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.

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24 thoughts on “Narthanasala

  1. I’m so glad you both enjoyed this film! It deserves all the plaudits you have given it. I have never seen it with subtitles, so I was a little concerned how good they would be. But it looks like the subtitles for both this and Maya Bazaar were done very well.

    I also liked the cooking assistants. 🙂 When you keep in mind that films in those days were made for the entire family to watch together, and would frequently have some continuing element to keep the small children engaged, you can understand sequences like the assistant cooks’.

    This film was shown at some Asian film festival round about 1965 or so, and S.V. Ranga Rao won the festival’s best actor award for his performance.

    I’m also really glad to see that you both appreciated NTR’s acting. It’s this kind of reaction that can tell you whether an actor can truly communicate across languages and cultures. NTR once said that his ambition was to play every major part in the Mahabharata, and he pretty well succeeded in doing so, even if he was forced to play them all himself in the same film! 🙂 (e.g., Dana Veera Sura Karna, or Srimad Virataparvam, a much later film on the same chapter of the Mahabharata.) Other noteworthy films about the Mahabharata are “Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam” (NTR plays Krishna, Duryodhana, and Arjuna, I think), Pandava Vanavasam (about their time of exile in the forest), where NTR plays Bheema, the aforementioned DVS Karan, where NTR plays Karna and other characters I can’t remember, and Srimad Virata Parvam, where NTR plays Keechaka, and “Bhisma”, where NTR plays the title character of Bhishma. Sorry, but I don’t know how many of these are available with English subtitles.

    Also, sorry if that was just way more than you wanted to know. 🙂

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    • Hi mm 🙂 The same (non-Indian) friend who lent me Thillana Mohanambal gave me a copy of this and I am so happy she did. The subtitles were very good, and the only minor annoyance was the unsubtitled songs. I really liked NTR in his dual role, and he was effeminate without being too camp or over the top as Bruhannala. He and Savitri were lovely in their scenes together, but his performance is the stand out across the whole film. I have seen DVS Karna, Pandava Vanavasam (subtitled DVDs are available). For me, Narthanasala is a better film than DVSK (which I did enjoy) as the relationships are developed a bit more and there is less scenery chewing and straight exposition to camera. Cheers, Temple

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      • By the time of DVS Karna and Srimad Viratparvam, NTR was almost caricaturing his former performances; but I think he was so far ahead of other actors that still he was worth watching. But I agree that as films these are not as good as earlier ones, primarily because (a) most of the other actors of his generation had died/retired, and so there was not a balanced cast to give equal competence to all the characters; and (b) he was freely rewriting the roles to fit his personality and not only distorting the original story, but weakening it and the character to some extent.

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      • BTW, if you’d like me to translate any or all of the songs, I will. They do add a lot to the story. I’m surprised they weren’t subtitled.

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      • That’s very kind of you mm 🙂 I managed to find enough information about most of the songs to have a reasonable idea of the content. But I agree, it is a shame not to subtitle them in a film where they clearly do link into the narrative. Temple

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    • Hi mm,
      Thank-you very much for all the information and your recommendations 🙂
      I’ve seen Dana Veera Sura Karna, which I did enjoy, and I have a copy of Pandava Vanavasam so I must bump it up the ‘films to watch’ pile. I think these must be the ones that I found to be available with subtitles, but I will definitely look out for the others you mention.
      I really hope that the DVD companies will start releasing some of these old classics with subtitles as they seem to have done for the Hindi film industry. There are so many that friends (and you 🙂 ) have recommended that I can’t find at all, let alone with subtitles!
      Heather

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  2. Sounds really good!! I am just in my DVD-List Making Phase as I am in India next month; just added Narthanasala to it!
    @MM: Which of the movies that you have mentioned do you recommend? Or do you recommend all? I would need subtitles too…I really need to learn Telugu, that is on my to-do list!

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    • .

      @Suja, I would recommend all of them; that’s why Iisted them. Perhaps I would rate DVS Karna and Srimad Viratparvam lower, as they came later, and are not as good as films, but might be interesting to watch for NTR’s performance. Another top NTR performance in a “puranic” role (that is, a film based on one of the ancient texts of India) is as Krishna in Sri Krishna Tulabharam. There are two versions of this, the first with Jamuna as the heroine, and the second (later) one with Vanisree as the heroine.

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    • Hi Suja. I think you would enjoy this, even if just for the music. The opening title sequence is lovely too as it shows female musicians and dancers in silhouette and in beautifully composed groupings. It is such a pretty film, but the style never got in the way of the storytelling. I have seen Darna Veera Suura Karna and Pandava Vanavasam and I would place Mayabazar and Narthanasala a little ahead of those two. You should be able to find those 4 DVDs with English subtitles as I did. Cheers, Temple

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  3. @mm : Thank you !! My Telugu film shopping list looks like this (given my liking for mythologicals, social drama and light fluff and a great dislike of on screen violence). In addition to the films you mention above, my list looks like this:

    Saptapadi (1981)
    Tyagayya (1981) (I have seen Shankarabharanam)
    Swathi Muthyam (1985)
    Aha naa Pellanta (1987)
    Swarnakamalam (1988)
    Rudraveena (1988)
    Geethanjali (1989)
    Kshana Kshanam (1991)
    Bommarillu (2006)
    Sri Ramadasu (2006)

    What do you think?

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    • @Suja: Most of them are good films (except one). If you don’t already have Sagara Sangamam, I would definitely recommend that one. Another collaboration of Kamal Haassan and K. Viswanath, which is not music or dance based, is Subha Sankalpam.

      I really, really hate Sri Ramadasu! Not only because I can’t stand Nagarjuna, but they played havoc with the story and the music (which is a major no-no when you’re making a film about a musician) . I haven’t seen the 1981 Tyagayya — I guess it’s with J.V. Somayajulu, so it won’t be too bad, I guess. The classic film on both Tyagaraju and Ramadasu is from the 1930’s/1940’s with V. Nagaiah (who also sang all the songs). I have both of those dvd’s, but can’t remember now if they have subtitles. There are small technical issues with the audio and video at times (given the age of the original film) but I far prefer them to the later products, if only for Nagaiah’s singing (he was a trained classical singer), as well as for his acting.

      If you like Bommarillu, you might also like Konchem Ishtam Konchem Kashtam, again featuring Siddharth and Prakash Raj as father and son, but with a different kind of relationship than in Bommarillu.

      I also recommend Aa Naluguru, reviewed earlier on this blog, for another Rajendra Prasad movie. Generally his movies are all pretty good comedies.

      Have you seen any films of Bhanumathi? She was a great singer and actress, and has several classics. Again I’m not sure about English subtitles, though several of her famous films are available on dvd. Malliswari is the all-time must see of Telugu cinema, but as I said, it may not have subtitles. You might get it just for the music, though, and read up about the story on the net. Another famous one available on dvd is Vipra Narayana (but I’m told the ending is missing on the dvd). If you don’t mind a tragedy, the Telugu Devadasu with ANR and Savitri is considered the best of all the different versions in the different Indian languages.

      OK, I’ll stop there. 🙂

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    • I remember laughing like crazy with ‘Aha naa Pellanta’.
      Kshana Kshanam is great fluff and Sridevi is great eye candy.

      I would recommend ‘Vivaha Bhojanmmu’ (1988), and ‘choopulu kalasina subhavela’ (1988) they go so well with ‘Aha naa pellanta’ (all titles are from popular songs of the movie ‘Mayabazaar’)

      Secondary recommendations on ‘Srivariki premalekha'(1984) and ‘Chantabbai'(1986). All Jandhaya (director) films btw.

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  4. Have you seen Thiruvilayadal (1965)? Its tamil, with Sivaji and Savitri. I enjoyed it a lot, short review is on my blog:)
    I just finished Lava Kusa, also with NTR, I found it by chance on yt, it has even subs. Pretty good, but somehow I felt that NTRs presence is overshading everyone… In a probably good way.
    Have to watch this one you reviewed, sounds so good I adore Savitri.

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    • I actually didn’t like NTR in Lava Kusa. He, along with most of the actors, was made to overact terribly. The main attraction of the film were the kids (Lava and Kusha) and the fabulous music. Anjali Devi as Sita did NOT overact, and is very nice. This film supposedly turned around her “glamorous” image up till then, and she started being revered as a goddess by the audience after this, and also played mainly virtuous wifely roles for the rest of her career. She was happy about the change, let me hasten to add.

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  5. One thing that stood out for me in re-watching Narthanasala are the very feminist views expressed by Draupadi in this. This was during the scene when Dharmaraju advises restraint against Keechaka, and Draupadi goes on about the plight of women as subordinates to men. This made the story more contemporary and it’s all good to include a social message, but it also dates a classic story.

    I never thought that the original Draupadi felt so helpless to rant against patriarchy.

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    • Those lines of Draupadi are taken directly from the Telugu Mahabharata, which was written sometime during the 11th century. 🙂 I’ll have to check to see if they are in the original Sanskrit Mahabharata. In general, most of the ancient Indian texts are very even handed in their treatment of the sexes, and are nothing like the one-dimensional caricatures that are what most people are familiar with, from either movies, TV, or comic books. 😦

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      • BTW, if you watch “Pandavav Vanavasam” you’ll find even more “feminist” lines from Draupadi, which *are* in the original Sanskrit Mahabharata.

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      • I never realized Nannaya wrote about Draupadi giving dressing down to Dharmaraju at Virata’s court. All the lite-versions I read had Draupadi defending Dharmaraju instead.

        I agree that most texts had equal power relationships between sexes which is what surprised me when Savithri start talking about “oppression of female sex”. Did she really felt she was being “oppressed” in original story? I am curious to check original texts now.

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      • Aha! Now I saw Thikkanna is very well capable of such sharp tongue. There is something new to learn everyday!

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    • Hi Violet 🙂 I took that speech more as Draupadi articulating her disappointment that despite being married to 5 of the most powerful men of their era, she still had to deal with Keechaka. Her question of how this behaviour could be condoned in a court was more a reminder to Dharmaraju that regardless of their need for discretion, matters of right and wrong must still be addressed. So for me it suited the dramatised events and her personality in this film. I see mm has given some references to the written work that indicate it’s consistent with an 11th century text, which is very interesting. So basically I didn’t feel that was a modern social message tacked on to the story, it was quite seamless. I often feel the same with Shakespeare – so many themes seem modern but there they are, written hundreds of years ago. I love these interesting conversations that spring up! Cheers, Temple

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  6. Hey, Violet, seems like you must be Telugu, too, to know about Nannayya and Thikkanna! Great!

    Well, don’t you think Draupadi was being oppressed *at that moment* when she said those lines? She was being sexually harassed by a powerful man, against whom neither she, nor her normal protector the queen, could do anything. Even the king, being more or less a puppet, can do nothing. Only her husbands remain, who are sworn to protect her, and they do nothing! Not only that, when one of them tries to do something, he is prevented by the eldest one, Dharmaraju. So, yeah, I think she was pretty oppressed then. 🙂

    Besides, she didn’t talk about “oppression of the female sex” as such. She asked, “If there is no protection for a woman in the full court, in the presence of the king, what protection is there for ordinary women? Is this following dharma?”

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    • Actually, this got me to re-read Mahabharata again after a long time.

      I was going through Sabha-Parva and it made me realize Draupadi is totally justified in saying what she did. After all, going through that with Dussasana and leaving her hair down, she would come out strong and sharp and dares to question her treatment again.

      For her, it is a repetition on a lesser scale of what happened before. Good thing she got revenge and enjoyed it! 🙂

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