Child prodigies turning successful in their later life is quite a rare phenomenon. It’s the same in the case of film stars too. Remember Shirley Temple? Or know Shirley Temple? Okay. If you know her, you may remember her as a superstar of a kid actor. But what about the films where she played the roles of adults? If you don’t know her, just wiki.
Now, think of this! A child actor who enjoyed unprecedented stardom becoming the quintessential superstar when he becomes a lead-man! Rings any bells? Any example in world cinema? Isn't this a rarest of the rarest species? Read on to know...!
Now, remember the film titled Koduku Diddina Kapuram. The reigning superstar of Telugu Cinema and you know his name, played a dual role of twins. The film was directed by his father Superstar Krishna, a young Mahesh Babu takes on a bunch of goons and in the midst of the climactic action sequence. There’s a dialogue which goes like this, probably uttered by Sudhakar, Vaadu pillodu kaadu. Pidugu (He isn’t a kid. He’s a thunderbolt).
The film saw Mahesh in his first signature role. That of an action hero who also delivers goods in terms of entertainment. Oh! There were dance sequences too where he gave their money’s worth to the big stars of those times. That was 30 years ago. Now, the same man has completed 25 films as a lead actor and delivered at least 10 landmark films in recent time. Quite a big number for any other star hero. But not to the one who successfully transformed from a child prodigy to one of the top stars of South Indian Cinema who is a proper actor first.
In a film industry where expressiveness is more appreciated than subtlety and underplaying, Mahesh is an odd man. Before Trivikram Srinivas reinvented Mahesh into a cheerfully chatterbox persona, Mahesh was more like an introvert on the screen. But he was not the same when he was a child artist. He was (projected as) an outgoing guy with all the verve never seen before for a kid of his age on Telugu screen.
Apart from the stunts and dances, he was known for proper all-round acting. Mass hero image for a child actor is never heard of in Tollywood until the phenomenon of Mahesh happened. True that it was because of his superstar father but you cannot make someone such a big star without the stuff. Let’s take a look at what made Mahesh the star he is by remembering the best of his roles and the films that stood the test of time.
No Child Artiste - He Was A Mass Hero
After making a small-scale debut with the film Needa and taking acting a habit than a profession, Mahesh gained fan-attention with Bazaar Rowdy which was the film that gave a breakthrough to his elder brother. But it was with Koduku Diddina Kapuram we got to see the all-rounder in Mahesh.
He literally carried the entire film on his slender but chubby little shoulders. He excelled and even dominated senior actors including Vijayashanthi et al in confrontation scenes. His dialogue delivery was impeccable and oozed the same charisma of his father who was known for his glamor.
The Rajakumarudu of Tollywood arrives
What can we expect from the debut film of a star kid? Many a star kid failed in the process of proving themselves with their first film itself and the pressure is understandably high. But here is a man who - there’s nothing like the fear of facing the camera - took to acting like fish to waters.
When Rajakumarudu hit the screens, while the older generation of fans flocked to the theatres to watch Krishna Gari Abbayi on the screen all grown up, what they got was the shock of their lives. He’s not just a star kid grown up nor is one who we get to see every other day. The prince is charming. Never before a star kid won new fans with his debut film let alone mesmerize his traditional fan base.
Here is the new heartthrob for girls. By the time the song Bollywood Balarajuni rolled out on the screen, it was all - Mahesh Mahesh Mahesh and a terrific cameo from Krishna became inconsequential. A competent actor who is ultra-handsome and with a legacy to live up to. He did so without breaking a sweat.
Muraari - the Man Who Charmed Men
Pumsam Mohana Rupaya… a Vaishnava saint described Srirama. Means… even men cannot turn their eyes off from Srirama. And then there is the Krishna tattva. This has proved to be a masterstroke in case of Mahesh in the Krishna Vamsi directorial Muraari.
As the creative director himself said: During that time, I met Mahesh Babu a couple of times. He has a 'mugdha manohara mohana roopam' meaning that Mahesh has a very beautiful look which can mesmerize anyone. I was impressed to such an extent that I wanted to add 'Krishna tatvam' to that film, as 'mugdha manohara mohana roopam' is the first quality of Lord Krishna.
The eyes that showered anger
He evolved as an actor. He controlled the youthful exuberance and brought out the intensity. As one of the most noted reviewers of the time said, Mahesh’s best performance in the entire film was the one where he shows fury when his mother was insulted in her own home. The eyes talked not just volumes about the character called Murari, but what was to come going forward. Like a character from one of his next films, Athadu, said there is a quality of a tiger going for the hunt in his eyes. That could be seen in Murari’s defining moment.
His acting evolved into a more spontaneous style in this film. He himself claimed many times, Muraari is the turning point in his career. He found the perfect technique to make characters his own without going too much into the details. Like Mahesh said in an interview those days, he started to assess the situation the character he is playing in and gives it his own spin to it. As in: he reacts as he himself does in real life if facing a similar situation.
This brought believability which worked wonders for him. He gained a wider fan following post-Muraari with the addition to the traditional superstar Krishna fans and his own following among girls. Family audiences owned him up and a sharp rise in his fanboys was noted.
Truth is, in a film industry which relies so heavily on dialogues to convey the emotion, Mahesh Babu has carved a niche for himself by approaching it differently and being normal to a large extent. It has worked for him.
All class hero and NRI fan following
Immediately after a film like Murari which resurrected his career and brought him a romantic image, Mahesh experimented big time for the first of the many times in Takkari Donga. And what an experiment it is! A cowboy film in Telugu after more than a decade and the film is made to high standards.
After Murari’s child-like character, it’s time to turn manly and rough looking. But it is his daredevilry that stood out the most in this Indian Western film which is shot for the most part in and around Grand canyon with Indian sounding town like Palasa etc. are used liberally.
Not for the first time he outshined two of the sexiest actresses with his looks. But it is his new-found acting talent he put to use more. The all classy portrayal of Raja the petty thief turned the pain-in-the-*** for the officials won him acclaim from various quarters and established him a fan following among the NRIs who were up to that point were nostalgia driven - used to watch older films starring NTR and ANR than flocking to theatres to watch a young and modern star hero.
Till date, he remained the most popular Telugu hero among the Indian diaspora in North America. 9 $1 M films, is more than enough proof. Even his otherwise biggest flops crossed the landmark just like that.
The Action Hero Owned By The Family Audience
And then came Okkadu. The textbook example of how to make an action film and surprisingly again, it was also owned up by the family audience. Okkadu is the first blockbuster in his career and he has taken his then performance technique to its pinnacle. He for the first time ever in his career playing the role of a guy next door.
Right from the subtle comedy, he nailed in the combination of Geetha who played his mother and Neeharika who played his teenage sister, and the iconic Kondareddy Buruju scene, Mahesh is a treat to watch. He exuded a boyish charm and has given glimpses of the rugged looks of his previous film Takkari Donga. A huge mass hit, ran for 100 days in more than 125 centres, the Gunasekhar directorial also established him as the first choice star hero among the younger generation of class audience.
Okkadu was one of the earliest ideas that Gunasekhar wanted to make when he was an assistant director. It was in 1993 that he envisioned a story with Charminar backdrop inspired by the films like Westside Story (can be seen in the rivalries of the hero and his friends maintain with another gang who play Kabaddi). When he met Mahesh for the first time before he was about to make his big screen debut as a lead actor that Guna decided that he had found his hero. Later both of them met M. S. Raju who was fresh off the big success of Manasantha Nuvve and the project materialised.
Okkadu was a sensation when it was released. Hailed as an ultimate action film, the screenplay of the film is still talked about as one of the best written for a Telugu film. And it is impossible to imagine any other actor to play Ajay Varma better than Mahesh did. The first of Mahesh’s films to give a big breakthrough to the then-budding Tamil star hero Vijay.
Failures are part and parcel of the game of life but how thoroughly one comes out of it shows the character of that person. After bagging several fringe awards in the four-year-old career of his, Mahesh bagged the prestigious Nandi Award for Best actor with the Teja directorial.
Mahesh’s films have that universality and resalability which make them rewatchable any number of times. The prime example of this is Athadu. Mind you, Mahesh was already a proven action hero and Athudu is primarily an action film.
Noted actor and the 1970s-1980s star hero Murali Mohan produced the Trivikram Srinivas directorial and the film was made to the highest standards. Top collections or not! The film was a mega-hit to such an extent that Mahesh has become the de facto family hero in the days when family films have become virtually extinct. And the action movie buffs savoured every frame of it.
At the time, Gun Fights are said to have a negative impact on the film and were said not to go well with the mass audience. But he made Gun Fights fashionable. Athadu has become a quintessential television blockbuster and even after more than a decade the film commands considerably great TRPs.
The Trendsetting Pokiri
Mahesh till Athadu is known for his brooding style of acting. Talks less. Does more. That changed with Puri Jagannadh’s industry hit Pokiri. This is also the first time Mahesh delivered back to back hits. Pokiri continuing the trend started by Athadu became surprisingly a big hit as much among the mass audience (the target audience) as among the families. His dialogue delivery and the way he has shown aggression a la Puri Jagannadh hero won him more fans and his ruggedly handsome looks in that film are yet to be matched by Mahesh himself let alone other heroes.
No wonder the movie clicked with NRIs and alongside Takkari Donga and Athadu, stands as one of the early overseas hits in his career. It is a rare film where everything adds up quite well to enhance the movie watching experience. The record number of reruns on MaaTV is enough proof for the evergreen nature of the film.
Pokiri not just Mahesh the superstar he is now, essentially the film expanded the horizons of Telugu films. Granted, films of one language get remade into other languages. But Pokiri has the distinction of making superstars of the heroes who reprised Mahesh’s role. Vijay’s already rising stardom reached its peak with Pokkiri. Literally resurrected Salman Khan’s stagnated career and gave him newfound superstardom. Prabhu Deva owes his Bollywood success to the film Wanted, the remake of Pokiri.
How many actors might have played the role of Pandugadu, it is Majesh who nailed the role to perfection. It’s not just the advantage of the first mover. It’s that Mahesh made it his own like none of the others. You cannot imagine any other actor in that role. Can you? No. Other Tollywood actors tried to recreate the same effect but failed miserably.
The man who enhanced Mahesh’s on-screen strengths to the maximum with Athadu has reinvented him with Khaleja. Despite mixed feelings this writer goes through when it comes to the way the film panned out, it completely opened up Mahesh’s acting style. He’s now more outgoing and what was once thought of as his Achilles heel (dialogue delivery) has become one of his strengths.
The audience loved the chatterbox chocolate boy Mahesh and Sreenu Vaitla used it to his benefit in Dookudu. It’s not Mahesh’s character who used Brahmanandams’s character in the film (complete ga vaadukuntanu), Sreenu Vaitla used Mahesh’s every strength as a superstar and delivered the landmark hit Dookudu. The film offered something for every section. Dookudu also remains as the biggest comeback in his career and set in motion a couple of more consecutive hits.
Surya Bhai - The Quintessential Superstar
Then comes the culmination of all. Till then every few years Mahesh unleashed a new angle in his repertoire but hasn’t shown his all round prowess in a single movie. With a little help from Puri Jagannadh Mahesh had a field day as an actor and star both at once in Businessman. Action? Check! Comedy? Check! Mass? Surya Bhai! One-man show? Check!
Mahesh was at his peak of acting prowess virtually in every scene of the movie. The film was a tribute to the superstardom of Mahesh from Puri Jagannadh. And he carried the entire film on his shoulders. Surya Bhai is a cult character and has a niche audience. That it reached a wider section of the audience is only due to Mahesh. No exaggeration. None of the current generation Telugu heroes have been fortunate to essay such a role in their career. Only Ram Charan’s Chitu Babu and NTR’s Daya comes close to the power wielded by Surya Bhai.
All right! The elephant in the room. Our people liberally use the expression Hollywood level/Hollywood style.
A Leonardo DiCaprio, A Hrithik Roshan, and A Mahesh
1: Nenokkadine! What could have been a standard-setting and once in a lifetime experience for a Telugu hero, ended up as the film who prompted Mahesh to enter the safe zone for the sake of his fans. After all, they want to raise their collars when their heroes clock record-breaking box office numbers. Still, the Sukumar directorial has to be eclipsed for the sheer audacity of filmmaking, storytelling technique, and making quality.
The chases in the film could only be bettered by a Hrithik Roshan of Dhoom 2 or a Tom Cruise of Mission: Impossible series. The understated but highly intense performance could only be bettered by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio of Inception. He won the respect of even his anti-fans with this film but unfortunately, the movie ended up as a box office failure.
It is not just the vocal fans who trend things on social media but also his silent admirers who want to watch him in the best of the best roles and films that remain benchmarks in film history, matter. Any fan deserves the best of their star hero. So, it is high time, Mahesh also start considering alternating between commercially safe films and the sophisticated films like the ones discussed above. Fans deserve better.
I shall conclude this with a small feat which gives a big boost for his diehard fans. 1: Nenokkadine which is one of the highest rated Indian films on IMDB also remains a film this author recommends most to his foreign friends when they ask about a Telugu film. The common reactions are: Is this film really made by a local filmmaker? Why hasn't this guy (Mahesh) known to even wider section of the audience (read: he's as good as some of the top Hollywood actors). There are multiple instances of such friends enjoying films like Okkadu, Athadu, Takkari Donga better than Srimanthudu, Bharat Ane Nenu, etc. films.
Now that he has completed two decades of the journey as a lead actor and 40 years in his acting career overall, the reigning superstar of Telugu Cinema has just delivered a big commercial potboiler with his silver jubilee film (read: 25th movie) Maharshi, he should reassess his strategy and come up with films that will make his fans and silent admirers feel chest-thumpingly proud. He is capable of doing. The onus is on the filmmakers. And of course, the audience.
P. S.: Darsakendra K. Raghavendra Rao said in an interview that he told Mahesh when he was shooting Rajakumarudu that he would one day go to Hollywood. Isn't it what we all want? Keep your hands on your hearts and answer!