Although much of the film's first half focuses on the impending clash between underworld don PR and local tough Kranthi (NTR Jr.; Kantri ("avenger") when he's in a bad mood, or should I say "kaNTRi"?), the film's second half sees NTR Jr.'s character revealed as the long-lost son of PR (who first came into wealth by murdering the character played by Mukesh Rishi, and his son and daughter-in-law; he abandons his wife and child at the same time). Once this is revealed, NTR Jr. goes to live with his father (albeit reluctantly; for his part, although PR is happy to have Kranthi with him, he also characterizes him as rough, and akin to a "laborer" who needs to be "groomed").
This sort of representation enables NTR Jr. to play the obligatory populist card (in the film, Kranthi is never defensive or apologetic about being "lower class," and in fact brings along with him all the children from the orphanage where he has apparently grown up in), a card that enables NTR Jr. to lay claim to his grandfather NTR's populism (even if, in NTR Jr., the inheritance is refracted through the post-Bachchan angry young man persona that has become the norm for Telugu and Tamil films). This story arc also alludes to the sidelining (long gossiped about in Andhra) of the real-life NTR Jr. by the more "senior" branches of the NTR family -- at this point in the film, the audience is expected to supplement the drama of Kranthi's return to a house that rightfully should always have been his, yet one which he feels is populated by his enemies; with what everyone knows about NTR Jr.'s real life.
It doesn't end here: the twist in Kantri reveals the above to have been a lie all along: Kranthi is not in fact PR's son, and has in fact been choreographing a charade to exact revenge on PR on behalf of Kranthi's grandfather, revealed to be none other than Mukesh Rishi's character -- thereby enabling a symbolic settling of scores with an intermediate generation standing between the two NTRs, grandfather and grandson. And also, of course, inscribing NTR Jr. as the real heir of NTR Sr.'s legacy.
The above reading illustrates why the (all too common) critical view of masala films that focuses solely on elements internal to the plot, while remaining oblivious to the universe of signification within which these elements operate, can only result in an impoverished reading. Equally, however, Kantri doesn't simply re-stage the long hallowed myths of Telegu/Indian/Hindu culture. It does this only in the most general (and even covert) ways. What the film is directly concerned with, however, is the staging of a modern mythology, namely the cult of NTR and his legacy, in the form of family members who also became actors; NTR Jr. is one of multiple descendants, although he is the most successful, and the most plausible heir, inasmuch as he is widely held to closely resemble NTR. (And make no mistake, it is the fact of this lineage that enables the cult to become a dynastic inheritance.) This is what makes Kantri, more accurately, the NTR Jr. phenomenon, new (the Sarkar franchise is the only other that comes to mind). Not all of NTR Jr.'s films "stage" the family biographical drama as obviously as this film, but it is not uncommon for NTR Jr.'s films to intermittently invoke "real life" -- in Yamadonga, for instance, NTR Jr. steps out of character to invoke his grandfather in Yama's kingdom (the late NTR obliges with a digitized appearance) -- that is, in films like Kantri, the NTR Jr. phenomenon doesn't allude to broader cultural myths so much as to the myth of itself. The off-screen alluded to is not unconnected to the actor at the film's center, but is simply the "real life" of the actor. Equally, the actor is, in a sense, only required to play himself (a most difficult role, as far as I am concerned, since one has to make the myth of oneself plausible with hardly any reference to naturalism.)