In 1984, Chiranjeevi appeared in Challenge, arguably the best film he's been in and one of the most progressive as far as gender is concerned. Challenge is an anti-capitalist tale based on prominent Telugu novelist Yandamuri Veerendranath's novel Dabbu to the Power of Dabbu (Money to the Power of Money). It was directed by A. Kodandarami Reddy, perhaps the central filmmaker in Chiranjeevi's career.
In it, Chiranjeevi plays a young, unemployed graduate called Gandhi who applies for a job advertised by a wealthy business magnate named Raja Ram Mohan Rao (Rao Gopal Rao). (Do the names imply anything? In Gandhi's case, yes, as we shall see.) When he shows up for the interview, Raja Ram Mohan Rao mocks him for his poverty and insists that a person's wealth is what determines his worth. Gandhi resists this idea, retorting that one needs money only to survive, that there are other, more noble callings for work, and as Mr Bernstein points out in Citizen Kane, there isn't anything particularly admirable about making a lot of money, if all one wants do is to make a lot of money.
To prove this, he poses the eponymous "challenge" to Raja Ram Mohan Rao, promising that he will return in five years, having earned Rs. 50 lakhs (a big deal in 1984 money). Raja Ram Mohan, in exchange, promises to marry his daughter, Harika (Vijayashanti) off to him if he succeeds. In many Telugu films, this would be the end of it — the father's explicitly patriarchal act would not be questioned. Challenge, however, is a different beast. This scene is almost immediately followed by one in which Raja Ram Mohan Rao's daughter confronts him, telling him he had no right to gamble with her like Dharmaraju did in the Mahabharata, and the father is immediately apologetic. He assures her she has nothing to worry about. There's nothing at stake because there's nothing to lose.
Gandhi, as it turns out, is rescued from homelessness by Lakshmi (Suhasini Maniratnam), a woman he meets when he tries to rescue her after she dives into a river — only to realize she's not the type of woman who needs saving. She tells him that his angst at being unemployed is misplaced and stems from thinking only intellectual labour is worthy of him. She advises him to expand his definition of work. (A delicious bit of irony — she is, of course, channelling the man he's named after.) She then invites him to stay with her. When he's hesitant — they're unmarried after all — she tells him to give up being "shy like a girl".
What evolves after this is one of the most nuanced relationships in Telugu cinema — something that begins in friendship and proceeds slowly, surely, towards something else. The relationship is at the heart of Challenge and what gives it its staying power in cultural memory. As Gandhi embarks on his cynical quest to become wealthy ("nyayabaddham ga kadhu, chattabaddham ga" or "by ways not necessarily morally permissible, but legally permissible"), Lakshmi anchors him and is the implicit moral compass of the film. Lakshmi is the namesake of the goddess of wealth — something Gandhi wants — but wealth is something for which she couldn't care less. She wants a simple, non-materialistic life, much like Gandhi, the man after whom Chiranjeevi's character is named. There is a playful one-upmanship between these two characters and ultimately, he's the one who gives in.
Today, as Telugu cinema is in the spotlight and its gender politics are in greater national scrutiny than ever before, Challenge stands out as a film in which the male star's abilities are displayed, not by diminishing women, but by seeing them as equal to a lead. Women often challenge and outwit Gandhi; they're more morally firm than him; they even step in to save him sometimes. On the other hand, he never manages to save them. Suhasini's turn as Lakshmi creates a character for the ages: She is every bit Gandhi's equal. The other prominent woman in the film is, of course, Raja Ram Mohan Rao's daughter Harika (Vijayshanti). In another film, she would be the rich, spoilt, manipulative seductress and the antithesis to the straightforward, humanist Lakshmi. However, Challenge is a rare subversive beast, especially for its time.
In the opening stretch of the movie, Gandhi, who lacks the money to cremate his recently-deceased mother, decides to play an astrological trick with birth dates on Harika to get her to give him money. She sees right through it and throws him a rupee for the effort, and then Rs. 500 for the funeral charges. When Gandhi's star is on the rise, she meets him, reveals that she has figured out his plan, and ominously, goes on to elicit a signature on a blank paper from him. When you later realise why she did this, it comes as one of the most satisfying twists. Throughout Challenge, she sees through the manipulations of the men around her and acts preemptively, saving the film from descending into the melodramatic clichés to which which lesser films of the era succumb.
The film is built on three great performances by three great actors — Chiranjeevi, Suhasini, and Vijayashanti — and Challenge works precisely because they're playing on a level field that allows them to challenge one other. There are many films that showcase ChiranjeeviTM — his precise control over that voice and its intonation; those large, expressive eyes that can charm, reveal the deepest wound, warn with the greatest wrath. But often, these mannerisms are staged for his fans by the filmmaker. In Challenge, you see how natural an actor the star can be, how affecting his choices are precisely because he is not being showcased with elongated push-in camera moves and unsubtle background music. He doesn't need these gimmicks to be separated from the rest of the characters; his performance, emerging from interplay with his co-stars, makes him stand out.
In Megastar: Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N. T. Rama Rao, S.V. Srinivas notes that "Throughout the film, even as the narrative races ahead, there is a deep sense of loss: a suggestion that something is missing in the world of big money, which the challengers now enter. "Challenge is ostensibly about the corrosive effects of money — it isn't Marxist as much as it is humanist. Nothing is mended when Gandhi becomes wealthy. It only invites more problems and begins to strip him of humanity. In the end, even when Gandhi wins, the money that makes the final tally is raised speculatively, on pre-orders for a vehicle from his factory that is yet to be manufactured. The whole game of getting rich is one of smoke and mirrors. When he is short of money, he is helped by the charity and gratitude of others, which reinforces the film's humanistic messaging.
The film has its blemishes. The fight sequences and songs are extraneous, transparently added for commercial value and one of them is outright cringeworthy in its visuals (though "Induvadana" remains a classic, and Ilaiyaraaja's background score is superb). There isn't really a comedy track, except for one brief, incredibly-dated scene. There is also a subplot involving Silk Smitha that serves the same function as her character in Moondram Pirai (1982) — to have the hero spurn her advances and proclaim himself as highly moral.
Still, Challenge remains one of the most fun and subversive Telugu movies. Its dialoguebaazi is as good as anything in Salim-Javed films like Deewar (1992); the games of one-upmanship between its characters are still tense and gripping; and Rao Gopal Rao as Raja Ram Mohan Rao is in splendid form as the primary antagonist. Yet it is also a window into another time, showing us how Chiranjeevi the actor was turning into the "Mega Star". A well-documented phenomenon in the South is how much an actor loses when his successes make him a larger-than-life icon. The star becomes circumscribed by the expectations of the "mass" film. When one listens to Vijay Devarakonda talk about how his films need to scale, you sense the imminent loss of the sort of actor who could play the laid-back Hyderabadi in Pelli Choopulu (2016), the lost, temperamental student leader in Dear Comrade (2019). For Chiranjeevi, this happened with Khaidi (1983), his first "mass" film, with which Siva Shankara Vara Prasad went from a promising young actor to a South star. In Khaidi, you can see the traces of the DNA of a film like Pushpa (2021) — its subaltern angst, its forest setting, and most of all its glorification of a muscular, masculine central hero. As the mass film would evolve over the next couple of decades, this glorification of masculine angst would be elevated, lose touch with some of its grit and rootedness, and come at the expense of the women in the film who were often "tamed" by the hero.
Chiranjeevi would keep resisting being boxed in by commercial films targeting a mass audience by picking films like K. Balachander's Rudraveena (1988), and K. Vishwanath's Swayam Krushi (1987) and Aapadbandhavudu (1992). However, just like any star, the gravity of his own talent and effort would cause things to warp around him; to be sucked in and burst into a bright, engulfing flame.