Konidela Siva Shankara Varaprasad, better known as Chiranjeevi, is back with a bang. The Telugu superstar’s new movie Khaidi No 150 is his first film since Shankar Dada MBBS in 2007 and marks his return to cinema after an eight-year stint in Andhra Pradesh politics.
In Chiranjeevi’s 150th film, which has reportedly earned Rs 100 crore in the domestic and international markets, farmers battle a multinational corporation that has grabbed their fertile lands. The politically loaded movie takes a dig at the land acquisition policies of Andhra Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu and the upcoming capital city Amaravati. Chiranjeevi appears to be signalling his yearning for a new innings, both in the film industry and in politics.
The movie was released on January 11 on over 1,000 screens in India and another 1,000 screens abroad. The 62-year-old actor and producer initially planned to make his comeback with a film titled Auto Johnny, but he opted instead for Khaidi No 150, a remake of the 2014 Tamil film Katthi. Khaidi No 150 has been produced by his actor son Ram Charan and directed by VV Vinayak, who also helmed Chiranjeevi’s blockbuster Tagore in 2003 – a movie that drove him towards politics. Chiranjeevi had launched his party Praja Rajyam in 2008 with much fanfare, only to merge it with the Congress in 2011.
In a television interview, Chiranjeevi said that he wanted to deliver a specific social message of farmers fighting against a “corporate system” that was snatching up land in the garb of industrialisation. “My resolve was further reinforced when I felt that the media had ignored the farmers’ plight, and I chose to incorporate it in my film,” he said.
Chiranjeevi versus Balakrishna
Perhaps anticipating the thrust of Chiranjeevi’s movie, Chandrababu Naidu’s brother-in-law and Hindupur TDP Member of Legislative Assembly, Nandamuri Balakrishna, opened his 100th film, Gautamiputra Satakarni, a day after the release of Khaidi No 150. The 56-year-old actor-politician’s movie is a historical epic focusing on the life and times of a Satavahana king by the same name, who ruled for 20 years from Amaravati.
Gautamiputra Satakarni has the theme of national integration – the king brings 33 small kingdoms under one rule and is hailed as a predecessor of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Commenting on Gautamiputra Satakarni at the audio release function in Vijaywada in December, Chandrababu Naidu said that the film was “a precursor to the success of building the Amaravati capital and showcases the wealth and culture that AP would enjoy in the years to come”. Director Krish, famous for his 2013 hit Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu, too said that he had been inspired by the designs for the Amravati capital.
Fans clubs of both actors organised grand openings in theatres, which began screenings at 4.30am. In Telangana, the government refused permission for a 1.30am benefit show sought by the producers of both productions. In Omaha in the United States of America, a fan club took out a car rally to celebrate Khaidi No 150.
Anticipating clashes between rival devotees, Andhra Pradesh police issued public warnings against “hate-mongering and trolling” on social media. “Fans should keep away from controversies and violence,” Andhra Director General of Police N Sambasiva Rao told television journalists. “No need to talk ill or bad of the other actors or their fans or to discuss their castes in public (hotels etc).”
Cinema meets politics
Both films are action-packed thrillers packed with political one-liners and gimmicks. For Chiranjeevi, Khaidi No 150 is a comeback while for Balakrishna, Gautamiputra Satakarni is yet another attempt to regain his aura at the box office as his films have bombed for four years in a row.
In an interview with a Telugu channel, Balakrishna declared that Gautamiputra Satakarni was a summary of his social and political vision. “I wanted my 100th film to have a social agenda and I hope with this film, I will be able to spread the message of national integration as the basic component of development and cultural renaissance,” he said.
Balakrishna also made overtures to the electorate of Rayalaseema, a region known for factional violence. “It is my life’s ambition to break the factional shackles of the people and usher in all-round development,” he added.
TDP politicians see Chiranjeevi’s attack on corporations as an attempt to regroup the dominant Kapu caste and target Chandrababu Naidu and Amaravati. “Kapus are no fools to trust him for the second time,” Andhra Pradesh Home Minister N Chinarajappa, a Kapu leader from the West Godavari district, told Scroll.in. Kapu agitators led by Mudragada Padmanabham too are not happy with Chiranjeevi’s second attempt to regroup the community.
There is also speculation that Chiranjeevi will join hands with his younger brother, the actor Pawan Kalyan, whose political party Jana Sena is also targetting the Kapu votebank. In another television interview, Chiranjeevi denied the rumours. “I will use cinema to spread my social message and fight for the downtrodden and weaker sections,” he said.
Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam gained a substantial vote share of 18% in the 2008 Assembly election, but could bag only 18 Assembly seats. He could not win a single seat in the Parliamentary elections in the same year. Chiranjeevi was defeated in his native Palakollu constituency in West Godavari, although he won in Tirupati.
The Congress chief minister at the time, YS Rajasekhar Reddy, had said that “the entrance of Chiranjeevi in politics had helped Congress by cutting the TDP votes as he caused a split in Kapu votes”. The death of Reddy in 2009 and the revolt of his son Jagan against the Congress party drove Chiranjeevi further into the arms of the Congress, which gave him a Cabinet berth as Tourism Minister. In exchange, Chiranjeevi merged Praja Rajyam with the party.
In a press conference, Chiranjeevi was frank about his political flipflops. He said, “I was in seventh heaven in the film industry from 1978 to 2007 with a huge fan following and my social services were doing well. But the eight years in the political arena was not a cake walk. I faced brickbats, hurled and also received invectives in public and in political corridors. All that vexed me and pushed me to make a comeback in films.”