By 1989, the mercurial chief minister had landed himself in a series of controversies, many of them of his own making. His image took a severe beating. Senior party leaders who fell out with him became a thorn in his side. Caste conflicts and Naxalite violence created fissures in his governance. His iron grip over the party and the administration seemed to loosen. The Opposition stepped up its attack. The Congress (I) was able to pin him down on his home turf when he thought he was close to realizing his ambition of taking on the establishment at the national level…

Enmeshed in the political quagmire, NTR found solace in the idea of making a movie that allowed him to project himself the way he perceived himself. Since he became chief minister in 1983, NTR always ardently talked about his movie career and how people wanted him to continue to showcase his histrionics. He sincerely believed that his absence was a great void in the field. The character of Viswamitra, a temperamental sage in Hindu mythology, caught his attention a long time ago. He first announced plans for a film on the rishi in January 1987.

Whenever an opportunity presented itself, NTR spoke animatedly about the venerated sage, his Gayatri mantra and his radical personality. The chief minister also revealed his plans to have a Hindi version of Brahmarshi Viswamitra. As the National Front chairman, NTR must have considered it a golden opportunity to make a mark among the north Indian voters. The film became a hot topic for both the media and political circles, at least in AP. NTR liked to indulge the press with tantalizing titbits about the film, especially over the role of the celestial danseuse, Menaka. He would go into raptures talking about the persona of Viswamitra.

NTR was fascinated with the mythological character for a reason. He saw a kinship with Viswamitra, whom he visualized as his alter ego, taking on the gods of the establishment. NTR viewed the self-obsessed gods as the Centre. He was like Viswamitra, a Kshatriya who achieved the same powers as the rishis of Brahmin lineage and used them for the welfare of the society…

NT Rama Rao signing official files during the shoot of the film Brahmarshi Viswamitra.

The TDP chief took the decision to undertake the movie project on the banner of NTR Trust at the end of 1988. NTR’s mark was all over the film. He was involved in the screenwriting, editing and direction besides producing and taking the lead role in the movie. Dialogues for the Telugu film were written by Nagabhairava Koteswara Rao and for the Hindi version by Vishnu Malhotra. His sons became involved, with Balakrishna playing a character in the movie and Mohana Krishna wielding the camera.

A dismayed Opposition launched a tirade against NTR for his brazenness in pursuing his unpolitical endeavour. He should resign and appoint his replacement before putting on make-up, they demanded. The CPI dubbed the move NTR’s ‘shameful’ gambit to regain his lost political clout. Rajiv Gandhi, who visited the state during this time, found fault with NTR for ‘prancing around Menaka’, leaving the state to the dogs.

As NTR was busy shooting, officers visited the film sets with their files. NTR’s pictures of signing government files in Viswamitra’s get-up were published all over the papers. ‘Should we consider these signatures as those of NTR or Viswamitra?’ Nadendla questioned. The state Congress president Channa Reddy said he wouldn’t be surprised if NTR were to attend office in the Viswamitra attire. K. Rosaiah took exception to senior officers being forced to meet NTR on cinema sets. Actor Krishna alleged that NTR had turned the state into his own production house. Government employees denounced NTR as ‘Nero at Nacharam’, who had no time for their grievances. But NTR was unfazed.

As NTR began shooting, his move was challenged in the AP High Court. Congress activists moved the court for the issuance of a writ of quo warranto against NTR. The party argued that NTR had committed a constitutional infraction and forfeited the right to hold the office of chief minister by pursuing the commercial activity of producing a film. ‘Acting in and directing a film by a chief minister is incompatible with the office,’ S. Ramachandra Rao, a known legal baiter of NTR and counsel for the petitioner, argued.5 There was an inherent abuse of position in the venture, he said. NTR went ahead with the shooting, while TDP leaders agonized over the legal implications.

The people and the media took enormous interest in the case as NTR’s undertaking was uncommon. NTR’s lawyers contended in the court that he had undertaken the film to propagate the ideals of equality, brotherhood and egalitarianism. The life and philosophy of Viswamitra symbolized the said doctrines, and the most effective way of conveying the ideas to the people was through the medium of film. The proceeds of the film would go to a charitable trust, and hence the chief minister was not involved in any business activity. They also argued that there was no statutory provision prescribing a code of conduct for ministers that could be enforced by the court.

NTR came out unscathed legally. But his obsession with the movie at a time when a mandal president, Malhar Rao, was brutally killed by Naxalites did not go down well with the people. When the state was beset with calamities – drought in one region and floods in another – NTR was speaking of the film, teasing the press over Menaka’s role. For some time, Viswamitra and Menaka were the flavour of the season for even mainstream newspapers. The Opposition, as well as the media, lampooned NTR’s rather unusual pursuit. Congress legislature party leader M. Baga Reddy referred to NTR’s frequent absences during the assembly session, remarking tongue in cheek, ‘Looks like NTR may not come to assembly till Viswamitra finds his Menaka.’

Unperturbed, NTR went about the shooting schedule, which started early in the morning. He would spend time on the sets till afternoon and then return to his official duties. He was sixty-five years old at the time with a heavyset body. But he was following a strict diet to reduce his weight for the film. He slept on the floor, eating only fruits and vegetables, a habit he had carried throughout his cinema life. He was working hard to release the movie around the Vijaya Dasami festival in October 1989 and make the most of it for the elections that would follow. But Brahmarshi Viswamitra could not be completed as election dates were unexpectedly advanced, and NTR had to plunge headlong into the campaign. But at the time of making the film, NTR must have thought that he could arrest his sliding popularity through his cinematic appeal.

Excerpted with permission from Maverick Messiah: A Political Biography of N.T. Rama Rao, Ramesh Kandula, Penguin Random House India.