A decade of hard won victories and lost opportunities; of decisions made in earnest or in cold calculation of box office possibilities that yielded disappointments for an artist’s soul and his fans’ hopes; of decisions not made that yielded immense personal satisfaction at the risk of potential professional inertia. This, then, marks the first decade of Maheshbabu’s sojourn in Telugu filmdom; a journey that established him as a potential star, then a star, a risk taker, a natural, muted director’s actor with affinity for underplay, a superstar and a commercial corporate endorser on the professional front. Just as understated as his acting, so too is his portfolio of projects in an industry that has thus far been ubiquitous for its propensity to measure success in numbers – be they number of prints released, number of screens with hundred day runs, silver jubilee records, or box office collection numbers. At a strike rate of about 1.5 movies per year, the measure of the man can definitely be felt not by the length of his portfolio but by the depth of his impact on Telugu film lovers – an impact that his competition has thus far been unable to replicate or dent.
A typical Tollywood masala film with the inimitable K. Raghavendra Rao touch introduced Superstar Krishna’s son as his dynastic successor to the mantle of superstardom with Rajakumarudu; however, it was impossible for the audience to visualize, after Rameshbabu’s earlier attempt, that such a tender looking face could go on to reach that mantle given his lean and lanky frame, and a soft voice reminiscent of his father’s speaking style sans the passion oft heard in hair rising dialogues such as in the climaxes of Alluri Seetarama Raju, Eenadu and myriad other memorable scenes and movies. His second venture, Yuvaraju, established his title of Prince of Tollywood for posterity even though it was a title that fans adoringly gave him on his debut film. A stunning decision to play the father of a young son, despite himself looking too young to be accepted as a father on screen, set the stage to come for Mahesh’s curious professional decisions and risk taking nature. The third outing, Vamsi, made the audiences take note, especially the youngsters, that here was an atypical Telugu hero, without the mandatory moustache, who looked like Hollywood material, based on the stylistically executed stunts in this film. Murari came next, allowing fans a glimpse into the immense latent acting skills just waiting to burst out given the right project and right director. Krishnavamsi only scratched the surface and fans hungered for more. Disappointment was in store for the fans in the next 2 hyped ventures – Bobby produced by his first director and based on Romeo and Juliet was declared a dud by Mahesh a day before the release of the film setting off a stream of controversy amongst the producer and distributors; Takkari Donga produced by a director who had not yet tasted failure did not convincingly register the cowboy genre in the Indian milieu for gen-X audiences despite terrific stunts by Mahesh at great risk to his own personal safety. An unconventional factionist storyline quite unlike the traditional faction genre, with an unconventional undercurrent based on the sport of Kabaddi which gen-X youngsters weren’t rooted in given the huge craze around cricket and other mainstream urban sports did not sound like the kind of venture that could lift fans and Mahesh out of the doldrums, but Okkadu did exactly that, re-establishing Mahesh as a force to reckon with, M. S. Raju as a blockbuster producer after the low budget films he made to lift his banner out of oblivion post Deviputrudu, and Gunasekhar as a director worth watching after his dismal turn at Mrugaraju. This film established Mahesh as a star with blockbuster status in his own right. 3 quick overhyped disappointments followed with Nijam, Nani and Arjun. In each of these films, Mahesh’s acting left audiences stunned at the range and depth of emotions he could portray. Who can forget the morgue scene and jail scene in Nijam played with the exact dosages of hurt, anger, innocence and disbelief, exactly as a real life student would have experienced in his adolescent age; or the childhood innocence conveyed in Nani that effectively made us do a double take on whether this was indeed a grown 30 year old man; or the angst and raw violent power of a brother fighting for the life of his sister in Arjun. None of the films, however, left the mark they should have and would have had they been handled differently or had released in a different stage of Mahesh’s career. The timing of these films was off and sheer star power could not sustain interest in them. A comeback was in order and Athadu effectively filled that role. This was the first film released post-marriage. The stunts were amazing, the acting was top notch and the comedy and family scenes were just right. For many Mahesh fans, after Murari, this was the film most close to their hearts, a film that should have done better than it did at the box office, even though it did very well. Given prior track record of directors who have failed when directing big stars, fans did not have much hope on Pokiri, especially since Puri’s Super and Andhrawala relit the fears of directors handling small stars being unable to handle big stars. Mahesh’s star power and impeccable acting, combined with Puri’s characterization and dialogues, took a masala film to a whole new level, establishing Mahesh as the undisputed Superstar after Pokiri beat box office records of the past 75 years of Tollywood’s existence for the first time. While Pokiri did not fetch him the Nandi award for acting, Mahesh had till then become the only actor to win 5 consecutive Nandi’s for 2001 – 2005. Sainikudu and Athidi followed and became huge disappointments for fans basking in the glory of Pokiri’s nostalgia.
Whether destiny willed it or a superstar’s family responsibilities and desire to provide fatherly affection to a newborn son in his growing years dictated it, an interregnum followed with no movie release from this superstar since the end of 2007. A period long enough for a lesser star to lose his fan base and for his competitors to take over the mantle. An interregnum punctuated by corporate commercial endorsements for ThumsUp and Navaratan Oil, the same brands a prior numero uno used to endorse also speaks volumes about the depth of the impact of this superstar. It’s almost as if the torch has been passed to the next numero uno atleast in the perception of the audience. It is not surprising to see children and senior citizens alike respond to Mahesh in this fashion despite the lack of releases over more than 20 months; projects such as supporting childrens’ health and endorsing clean living with anti-smoking messages despite his own challenges in his arena have been noticed and appreciated by the public. His fan base is strong, patient, hopeful and loyal, spurred by third and second tier stars of his generation fading slowly into the background or maintaining their status quo, top tier stars of his generation and a previous generation addled with failures of their own on both the professional and political fronts. The stage is, therefore, set for a grander and more exciting innings of expectations and adulation provided the next crop of projects materializes on time, with some differentiation from the run of the mill, and provides wholesome entertainment and a display of acting prowess that only someone of the ilk of Mahesh can deliver. The need of the hour for Mahesh is good judgment of scripts and motivation to experiment with different types of projects in the next decade of his journey as he gets into his 40s. His own maturing as a human being needs to be reflected in the selection of scripts that suit his persona and age – mature themes, more complex themes like Athadu, less dependence on star makers and directors and an embracing of new age directors, perhaps even a few multi-starrers. As the industry transitions from a volume era to a quality era, none is better positioned to take the responsibility of driving this transition to fruition than the only star of his generation left standing who has actually believed in and executed, albeit with mixed results, a qualitative and different kind of cinema within the boundaries of the commercial format accepted to Telugu viewers.
www.princemahesh.com offers felicitations to Superstar Mahesh on completing one decade as a lead actor in the Telugu film industry and a very Happy Birthday as we look forward to another decade of performances aimed at entertaining and educating patrons while strengthening the bonds they have with cinema and with each other through cinema.
- Coolcat (Srinivas Buddharaju)