There’s a moment in Bholaa Shankar, Chiranjeevi’s latest film, when Chiranjeevi smashes a wall with his elbow, angered by a prank played by Tamannaah. It seems to come out of nowhere; the dramatic context is too tepid for this. We are, of course, meant to ignore the immediate context and react with recognition: the wall-smash is a reference to a famous scene in his 1991 smash-hit Gang Leader.
In Gang Leader, this moment occurs when Chiranjeevi is being blackmailed by the Superintendent of Police into approving a marriage alliance. The two men have this conversation while walking a narrow path throttled by two brick walls:a visual representation of what the villain is doing to our hero. When he realizes he has no means to escape this predicament, he smashes the wall in frustration—an act that foreshadows his actions in the film.
It’s safe to say there’s nothing in Bholaa Shankar to match the craft that went into constructing this masala moment. There is in fact, nothing in any of Chiranjeevi’s films since his “comeback” in Khaidi No: 150 to match this. The problem is they don’t even seem to be trying.
This isn’t to say that Chiranjeevi’s films from the 80s and 90s age entirely well, or that he should be making the kind of films he was making then in 2023. Many of these films have stretches of awful misogyny and poorly-aging comedy. But films like Alluda Majaka aside, these stretches were extraneous, thrown in to hedge against a "mass audience" getting bored. There was substance to the writing; a worldview which the central drama was built upon, which in turn motivated the action. You believe the relationship between Chiranjeevi and the children he has fostered in Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990).
More importantly, Chiranjeevi’s stardom was a signifier of larger things, of the assertion of the subaltern. After NTR’s entry into politics, he took on the mantle of the leading star in Telugu cinema; but he represented something entirely different: the self-assertion of the subaltern. In the films he made with A Kodandarami Reddy, he brought the Bachchan-esque socio-political angst to Telugu cinema: in Khaidi (1983), he was a poor farmer’s son who raged against the exploitative feudal landlords in the village, in Challenge (1984), he embodied the urban unemployed youth’s disillusionment with capitalistic excess. In 1993's Mutha Mestri, two years before Baasha's ‘Naa Autokaaran’, he played a lungi-clad labour leader who sang “Ee pettaki nene Mestri, niru pedhala paaliti pennidhi ( I’m the leader of this hood, the bulwark of the poor)". He stands up against the industrialists and politicians looking to arrogate their land by bulldozing the marketplace and creating communal strife.
But it isn’t that his stardom was restricted to embodying subaltern assertion .There is a remarkable diversity to his performances in his more “acclaimed” films—his comic chops in Jandhyala’s Chantabbai (1986) and K Vishwanath’s Subhalekha (1982) would prefigure his later hits like Baavagaru Bagunnara (1998), Shankar Dada MBBS (2004). In Aaradhana (1987), Aapadbandhavudu (1992), Swayamkrushi (1987), and Rudraveena (1988), you discover an extraordinarily skilled dramatic actor, capable of subtlety, and nuance. Balachander would once famously describe Chiranjeevi as "a unique combination of Kamal Haasan, Rajnikanth, and Sivaji Ganesan". When Michael Jackson entered the global consciousness through MTV, Chiranjeevi learned to dance like him—at first aping, and then riffing on his signature style. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing with Chiranjeevi is how many things he could do, how many things he signified, setting incredibly high standards for an actor aspiring to be a hero: you had to out-act, out-dance, out-stunt, and out-fight Chiranjeevi. Talk to anyone who grew up in the Telugu states in the 80s and 90s and Chiranjeevi was synonymous with an aspirational “herodom”. For a boy growing up in this era, he represented an irresistible masculinity that could sometimes be toxic, but also be equally self-effacing and malleable (sometimes within the same film).
As the 90s gave way to the early 2000s, Chiranjeevi’s films had less to say; they were content with being solid “entertainers” with a tacit acknowledgement of his aging as he played the concerned elder brother, college lecturer, or patriarch. And yet, there was a substance to films like Annayya (2000), Choodalani Vundi (1998), Indra (2002), Shankar Dada MBBS (2004), Tagore (2003), and Stalin (2006)—a commitment to story, locale, and drama, despite many of them being remakes. A fidelity to some sort of reality. The star was still a conduit for story, for genre. These films still had referents in the real world, in politics, in real communities and families. In the early 2010s, Chiranjeevi quit films to focus on politics, returning after almost a decade with the successful, but subpar Khaidi 150 (2017), a remake of Vijay-starrer Kaththi (2014). This was followed by the politically confused Acharya (2022), the mediocre Baahubali-sploitation Syee Ra Narasimha Reddy (2019), another mediocre remake, GodFather (the 2022 adaptation of Mohanlal-starrer Lucifer), the competent-if-unremarkable Waltair Veerayya (2023), and last week’s box-office disaster, Bholaa Shankar, a remake of Ajith-starrer Vedalam (2015).
Bholaa Shankar opens in Kolkata, and spends some of its runtime asking you to applaud at the cleverness of having Chiranjeevi play a character named Shankar Dada. Then we get the Gang Leader wall-smash. In the second half, we move beyond Chiranjeevi, and we get into the family: as Kushi's Yeh Mera Jahaan plays, Chiranjeevi does an imitation of Pawan Kalyan's mannerisms. "Thammudi paata (The younger brother's song),” someone makes sure to remind us. Later, we get a re-enactment of the “nadumu” scene from Kushi (2001).
The problem isn't so much that the references are hamfisted—they are—but that there is nothing else to the film. And this is true of most of Chiranjeevi's films since his comeback—three out of six of them being remakes—that there is often little substance to them apart from their references to the mythology of his stardom. In Waltair Veerayya, Chiranjeevi headed a fishing community, but it didn’t feel like a representation of Jalaripeta; rather, a caricature of it. An attempt to refer to Mutha Mestri, but there, the marketplace of the community felt lived in. In Bholaa Shankar, Kolkata doesn’t feel like Kolkata did in Choodalani Vundi. These films can do little else but reference: they are road-signs pointing to other road-signs, naming a town that they hope you have pleasant memories of visiting 20 years ago.
Perhaps these films are indicative of a deeper malaise in commercial Telugu cinema. So many mainstream Telugu films seem to be about nobody in particular—characters live in homes that don't seem real, have family dynamics that seem like they don't exist beyond the shot, live in locations that have no fidelity to any concrete reality. The poor, when depicted, are caricatured as helpless and servile. The rich are also caricatured—their businesses compared to empires of yore—and the middle class, whose values are constantly exalted and romanticized, aren't recognisable to anybody who would reasonably identify as middle class. Their politics is often nonsensical, oft-condensed to some sort of aphorism thrown at you before the credits roll. It often feels like the real world has drained out of mainstream Telugu cinema, replaced by farcical simulations and faux-nostalgic simulacra. As if mainstream Telugu cinema, unlike Tamil and Malayalam cinema, has ceased to speak to our present.
It isn’t that Chiranjeevi is the lone star from his generation reckoning with the question of fashioning a star vehicle : Rajnikanth, Mammooty, and Mohanlal have all had to, with varied levels of success. Bholaa Shankar seems to be going for something like Rajnikanth’s Petta, with its references to and recreations of the star's past hits. It is, of course, too incompetent to deliver on this aspiration. I'm sure there are many young filmmakers who would love the opportunity to make Chiranjeevi's version of Petta. But the problem with trying to do a Petta is that it will never be a Thalapathi or a Baasha.
My gripe is not with the star-vehicle, but with the idea that the vehicle can only carry the star and nothing else. That the star cannot become a conduit for a compelling story about a real or fictive world. It also doesn’t help that as he stars opposite younger and younger female leads, Chiranjeevi lacks a presence like Vijayashanti, Suhasini, or Ramya Krishna that would go toe-to-toe with him.
Perhaps it is the lack of good writing talent in the industry that prevents Chiranjeevi from doing a film like Drishyam. Is it the economics of the industry, (or rather the perception of its economics which is really, a perception of the audience) that prevents us from even imagining him doing a film like Unda (2019) or Rorschach (2022). Why doesn’t this perception dissolve in the face of the success of a Rangasthalam (2018), or even of a smaller indie film like Balagam? It could be that the skyrocketing budgets of the star vehicles inherently prevents this, due to the stakeholders insisting on safe and formulaic elements to safeguard the box-office returns.
It might be the case that the veteran wants to ease into this late-career phase, to rest a little on the laurels he’s racked up and bathe in the admiration he enjoys. But someone who has grown up in a film culture tends to reminisce on the distinct impressions of their formative years. There is that moment in a Chiranjeevi film when he is wronged, and his eyes well up and redden, a pain in them engendered by the cruelty of the world, a pain that cries out to you to partake in it. In Waltair Veerayya and in Bholaa Shankar, I thought I caught the faintest hints of it. Chiranjeevi is sixty-eight, but the best thing one can say about his latest films is that you wouldn’t believe it. He certainly looks at least fifteen years younger than that, and I don’t really know how he’s able to dance as he does. Perhaps in the near future, a filmmaker will alchemize some of what Chiranjeevi has to offer to make a great film, one that doesn’t feel the need to mythologize him, and—precisely for this reason, ends up being a worthy addition to his mythology.