Spyder: The Flop That Changed Mahesh Babu

Failure of a film where he tries something different isn’t new to Mahesh Babu. But when Spyder flopped...
Spyder: The Flop That Changed Mahesh Babu

When you belong to a specific cinema culture - knowing its glories and shameful corners - there arises a moment where outsiders inquire about the cinema you consume and ask for a sample. You tend to scour through all the nooks, crannies, and highways of your cinema world to find a personality that represents “your culture” in a good light. Lovers of Hindi cinema had Shahrukh Khan. Enough said. Tamil cinema flaunted the artistic muscles of Kamal Hassan and the international box office pull of Rajinikanth. Kannada cinema had its maverick Upendra who disregarded execution and made crass exposition and unsavory politics appear as an auteurist style. Malayalam cinema was just “better cinema” and you didn’t need receipts. 

But Telugu cinema between the 2000s and early 2010s struggled to find that figure. K Viswanath was from a different era. Ram Gopal Verma had migrated to Mumbai full-time. Chiranjeevi didn’t feel representative of the time and place and was focused on his political entry. And Rajamouli was still discovering the true power of his storytelling superpowers. 

There was one actor that Telugu cinema usually resorted to showcase - Mahesh Babu. Here was a good-looking, well-spoken actor with the rare combination of acting prowess, stardom and ambition. 

Mahesh Babu in Spyder
Mahesh Babu in Spyder

During the years Telugu cinema roamed in creative wastelands he showed hope. Stardom isn’t a race but if it was he’d have been the horse you bet on if you were told that Telugu stars were to one day become national household names. He was attempting different cinema when Telugu cinema was content in its regional confines and now when it seems to have gone global he has retreated into the warm protective shell of hyper-local cinema. A song from his next, Guntur Kaaram, titled ‘Kurchi Madathepetti’, which was borrowed from a viral video, is a testament to the fact that the star is leaving no stone unturned to ensure he scores it big time with the masses.

This might boil down to the colossal failure of his 2017 film Spyder - a film that was supposed to bring in the trifecta of box office, accolades, and increased market share. Except Spyder vanished from the theatres and the world was a better place for that. 

Failure of a film where he tries something different isn’t new to Mahesh Babu. He seemed eager to use the defeat at the box office of one film as motivation for the next one. In the eighteen years between his debut in 1999 and 2017, he attempted risks that were conceptually ahead of their time but lacked finesse in creative and technical execution. 

Mahesh Babu in Spyder
Mahesh Babu in Spyder

He attempted a sordid take on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in Yuvaraju (2000), his second film. In 2002 he attempted a cowboy film - a Gongura Western if you will - with the meagre budgets of that era. In Naani (2004) he attempted a sci-fi comedy where he plays an adult with an eight-year-old boy's brain. He took on the system in Nijam (2003) where he played a meek character immediately after earning the image of a mass star. Even after achieving superstardom, he took a big gamble with Sukumar’s One (1: Nenokkadine, 2014) where he played a rockstar with a psychological disorder that prevents him from differentiating between reality and illusion. 

They were all flops because of their creative recklessness. It was a case of confusing an idea - thrilling, fresh, and brave - for the execution - shoddy, weak, and uncreative. But the star always came out with praise even if the film sunk. When a film was a hit Mahesh Babu could walk away with praise but when they flopped no fingers would be pointed at him. 

The director didn’t know how to handle the premise.

The producer didn’t spend enough money. 

The heroine looked too old next to him. 

And you began to suspect that maybe that was the game he enjoyed playing: to be praised as the shining object amidst the rubble.

But Spyder finally broke the camel’s back. 

The film needed to be a hit. Mahesh Babu was coming off an embarrassing flop in Brahmotsavam (2016), a family film that had less flavour than plain rice. He combined forces with AR Murugadoss who had revamped Vijay’s image in Tamil cinema; he was the director to go to if you wanted to push the boundaries within mainstream cinema. 

A still from Spyder
A still from Spyder

Except Spyder was an embarrassing flop because it wanted to be something for everyone and became nothing for anyone. The fans were left with no real moments. For Telugu audiences, the film felt too much like a Tamil film. For Tamil audiences, it felt underwhelming as Mahesh Babu didn’t offer anything new. And for people expecting a grand experiment, the film offered little in ambition and execution. 

The film tells the story of an Intelligence Bureau officer who uses unethical means to save people crossing paths with a psycho killer for whom the ends and the means are one: human suffering. While heroes are as strong as their villains, here SJ Suryah’s Bhairava was so strong that the lead was reduced to the mercy of the forces of the screenplay to make him appear heroic. It felt like Murugadoss fell so in love with the villain that he forgot about the star helming the film. For the first time, the film was rubble and Mahesh Babu was as bad as the rest of the film. Even the Telugu audience who normally viewed him with kinder eyes rejected him.

Since then, Mahesh Babu decided he was not going to experiment any more. Each of the films he’s done after that has a template - he saves the world and doles out a message. The pessimists might say that the Great Experimenter in him is truly dead and after so many hits any wall will fall. 

But the optimists might have a theory that sounds more fun. He knew in 2017 that he had a film locked with Rajamouli - a director who has no sympathy for grand ideas that fail in execution and someone who believes that an idea is only as good as its presentation on screen. This director can take the star to the places the audience always expected of him -  knocking on the world’s door to turn their attention towards him. And so until then, the star’s trick is to not overexpose himself and protect his image by being hyper-local.

That explains why even in 2023 the title of his next film is Guntur Kaaram - a hyper-local reference in the title itself. 

For someone who is used to taking uncalculated risks, maybe for the first time, he’s taken a calculated one. It might be too late to become the first household name from Telugu film culture that everyone speaks of, globally. But if this bet proves right, he could be the biggest name that everyone speaks of.

And then there will be many who have watched him for nearly two decades go “I told you so”. 

Related Stories

No stories found.