This story is probably a tragedy. I don't know. You decide.
But it begins in 1995 on a hot Andhra afternoon where the sun punishes you harder than a convent teacher who catches you cheating in an exam. An aunt of mine was carrying me atop her shoulders while waiting in line to buy tickets for a movie. It wasn't just any ordinary movie. It was Chiranjeevi's SP Parasuram and he was coming off of a string of flops or rather hits that weren't up to his definition of success. The expectations for this film were high because Chiranjeevi was still trying to recreate the blockbuster success of Gharana Mogudu which came in 1992. That film holds a special place in the heart of every Telugu film audience who loves masala films. Not because the plot was new or the tropes were fresh but just because that film opened new ground for what the word "blockbuster" meant.
To call that film a blockbuster would be to cheapen its success. It required the actor to take a helicopter across the state thrice in a day to celebrate the success in three different cities. It prompted a headline in a leading English weekly to pronounce Chiranjeevi as "BIGGER THAN BACHCHAN". Imagine the audacity of the headline and the achievement of the film. We are still coming to terms with the fact that once regional stars might now command box office numbers akin to the Khans and here this magazine had pronounced Chiranjeevi as bigger than the biggest star the country had ever seen. In 1993. That was the kind of success of Gharana Mogudu had witnessed.
Back to my aunt. Outside a single screen theatre, she stood in a queue that never seemed to end like a goods train that chugs along the countryside. I always assumed that she put me atop her shoulders out of love but now I realise that she wanted some protection against the sun's wrath. At some point, she gave in and wanted to step out to get some water. As she put me down, the person next in line assumed that it was the best chance to steal her place. His first step towards occupying the vacant spot had given everyone the license to assume that they were one step closer to getting tickets for the film.
Seeing her place gone, my aunt tried to squeeze her way back into the queue and claim her place. As the man took a foot back to let my aunt back in, the reluctant strangers in the queue who did not believe in the man's idea of fairness pushed back with multiped force like a ripple that came back like a wave. My aunt collapsed to the ground but she managed to protect me by muscling me away but the man to not lose balance stepped on her knee.
There was an audible crack, a hoarse shriek, and some visible scars.
Strangers insisted that my aunt go to the hospital. Instead, we got free tickets and we went inside the hall to whistle and hoot. But the insipid movie continued the string of flops.
A few months later Chiranjeevi would deliver adequate fan service in his next blockbuster but my aunt's knee never recovered. She would jokingly blame me for her injury but never Chiranjeevi for whom she retained utmost love and madness. That's the sort of irrational love Chiranjeevi of the 90s commanded from the Telugu speaking world. This story isn't just anecdotal evidence. You ask anyone from this part of the world; they'll tell you they know a person (if they're already not that person) with some such story to get tickets to a Chiranjeevi film. Gates that were jumped, maddening crowds that were navigated, bribes that were given, influences that were used – just to get a few tickets to witness the star bigger than Bachchan. Maybe it was people holding onto an icon in a post-liberalised India. In a world where every culture seemed to be producing cultural icons and artists, people were holding on to an artist catering exclusively to them. While Hollywood felt strange and Bollywood in pursuit of songs and stories was moving Westward in its gaze, here was someone who promised to make the audience dance in theatres in their town. Their city. Their village. Their language.
I use the terms "visual grammar" and "aesthetic" relatively, but unlike the best of Telugu masala cinema now which has managed to add visual grammar and aesthetics, the films of the 90s were kitsch and chaotic and supremely dialogue-heavy.
Here's what happened in the average masala Telugu film of the 90s. Comedians hammed it up in the name of comedy. There were awkward frames and angles and glaring continuity errors. Heroines were dressed in atrocious costumes, as directors threw flowers, fruits, and exotic locations at the heroine to make her an object of desire. Villains were the average of a Shakespearean antagonist and a corrupt politician of the time. The music was too shy to embrace a Western influence and clung to its rustic roots like a young woman who recently moved from her home in a village to a metropolis.
None of this was unique to Telugu cinema. But the stand out factor was the man who held it all together. Chiranjeevi.
First with his dancing as if to say the fun is in the chaos – doing awkward body waves, playing to the gallery with knowing winks as if to ask permission from the audience if he could chase the heroine, dancing with abandon but never in Govinda's self-deprecating manner. The secret I think is that while the dance that the younger crop of actors performs on screen is impressive in their athleticism, Chiranjeevi's dance doesn't seem to care that you're in the room or that the camera is recording. He's having a good time and you better too, because if the camera weren't on, he'd be dancing anyway. And that's always everybody's favourite dancer.
He usually played characters belonging to the working class. His characters' oppressed caste origins were present but never too overt to unsettle the oppressor caste members in the audience. While fighting, he would throw his collar up with a swagger as a way to condition the audience in a Pavlovian manner that the bad guys, unlike those watching in a theatre, had no idea what was coming.
But most importantly he would master the chaos by being ridiculously funny, where the audience laughs with and at him. The camera too when capturing his comedic muscles would stand afar and just let him play with props, space, his voice, and other actors. It would let the actor breathe and let him be. The humour wasn't in any particular dialogue but just that he said it in the way he said it. And the more he did, the more the audience wanted. This was in the 90s.
But it's now 2022 and Telugu cinema is experiencing its peak in terms of technical prowess. There is an audience hungry for its stories and it has never gotten the kind of attention it is getting now. A regional cinema once considered too cartoonish and garish is now churning out works which are being recognized not just across the sub-continent but also by the nerd fiefdoms in Hollywood. Much like roads and Rome all the boldness and the audacity of Telugu masala cinema's image-making leads back to some films Chiranjeevi did in the 80s and 90s. Rajamouli, Sukumar, and even Kannada film's Prashanth Neel speak about the influence of Chiranjeevi's films in the way they present their protagonists. No star in the current crop can claim that they weren't influenced by the Chiranjeevi the actor, the dancer, and the star. His stardom is the giant upon whose shoulders Telugu masala films of today stand on.
Yet two weeks earlier when I had to review Acharya, Chiranjeevi's latest film, outside the theatre, the queues weren't maddening. Inside the theatre, there was a sense of doom like the kind your mother feels when her husband's family is coming over. It's all pervasive and you're never sure what's worse – the suspense of waiting or the horror of finding out. And the film turned out to be delightfully dull. The dialogues were not crisp. Chiranjeevi looked tired and worse, bored. Even the trademark shot of throwing the collar up felt like a cheaply placed callback rather than a moment earned.
Chiranjeevi's waning stardom feels stranger because in Telugu cinema's biggest moment his films today are barely at the forefront of Telugu cinema let alone be amongst those that are showcased to the world. His films now are awkward to watch and feel like knock-offs of his own work. What could possibly explain his downfall while others are thriving?
Of course, it's age. But is it really? Older superstars still exist. Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Mohanlal, and Amitabh Bachchan still command whistles and hoots even if it's a fraction of what they once were.
What if I'm reading too much into one flop? Which superstar hasn't had flops? Ask Shah Rukh Khan who hasn't had his level of blockbuster in nearly a decade but the stardom and love have barely waned. But in Chiranjeevi's case, it's not the flop itself as much as how unimpressive the effort has been since Chiranjeevi's comeback. Khaidi No. 150 was a bland remake for a comeback film. In Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, it's difficult to see him perform stunts with so much effort and it's even more difficult to train the eye to reject the intolerable repetition of shots that try to cheat the presence of a body and stunt double. The less said about the heroines in his films the better. If it was awkward to see him romance Kajal Aggarwal in Khaidi No. 150 it felt icky to see him as the lover torn between two women in Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy.
Does he not dance as well as he used to? That's not true. In fact, the only thing good about Acharya was the way he danced. How can a man five short of seventy years still capture your attention when Ram Charan, his son and a younger and fitter version of Chiranjeevi himself is dancing right next to him?
Maybe the political gamble he took in 2008 by hastily exiting films without a proper blockbuster and launching his own political party which failed spectacularly, dented his confidence. When box office collections didn't translate at the ballot, he probably questioned whether the fan love is real. But it's not just about the defeat but how he took the defeat. As a star, he was used to flops and rejections but he'd always come back stronger. On the political front, however, soon after defeat, he meekly merged his party with the Congress – the party considered the one responsible for bifurcating the once unified state. Post-2014, in Andhra Pradesh the Congress were seen as traitors and in Telangana, they were seen as the ones who had denied them separate statehood for so long. Chiranjeevi was in the party and he did nothing to stop the bifurcation which meant that at best, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at worst he was complicit. That felt like a betrayal.
The answer could be any of the above and each has enough weightage to be right. My personal opinion is that the current crop of filmmakers wants Chiranjeevi the star to imitate himself from the 90s where every frame is deliberately constructed to land every dialogue as a punchline. But the key to appreciating Chiranjeevi is not in delivering a punchline at premeditated moments but it's in letting him wreak havoc on camera and do the unexpected. The polish of modern frame making is too restrictive for someone like Chiranjeevi who thrived in the chaos of the Telugu cinema of the 90s. And maybe the stories that he picks need to let him be more "common" and the filmmakers need to let him just find his way of playing the protagonist in their stories.
The reason to lament his decline in stardom could be indicative of my own personal inabilities to cope with time. He is the last relic of my childhood or anyone who grew up in the parts of the world where he was 'bigger than Bachchan'. The 90s is now retro. I'm closer to 30 than I'd like to admit. And if he ever manages to create that level of madness again, I can hope to experience a whiff of childhood one last time before I enter an age where I unironically start saying "I'm X years young".
But there's one more reason I am lamenting his loss of stardom and itching for that comeback. Remember I told you this is probably a tragedy and it involved my aunt?
She considered herself such a big fan that when she exercised her rights as a citizen to vote she chose her love for a matinee idol over her country. Megastar Mahaan over mera bharat mahaan for her. I'm not leaking some confidential information of a private citizen. Everyone who interacted with her knew it. She would even try to convince you to vote for him while nursing her creaky knee and cursing me if I was around.
When he witnessed the string of flops right before his political debut, she said his political party would be the "real" blockbuster. When the political gamble failed, she said the next elections were where he would shine. When he announced his party's merger with the Congress and later quit politics, she said the comeback film would be the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. And then she passed away. Waiting and hoping.
It's not the death that's the tragedy. She was quite unfazed by the prospect of death in her final days. "Why would I feel bad if it's happening to everyone?", she would remark which I now realise was her feigning confidence and hiding her fear. But she continued to curse life for two reasons: for giving her a nephew who she blamed her for rickety knee and that she never got to properly celebrate one last film of her favourite matinee idol.
Now you tell me. Is it a tragedy that she didn't get to see his current films? Or is it better to not see this version of her idol for whom she happily gave up a functional knee?
I think I have an answer.