Narthanasala

This 1963 classic has an exceptional cast, featuring NTR, Savitri and SV Ranga Rao, under the lively direction of Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao. Narthanasala renders a chapter of the Mahabharata in an accessible and highly entertaining style. The story as shown concentrates on the Pandavas efforts to serve out the 13th year of their exile, and how they deal with their tribulations. I’m sure there are many versions of this tale and this screenplay no doubt varies from those in some ways. My knowledge of the Mahabharata is basic, but all the information you need to know to enjoy Narthanasala is contained within the film, so don’t let that be an obstacle.

Arjuna is honoured by Indra, but manages to tick off Urvashi (Padmini Priyadarshini) when he rejects her advances.  She curses him to become a eunuch. I cannot blame her for being mislead after watching him watching her in this dance:

And she looks furious!

The curse is mitigated somewhat by a time limitation granted in recognition of Arjuna’s essential manly goodness. This coincides with the 13th year of exile when the Pandavas must take refuge in a kingdom and remain anonymous for that final year. The set up of the characters and how they would conceal their identities was simply done in a conversation that pretty much spells out who’s who. There are spies and lures set to draw the Pandavas into the open, and the cat and mouse game with Duryodhana adds an edge of tension to the waiting game.

Dharmaraju (Mikkilineni Radhakrishna Murthy) is occupied as an advisor to King Viraat, and has little free time to spend with his brothers and wife.  The twins Nakula and Sahadeva work with the livestock and are absent most of the time. This leaves Draupadi (Savitri), Arjuna (NTR) and Bhima (Olympic wrestler Dandamudi Rajagopal) on centre stage.

Draupadi is beautiful and deceptively delicate looking. Her husbands make a big deal of her having to undertake manual labour, but she is more resilient than they are in some respects. Although usually deferential to her husbands, when she needs to stand up for herself she leaves no doubt as to the consequences of drawing her anger.  Calling herself Malini she goes to work as a ladies maid and beautician for Queen Sudheshna (Sandhya). She pleads with the queen that she be protected from tasks such as being sent off to entertain strange men and serve in other households, and Sudheshna agrees. Draupadi’s awareness of her vulnerability is clear, and despite her efforts she does attract unwanted attention.

How she attempts to deflect and ultimately stop this harassment is the main focus of the drama, and she tries many approaches before demanding her husbands step in. Krishna intervenes when called upon, but the solution lies with the human characters. Draupadi’s affection for Arjuna gives their complex life a strong emotional core, and their scenes had an element of romance that her interactions with the other husbands didn’t. She has a rare laugh when talking to him about their son. Savitri is, as I have come to expect, excellent in a role that demands both high emotion and restraint.

Arjuna is transformed into Bruhannala. He takes up the position as dance teacher to Uttara (L Vijayalakshmi) and embraces accessorising. He should have had those dance lessons as while Bruhannala’s expressions are flawless, his dance steps are not quite as graceful.

NTR looked knowing and effeminate as the eunuch, always slyly amused at fooling everyone around him. It falls to him to come up with the scheme to keep Draupadi from harm and to keep the Pandavas safe until the end of their exile.

The stolen conversations between him and Draupadi have an undertone of longing. When they touch there is chemistry; Arjuna, the husband missing his wife, is suddenly visible despite the fripperies of Bruhannala. When NTR re-appears as Arjuna he is quite regal although maintains the air of amusement. His scenes with Uttarakumar in the chariot are fun and he enjoys the consternation caused by his transition from Bruhannala back to Arjuna. It’s a warm, appealing performance, and the knowing looks to camera drew me into the asides and secrets.

Arjuna is more philosophical about Draupadi’s situation and is prepared to manage each crisis as it happens. Bhima cannot contain his fury; he just wants to tear Keechaka apart.

He knows his own flaws and is guided by the more calculating Arjuna and Dharmaraju’s sense of justice. His powerful physique is an asset to the family but may also be the thing that gives them away. There wasn’t a lot of subtlety needed for this performance, but it wasn’t just posturing and roaring.

SV Ranga Rao is Keechaka, the queen’s larger than life brother, a jovial bully. His inability to control his lust does more than threaten Draupadi. It also jeopardises the safety of all the Pandavas who may not maintain their disguises under such insult, and threatens the kingdom as he forces the queen to give Malini over to him. He is literally blinded by desire.

How else could he mistake Bhima for Draupadi? His performance is excellent as he manages to be likeable and hateful. I was cheering when he got his just deserts.

Relangi Venkata Ramaiah (a.k.a the ‘Clap Your Hands Behind Your Back guy’ from Mayabazar) is lots of fun as the pompous, cowardly but endearing Uttarakumar. He has delusions of being a great warrior and leader, and his preening and posturing amuses me as much as it does the Pandavas. He is followed around by his attendants, one of whom is Allu Ramalingaiah with perfect but unobtrusive comic timing. Uttarakumar is nice to his sister, and never gets angry or mean with the cooks despite their unfortunate comedic tendencies, so I like him.

L Vijayalakshmi is perfect as his sister Uttara. I really enjoy watching her dance and she has a sprightly, flirty, quality that enhances the role. She and Abhimanyu have a romantic subplot but really her purpose seems to be dancing and being decorative. This is only the third film I have seen her in, and I hope to find a few more.

The songs (original music by Susarla Dakshinamurthi) blend into the story and I wish they had been subtitled, as often they are used for exposition or introductions. The dancing is lovely, and the sets and costumes are opulent.  The decorations are extravagant and yet allow the performers to be the focal point. It’s also a ripping good story, and the pace of the direction matches the tempo of the drama to perfection. It’s just gorgeous.

4 ½ stars! (a small deduction for too many squeaky comedy cooks in the kitchen)

Heather says: Narthanasala is just delightful to watch. The film’s all star cast are excellent and the sets and costumes are fabulous. Since I’m not very sure about all the characters in this part of the Mahabharata, I really appreciate the opening scenes where everyone introduces themselves and explains who they are, the alias they are going to assume and what they are going to do for their time in exile. Very helpful.

The stand out performance for me is by NTR. He is excellent as Arjuna in the film’s opening scenes and his transformation into the eunuch dancing teacher Bruhannala is brilliant. It’s not just the delivery of his lines or his posture, but his whole demeanour which changes, and he is wonderfully feminine. He also has the best costumes and totally awesome eyelashes! This looked like such a fun role to play and NTR had the right amount of playfulness and hauteur to make it work.

Savitri is as beautiful as ever although I was a little confused about her character as Malini. Since they were supposed to be in hiding it seemed rather odd that she would say that she had 5 husbands and needed shelter for a year. Surely that gave the game away as to who she really was? It didn’t seem to be a requirement of their exile since none of the other characters seemed to reveal quite as much about their identity. However, I only have a very limited knowledge of the Mahabharata, so this could just be an essential part of the original. The film drags a little in the middle while waiting for Draupadi’s rescue from the funeral pyre, but the previous scene with Bhima in drag pretending to be Malini was excellent. Dandamudi Rajagopal is very good in his portrayal of Bhima/Valala and as a professional wrestler he certainly looks the part. Unlike Temple, I love the minions in his kitchen who I think are really very funny, always fighting and squabbling and behaving more like troublesome children. The comedy with Uttarakumar is very well done as well, in particular the scenes with Arjuna when he goes out to fight the Kauravas

The dancing is lovely and although the fight scenes were quite stylised they are enjoyable to watch. I loved this line from the battle between the Kauravas and Arjuna towards the end “He greets the elders with his arrows. That is what makes him so adorable!” And NTR was! I really enjoyed this film – 4 ½ stars.