Megastar (Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema After N.T. Rama Rao)

Item Code: IHL259
Author: S.V. Srinivas
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 0195693086
Pages: 334
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 Inch X 5.7 Inch
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Telugu cinema constitutes the second largest film industry in India next only to Hindi in Mumbai. The first in depth study of Telugu cinema Megastar analyses the powerful presence of popular culture and how films influence our daily lives in different ways.

Why do the biggest south Indian stars especially those who cannot die on screen retire as politicians? Challenging established stereotypes this book traces the career of Megastar Chiranjeevi from major movie idol to leader of the political party praja Rajyam. Spanning three decades of Chiranjeevi’s career from 1978 to 2008 as he was transformed form screen rowdy to reformer the book also analyses the uniquely south Indian phenomenon of fans associations and mass films. Srinivas’s ambitious interpretation throws new light on the complex relationship between popular cultural forms and mass politics.

The large number of movies stills and related visuals help highlighted the fan star spectator relationship. They also illustrate the means by which the state emerges as an object of spectatorial investment performing to our whistles and acting out our will. The book offers insights into what such a star might carry over from cinema to the domain of electoral politics. With its interdisciplinary approach and rich visual appeal megastar will be invaluable to students of film, Media, cultural Studies, sociology, politics, and history as well as to general readers interested in Indian cinema

S.V. Srinivas is Senior fellow and coordinator culture industries and diversity in Asia research programme center for the study of Culture and society Bangalore.


An obvious starting point for this book is the spectacular launch of Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Partty (PRP) in Tirupati on 26 August 2008. The Event was replete with Symbolism. The Hindu Pilgrim Centre of Tirupati in these days of bitter regional rivalries is the one place that can pass off as the city of the Telugus regardless of their place of origin. It is also the city where the Telugu film star turned politician N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) concluded his marathon election campaign just over a quarter century ago. Large cut outs of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Phule, and mother Teresa framed the giant television screen that serveda s the backdrop to the stage. Incidentally but perhaps not coincidentally 26 August is the birthday of Mother Teresa.

Four crore Rupees were reported to have been spent to organize the three hour event which included stage performances and was telecast live by satellite on Telugu and Kannada Channels. Political opponents however alleged that the actual figure was many times this amount. The renowned cinematographer Chota K. Naidu oversaw the television crews even as helicopters hovered over the crowd that was estimated to have been between four to ten lakh strong.

The strong performances in praise of Chiranjeevi and even and star’s faltering speech outlining his personal history and his party’s policies were frequently disrupted. Through the early part of the programme while the crowd grew increasingly restive in its anticipation of the star’s arrival by helicopter the pre-recoded songs blaring through the public address system were repeatedly interrupted but eh organizers pleading with the Babu in the yellow shirt and the boy in the blue banian to please stop climbing barricades generator sets and platforms Chiranjeevi’s speech too was interrupted by the chief organizer and the star’s younger brother Nagendra Babu using the public address to yell instructions at technicians because a generator set had apparently tripped due to the weight of people sitting on it. The fans unruly as always had come in the package deal called Praya Rajyam. How a star and his mammoth association of fans evolved into a machine capable of fighting elections is a subject of this book fan-control has been as issue for the star who tried to address it in a number of ways since the late 1980s. It is not in the least surprising that the problem was now being carried over to his election campaign.

Another issue to emerge at the Tirupathi meeting was the striking centrality of cinema of the star’s political campaign. I am not referring to the dancers and the helicopters or anything else that journalist’s term as filmy when referring to theatricality. Chiranjeevi like NTR before him has made it a point to seek political support on the strength of his screen career. During his first media conference on 17August 2008 (in Hyderabad) and subsequently in Tirupati, Chiranjeevi made frequent references to his film media roles presumably to suggest that they contained his political agenda and demonstrated his commitment to the people as well as his leadership qualities. But that was not all. The promotional video released at Tirupathi telecast live and also shown on the large screen on the stage for the most part consisted of a compilation of clips from his films. The industry’s biggest star and aspiring Chief Minister of the state was standing before the crowd in person yet the crowd was being called upon to watch his screen persona through his film clips. In essence the video had transformed even those attending the meeting let alone the television viewers into spectators of screen images.

What do we make of this star and his fans? And this incredible exercise of addressing potential voters as if they were his fans asking them to vote for him because they like his films? It is possible that the star was under the impression that the electorate or at least sections of it would not be able to make a distinction between films and reality. The question before me however is how the star’s screen career and its socio political and film industrial contests add up. I am acutely aware of the fact that I am asking the question after influence has proved to be an ineffective template to mount an explanation.

This book will focus on the career of Chiranjeevi to ask the extent of the play and reach of cinema in our lives in Andhra Pradesh other places in India and even beyond Chiranjeevi born Konidela Shivashankar Varaprasad and popularly known as Chiry and Megastar is the most popular stat to have emerged after NTR’s exit form the industry. His career has clear parallels with that of Rajnikant in Tamil Cinema. Both starts were centers of hitherto unprecedented fan activity and began their careers in low-budget films initially playing a variety of roles that gave little indication of the kind of screen personae they would develop over the years. Neither was considered a paragon of male beauty unlike the top stars of the earlier generation Rajnikant is the more famous and successful of the two but it sis Chiranjeevi who has first decided to make his much anticipated entry into politics reversing the general trend of Telugu cinema and its starts drawing inspiration from their Tamil counterparts. Chiranjeevi’s film career coincides with an important phase in the political history of Andhra Pradesh. Not the least because he began acting in 1978 when post Emergency realignment of forces began to crystallize in the state. His most important early success came in 1983 with Khaidi the same year when NTR was elected as chief Minister.

This book covers the thirty year period between 1978 when Chiranjeevi began his career and 2008 when he announced the formation of the Praja Rajyam Party. While examining the star’s films and fans this book looks obliquely at a period of tremendous political churning in Andhra Pradesh to ask not only what the cinema had to say about these times but more importantly what the cinema’s material contribution to the productive turmoil of the period has been. I argue that the cinema was far from incidental to the conflicts of this time. What film industrial and socio-political issues/ problems Telugu cinema and its biggest starts were working out is a question that this study hopes to bring into the discussions of the contemporary.

In the period under consideration NTR the politicians rose, fell, and died (in 1996) electoral was transformed by the Challenge to the Indian national congress (INC) party’s domination not only by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) but also by NTR’s Style of campaigning. NTR’s campaign was founded on a performance that was acutely aware of its own importance for mass mobilization. His rhetorical speeches bodily gestures and get-up which changed from khaki to saffron in the early years of his political career highlighted the theatrical and even through condemned as pure histrionics the star nevertheless staked his political career on it. With NTR Andhra Pradesh could be said to have fully and properly transited into the age of mass mobilization. However the film star politician was not the only one in the business. This was a period when a number of a new constituency was being formed even as the older ones were being transformed. The Naxalites or the Communist party of India (Marxist Leninist) factions grew phenomenally after the emergency and in the 1990s they virtually ran parallel governments in parts of the state. Emergency and post Emergency repression pm the Naxalite movement threw up the most vibrant civil liberties movement in the country. The Dalit movement as we know it today emerged in the second half of the 1980s at least in part as a response to the dominance of upper caste peasants under NTR’s rule. Around this time the independent women’s movement became prominent. And then came the mandal Kamandal agitations. To talk of Chiranjeevi then is to argue the interpretation of our present.

The Telugu film industry is the second largest in India. The little that is known about Telugu cinema outside Andhra Pradesh and its immediate neighborhood is often limited to its mythologist films and the stars namely N.T. Rama Rao and more recently Chiranjeevi. In 1982 N.T. Rama Rao the Industry’s biggest star established his own political party named Telugu Desam Party and went on to become the first non congress Chief Minister of the state in 1983. Now Chiranjeevi who I will argue is in many ways an inheritor of the NTR legacy has ended 15 years of speculation by launching his political party. This legacy cannot be reduced to the ability to draw crowds or win elections.

A study of Telugu cinema cannot but note that much is shared by south Indian cinemas in general and Telugu and Tamil Industries in particular. NTR’s decision to enter politics hints of which were first made by the star in 1980 was no doubt influenced by M.G. Ramachandran’s (MGR’s) election as chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977 prior to this the hero-dwayam the star twosome as Telugu journalists called them NTR and Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR) had begun to perform high profile charitable actions medelled on their Tamil counterparts MGR and Sivaji Ganesan.

While the parallels between the three major south Indian stars MGR, NTR, and the Kannada star Rajkumar were first pointed out by Chidananda Das Gupta (1991) it was not until M. Madhava Prasad’s work (1997 and 1999) who drew attention to the tendency of Madras based production companies and studios to make multiple language versions of films the late 1940s. Madras was then home to all the four major south Indian cinemas. From the 1950s the one major change that was noticeable in the different versions of a multilingual production was its male lead as if the male star alone was capable of defining the product as being Telugu, Tamil, or Kannada. After 1956 when linguistic political pressure even as they were lured by state government incentives to begin the long drawn process to relocate to their home states. The Telugu film industry completed this process only in the late 1990s Prasad argues that the Madras film industry starting from the 1950s threw up a generation of stars namely the star troika comprising MGR, NTR and Rajkumar who gradually emerged as authority figures on screen and representatives of their linguists communities off screen 1999:41).

In spite of Prasad’s persuasive argument journalistic as well as academic writings on the cinema tend to make incorrect assumption. The first is to suppose that each cinema of this region constitutes and exception. Nowhere is this more frequently heard then in reference to Malayalam cinema which we are repeatedly told is not like Tamil cinema (or other Indian cinemas let alone sought Indian). The other is that there is only one story to be told in these parts and it has to do with Tamil cinema. While I do not have the linguistic and other competencies to make a comparative study of south Indian cinema in general this book proceeds with the assumption that every development that I identify as significant for Telugu cinema is likely to have parallels in the region and at times also with Bombay’s cinema.

Nevertheless there are a set of questions that are sharply posed by Telugu cinema and its megastars especially NTR and Chiranjeevi but the investigation of eh specificity of Telugu cinema is in no way aided by the assumption of its uniqueness or derivative status. Furthermore unlike exploration of the cinema politics linkages in Tamil Nadu this book will steer clear of debilitating a priori formulations that have at times reduced complex issues to a linear narrative which typically begins with the non Brahmin movements in the early twentieth century and ends with M.G. Ramachandran (Extendable to Jayalalitha and Vijaykanth with Minor revision) by moving away from Tamil Cinema there is an outside chance that we can reinterpret that story too.


Acknowledgements ix
Image Credits xi
List OF Acronyms xii
Introduction xv
Part I
1 Whistling fans and conditional Loyalty 3
Part II
2 After NTR Telugu Mass Film and Cinematic Populism 73
3 Rowdy citizen: He who knows his Ganji and Benji129
4 Fans, families and Phantoms: Alluda Majaka Revisited 157
5Remaking the star to make a politician 189
Chiranjeevi’s Filmography (Telugu, Hindi and Kannada) 242
Notes 247
References 269
Index 281
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