In one of his Telugu interviews, an insouciant Rana Daggubati pointed out a new trend in how Telugu movies declare themselves as blockbusters breaking first-day records or first-week collections. They always have an asterisk somewhere in these triumphant posters informing us this is a non-Baahubali record. The SS Rajamouli epic broke records all across India and I wonder if this fealty to the truth even in bombastic claims holds true in other industries. Kollywood and Bollywood are yet to make a movie that has surpassed Baahubali 2‘s collections at the Tamil Nadu box office or in North India. Bigil came quite close, so Master might have done it, but for the pandemic.
Until January 2020, Baahubali 2‘s gross in only the Telugu states (₹328 crore) nearly equalled the combined collection of the second (Baahubali 1 — ₹174 crore) and third (Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy — ₹163 crore) biggest grossers at the box office of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. For the top grosser to nearly equal the second and third biggest grossers is unprecedented for any movie industry anywhere in the world. To even try surpassing Baahubali 1, leave alone Baahubali 2, you had to be ambitious and mount a major spectacle like Sye Raa. Such a thing was thought impossible until the next Rajamouli movie. But nobody told that to Allu Arjun and Trivikram Srinivas. Nobody saw Ala… Vaikunthapurramuloo… coming. (All numbers based on http://andhraboxoffice.com/)
Metaphors and Mega Stars
The movie revolves around our middle-class hero Bantu’s entry into the famed but now decadent house of Vaikunthapuram. The story could well be a metaphor for Allu Arjun’s entry into the highest echelons of the famed and decadent Tollywood. Despite being among the most bankable stars in the industry and having only one disastrous outing (Varudu in 2010) in his 19 movies, Arjun has never really been counted among the biggest stars of Tollywood. Sure he gave some of its biggest hits in some years but nothing that shook up the industry like Simhadri, Magadheera, Pokiri, Chatrapathi or Attarintiki Daredi. Most of these movies are from the previous decade but their blockbuster success ensured their heroes a place in popular imagination as the new Telugu superstars who succeeded Chiranjeevi’s generation.
Pawan Kalyan was the Power Star, Mahesh Babu was the Super Star, Ram Charan was the Mega Power Star, NTR Jr was the.. well you don’t need a lofty label if your initials take after your legendary grandfather. But Arjun was just the Stylish Star, as if it were some consolation prize, as if style really mattered. He never gave the kind of hit that shook up the industry, made fans go crazy, pulled families to the theatres… you know, things a mega star or power star or rebel star are supposed to do. And then, Ala.. released as a Sankranthi special. It was competing against Sarileru Neekevvaru, which released the day before and became the biggest grosser in Mahesh Babu’s career. Not many would want to compete against Mahesh Babu on a festive occasion. Even in 2015, the producers of Baahubali requested him to postpone Srimanthudu by two weeks, giving their movie a full month before his movie was released.
Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo Sweeps Over Tollywood, And Allu Arjun’s Riding The Wave
But this Sankranthi, the appetite of Telugu domestic box office to consume two big-ticket movies was a revelation. I can’t remember the last time when two big-hero movies released simultaneously in Tollywood and went on to become huge grossers, neither affecting the other’s collections. In a delicious negation of Sarileru Neekevvaru (meaning ‘None to Match You’), Ala.. didn’t just surpass it but went on to beat Baahubali 1 in domestic gross, collecting more than ₹200 crores. It now stands second behind Baahubali 2 in lifetime collections at the box office of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It marks the arrival of Arjun, one who doesn’t need high fantasy and Rajamouli to establish himself as Tollywood’s biggest star — the new Mega Star.
Ala.. Vaikuntapurramuloo translates roughly to There in Vaikuntapuram. But the words can also be taken to mean ‘A Wave in Vaikuntapuram’; signifying the fact that it swept past records in the industry. The metaphor of Vaikuntapuram as Tollywood lends itself to other comparisons. There was the character Raj played by Sushanth, the false king-in-waiting who is soft-spoken and feels eternally out of place. It could well be a stand-in for Mahesh Babu himself, whose image trap and need for hits made him the Akshay Kumar of Telugu Cinema. He has been championing social causes in a string of movies, beginning from Srimanthudu. He did try something radical with movies like 1: Nenokkadine and Spyder. Their disastrous performances seem to have forced him to continue playing conventional larger-than-life characters, here saving a village, there saving farmers, elsewhere saving the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Nietzsche and Adversity in Ala
Elsewhere in Film Companion, an article argued about how the class politics of Ala’s narrative filters through the lens of Nietzschean master-slave morality thesis. Nietzsche argues there are two kinds of moralities — master and slave. The former who is the ubermensch (superhuman) attains aims through will to power, the latter through subversion. Applying this to the movie, are we to understand that the middle-class born have the slave morality while the industrial rich have the master morality?
Switched at birth, Bantu is robbed of his destiny as the heir of a business empire and grows up in a middle-class family under his father Valmiki’s miserly gaze. The movie shows him gaining what is ‘rightfully’ his, seemingly upholding Nietzsche’s dictum of the masters gaining what they willed. But dig deeper and there’s more to the narrative. If the aristocratic household of Vaikuntapuram truly had a master’s morality, Ramachandra’s son Raj would have grown up there to be confident and courageous, instead of the timid character that he is. Bantu’s real father Ramachandra (head of ARK) himself is a middle-class upstart who married into the rich house of Vaikuntapuram and ably led ARK for decades.
The rot in Vaikuntapuram is best reflected in the thieving cousins who siphon off lakhs every month. That the rest of the household remains blissfully blind to this reflects badly on all of them and how weak their vaunted master morality is. Contrast this with Bantu who is always upright and never lets his dad get away with minor falsehoods to his creditors. That Ramachandra sends his grown-up son Raj to Valmiki’s household, so he could be molded into someone worthy of being a CEO for ARK, proves the vitality of the middle-class household. Though not dwelled upon, Bantu’s mother must have been a powerful influence on his value system. When his true identity is revealed, in a sacrifice echoing that of Karna, he refuses to disown her for the sake of gaining ARK.
Repudiating Nietzsche, Ala actually shows that will to power and values are forged in adversity, not in the comfort of decadent riches. Though there are many millionaires and billionaires in the world who inherited their wealth, there are just as many of these who are self-made, rising through hard work. The truly Nietzschean character in the movie would be the villain Appala Naidu, played by Samuthirakani who lives the part. The masters of ARK are fighting off his ferocious will to acquire them at all costs. Nietzsche would have loved Naidu, calling his actions brave, noble and befitting an ubermensch. But Nietzsche never accounted for a different kind of ubermensch — the hero of Telugu masalas. Our Hero evokes Karna’s sacrifice and Yudhishthira’s honesty in the same breath. Yet he thinks nothing of leaving the villain for dead.
Sitharala Sirapadu (The Little Man of Wonders)
It could well be that Rajamouli’s next RRR would again break records, even surpass Baahubali’s collections. But these movies run less on star power and more on the unmatched admiration accorded to their director. Tollywood’s stars cannot dream of being the box office numero uno without a movie with Rajamouli. But not Allu Arjun.
The climactic fight set to the tune of Sitharala Sirapadu is part-surreal, part-electric, and an all-around sensational big-screen experience. The rustic voice, the lyrics in North Andhra dialect and the choreography were the icing on the cake. The way Allu Arjun fights, sings, and dances is a delight, and shows a man completely at ease, fully involved and joyous of his character, of his chosen job. And, he should be. He’s building his own wave and he’s just getting started.