When experimental films flop, cinephiles hold grudges against general audiences for not appreciating a film's complexity but rather choosing to evaluate its ability to churn out blockbuster moments. This is particularly true of Telugu cinephiles who, so starved of softer parallel cinema, hold perennial resentment against Telugu audiences for not rewarding mainstream actors when they foray into an unfamiliar path.
There is a tendency to go overboard — sometimes exaggerating an experimental film's greatness — to feed into their cinephilia. The interesting aspect of failure of an actor’s experiment isn’t just the loss of that one film from public memory but its true cost is measured in what could have been had it been a success.
What would Mahesh Babu have done if Spyder (2017) was a success? Would he have dared to do Sukumar’s film which may have been Pushpa (2021) or a similarly brave mainstream film rather than going into a shell of successful but safe films? Had Johnny (2003) been an average film instead of being a colossal flop would Pawan Kalyan have given us a further glance into his martial arts-obsessed brain? Maybe we could have gotten a John Wick-style Telugu Gun Fu movie a decade or two ago.
Therefore, a flopped experiment is a cost not just in the present but also in the way it robs from the future. So, the most expensive flop in a purely artistic sense for Telugu cinema has to be Chiranjeevi’s Apadhbandhavudu (1992). The stupendous failure of the film ensured that Chiranjeevi never ventured into films that don’t continuously deify him.
The film narrates a simple love story between a shepherd belonging to an oppressed caste, Madhava, who falls in love with Hema, a girl from an oppressor caste. As they deal with the social stigma that opposes their love, Hema is sent to an asylum because she witnesses a horrific crime she cannot psychologically recover from. Madhava, then pretending to be mentally unstable joins the same asylum to win the love of his life.
Directed by 'Kalatapasvi' K Vishwanath, the film juxtaposes an unequal society divided by class and caste with the evenness of a mental asylum where everyone is deemed mad and asks who are the real mentally unstable ones.
In the hands of K Vishwanath, the film gets the sensitivity required and Chiranjeevi pours his heart into the role - letting his eyes take charge of the action while the audience fights back their tears. But this film flopped. Big time.
It was the last collaboration between Chiranjeevi and K Vishwanath and the magnitude of the flop so affected Chiranjeevi’s career that he never dared to venture into a similar space again. A postmortem of the film might reveal that it was released too close to Chiranjeevi’s other mega successes such as Gharana Mogudu (1992) and therefore could never match the expectations. When the audience craves spicy biriyani, you can’t feed them an apple. Maybe the audience recognised that some of the acting was hammy or the film was too preachy because the director was beyond his prime.
Chiranjeevi was hailed by Tamil director K Balachander as the perfect mix of Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth i.e. the perfect mix of art and mainstream. It’s the sort of quote that Telugu cinephiles use in arguments against their Tamil counterparts to prove the uniqueness of the Telugu megastar.
But after the flop of Aapadbandhavudu, Chiranjeevi killed his metaphorical “Kamal Hassan” and only fed the “Rajnikanth” in him. Even in films like Sneham Kosam (1999) or Daddy (2001) which demanded his full emotional range, he used an action-heavy masala crutch as insurance. It shouldn’t be construed as a coincidence that out of the seven Filmfare awards he’s received there’s a clear difference before and after Aapadbandhavudu in 1992. His first three awards were for a comedy (Subalekha, 1982), a tragedy (Vijetha, 1985), and a romantic drama (Aapadbandhavudu, 1992). But after 1992 the remaining four awards — for Mutha Mesthri (1993), Sneham Kosam, Indra (2002), and Shankar Dada MBBS (2004) respectively —are all films that rely either fully or partly on his image as a matinee idol rather than explore the actor in him.
Fantasising about the films that Chiranjeevi would have made had Aapadbandhavudu tasted even moderate financial success in Telugu becomes a near-romantic exercise. Maybe the dumped RGV-Chiranjeevi film would have happened earlier with both artists at their peaks. Maybe Chiranjeevi would have had the courage to do a Mani Ratnam film. Maybe a then-up-and-coming Tamil director called Shankar would have done his off-beat film called Indian where the father kills his son with Chiranjeevi. Or maybe we might be discussing a new Telugu director whose body of work would be ripe for cutting and slicing apart because Chiranjeevi decided to take a punt on them.
To be in Chiranjeevi’s shoes circa 1992 facing a dilemma might give us empathy while we regret the films that we lost. Imagine seeing such stupendous success in your films that your name becomes a synonym with the industry itself. And then you are humiliated by a flop that shakes your belief in your artistry. Like a bully punished for being vulnerable will go back to bullying ways, Chiranjeevi chose the safer and financially successful path.
And there is nothing but success down this path. Producers are content. Fans are overjoyed. Box office numbers are ringing. Legacy is intact. But there is a world out there — not far removed from the one we are in currently where an actor is allowed to be brave, and an artist is allowed to fail by those who love them, and cinema the art form trumps cinema the business every time. There is an actor out there who’s laughing at the idea of his mega-stardom dictating the choice of his next film before he steps onto sets where he’s excited to play a character nobody has ever seen him in.