The Fortune Star

Jaideep Unudurti | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 21, 2015
Revolving door: Power equations flip dizzyingly. One moment Madhav is plaintive and the next the boss. Photo: Kishor Krishnamoorthi

Revolving door: Power equations flip dizzyingly. One moment Madhav is plaintive and the next the boss. Photo: Kishor Krishnamoorthi

Bowled over: Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao or NTR, who went on to become chief minister, was the leading man of ’50s Tollywood and continues to have a cult following. Photo: Mohd Arif

Bowled over: Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao or NTR, who went on to become chief minister, was the leading man of ’50s Tollywood and continues to have a cult following. Photo: Mohd Arif   -  The Hindu

Sincerely yours: The fans of Tollywood will give their lives to actors who have become stars; here they wait for the gates to open for Baahubali. Photo: G N Rao

Sincerely yours: The fans of Tollywood will give their lives to actors who have become stars; here they wait for the gates to open for Baahubali. Photo: G N Rao   -  The Hindu

In character: I believe in good acting, not a car, says young Telugu actor Krishna Madhav sipping chai at an Irani cafe. Photo: Kishor Krishnamoorthi

In character: I believe in good acting, not a car, says young Telugu actor Krishna Madhav sipping chai at an Irani cafe. Photo: Kishor Krishnamoorthi

With the Telugu film industry grappling with an infinite supply of newcomers but no demand for them, the ‘strugglers’ do all they can for that one elusive hit — from conjuring up the perfect title for themselves to creating the most likeable social media image to breaking plates with the jet set

“The chimp isn’t returning my calls,” says Madhav, putting the phone down. Krishna Madhav is a young Telugu actor looking for a ticket to herodom. The release date of his debut feature, Hrudayam Ekkadunnadi (Where is my Heart?), is drawing near. And he needs to drive crowds into the theatres. Madhav’s PR team has hit upon an idea. The talk of the town is a man in a monkey suit whose short films have gone viral on YouTube. The plan was for him to hit malls and sing along to songs from the film. But the monkey has been having second thoughts. He has claimed his brand will suffer — and has spurned Madhav’s calls.

hat was two years ago. But Madhav is still just another of the new wave of actors trying to break into the Telugu film industry. Informally called Tollywood, it has nearly 250 releases every year, with total grosses exceeding ₹1,000 crore at the box office.

In days of yore, strugglers got off a ‘red bus’ — namely, a rural service, took a room in a basthi, and travelled every day to the studios, hoping to get a role as an extra and then work their way to the top.

That organic process is long over. The ‘strugglers’ of today are the sons, nephews, cousins, brothers and brothers-in-law of stars and producers. They do yoga classes, spend long hours at top gyms, have personal method acting coaches, and drive BMWs.

To understand this transition, we have to step back to the origins of the industry. Economic growth was fuelled by abundant agricultural yields in the fertile Krishna and Godavari districts. The key breakthrough was when improvements in irrigation allowed three crops of rice in a year. It is said that one harvest would be for personal consumption, the second harvest for saving and the third harvest would be invested in a film.

It was from this rice bowl that the duumvirate of Telugu filmdom — Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao or NTR and Akkineni Nageswara Rao or ANR — was formed in the 1950s. Then came Krishna in the ’60s and ’70s. Chiranjeevi ruled the roost after that. Till then, all the stars were self-made. Things began to change with the second generation; by the ’80s, NTR had launched his son Balakrishna and ANR his son Nagarjuna.

Today both Chiranjeevi’s and Nagarjuna’s sons are in the fray. Some stood on their own strengths. For example, Chiranjeevi’s brother, Pawan Kalyan has carved out a unique image for himself while Mahesh Babu, despite being Krishna’s son, also went through the cycle of hits and flops before establishing himself as the ‘Prince’ — as his fans call him.

eanwhile, Madhav and his team are brainstorming on a title that should prefix his name. This is important if you want to be around for the long run. It all began with Nataratna NTR and Natasamrat ANR. Their sons inherited these titles — Yuvaratna for Balakrishna and Yuvasamrat for Nagarjuna. The problem now: Everything cool has been taken.

Mega Star is Chiranjeevi, Power Star is Pawan Kalyan. This has continued to the next generation — Chiranjeevi’s son has a prefix referencing both his father and uncle, hence Mega Power Star Ram Charan. Others take up adjectivals like Stylish Star Allu Arjun or Mass Maharaja Raviteja. Prabhas, the hero of Baahubali, is Young Rebel Star as his uncle Krishnam Raju was the original Rebel Star. Down the ladder, character artists get names like Fish Venkat or Vizag Prasad foisted on them.

“We were thinking of Maverick Star or Fortune Star. But all this only after I deliver a hit,” says Madhav. Why fortune? “Good fortune for producers who put their money on me,” he says with a laugh.

This need to differentiate oneself is understandable. Currently Tollywood is experiencing the reverse of peak oil — infinite supply and no demand. Earlier, newcomers were restricted to the scion of each major house — but now almost everyone in the family is jumping into the act.

For example, from Chiranjeevi’s house, after his son and nephew Allu Arjun, there are several more nephews — Allu Sirish, Varun Tej and Sai Dharam Tej — who’ve all made their debut recently. Collectively, they are called the ‘Mega Family’.

The combination of politics and film, never far apart in south India, has led to more potential debutants. The marriage of Chandrababu Naidu’s son to Balakrishna’s daughter means a new dynasty is in the offing. Naidu’s nephew Nara Rohit has already been a hero for some years now.

The launches are elaborate productions. Rey (2015) with Sai Dharam Tej had a budget of ₹30 crore and a production time of three years, with locations ranging from New Jersey to Jamaica, the hero being a student of ‘Bob Marley College’.

There are no guarantees, though. Tarak Ratna, one of NTR’s grandsons, was launched with 12 simultaneous muhurat shots in 2003. But everything changed once his Bhadradri Ramudu (2004) hit theatres. The website Idlebrain described it as “a typical story that happens between village-smart boy and western-haughty girl with a aunt-challenge backdrop to it”. It exploded at the box office, dropping the curtain on Ratna’s career.

Mad scientist at call

With so many debutants, how can one break through the clutter? Telugus pride themselves on having IT solutions for every issue. I head to ‘Whacked Out Media’, whose website assures me that they have an ‘honest, mad-scientist’ approach to Digital Image Management or DIM. I am ushered into the office of Kunal Wadhwa, a VP of business development.

Where should a newcomer start? “We need to get you onto the feeds,” he explains, “nobody searches or even types in anything. They see something on the newsfeed and click. That’s it.” He reels off statistics — they manage 250 celebs, have over 800 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. As he talks he pecks at his phone. “I’m a member of 165 WhatsApp groups”. The groups consist of him, the celeb and the celeb’s manager. This is where the discussions take place on what to post next.

What turns a proto-celeb into a star? “To be very commercial there has to be an element of fantasy, because the star is larger than life.”

One of their most successful DIM campaigns is Kajal Agarwal, whose page has 17 million likes. “We shared lots of candid pics: Kajal at the temple, Kajal with her parents, etcetera. With the big guys, you can’t do that, they are up there,” he explains. “You don’t want to demystify them.”

For a newcomer, he says a sweaty picture in a gym will do better than a portfolio shot. Wadhwa suggests a caption — ‘Cardio 45 mins Woohoo! Who is at the gym today guys?’ “It has to have a Call to Action,” he says. The target demographic, urban youth are fuelled by this.

Madhav is not impressed when I explain this strategy to him. “I need a f***** hit, not a f***** Twitter account,” he snaps.

call up Madhav and we decide to talk while he is driving around for his appointments. “How does the car look?” is his first question. I’m not sure what he means. It’s a mid-segment sedan. “Does it look battered? Does it look old?” he asks. This line of enquiry puzzles me. “People are f***** me up,” he says. “Change your car, change your car. You are a hero now, people will judge”. He shakes his head. “I say f*** that s***.” He turns and gives me one of those 1,000-watt smiles that they all have to master, “I believe in good acting, not a car.”

We finally stop at a coffee shop in Banjara Hills. I usually catch Madhav in the interstitial spaces — between meetings with potential producers, potential directors and potential co-producers. He explains his modus operandi. “Ninety-eight per cent of Telugu films are flops nowadays,” he starts off. “If the budget is ₹3-5 crore, it should be something different. People are not accepting mediocre content. It has to be a concept-oriented film. Routine films are heading for routine disaster.”

Madhav’s confidence stems from his “360-degree view” — he got his start as an assistant director in a couple of Mahesh Babu (his cousin) — films. His eyes light up: “‘Babu vostunnaru (he is coming)’, the cry goes around the studio. Everyone is on their toes. As soon as action is called, he surrenders to the camera. And with cut, he is back to being a superstar. The way he sits, the presence he projects — everything changes in a fraction of a second.”

The power equations flip dizzyingly. Minutes after trying to convince a producer to part with a few crores, Madhav goes on to meet wannabe directors desperately trying to catch a break. What do you look for when a director approaches you? I ask. “I prefer directors with one strong idea which they believe in, and who make others believe in it.” What happens when you meet a producer? “The first thing he wants is the budget breakdown,” Madhav says, “he is not so interested in the story but has his own equations on how to recover the money”.

As we talk, I get a sense of déjà vu. I’ve seen this scene before. This café was used as a location in Madhav’s film — for a scene where he sees the heroine for the first time. While I ponder this Baudrillardian hyper-reality, he continues, “A movie is like a wedding — I don’t think there is any wedding in mankind’s history which came within the planned budget. So the producer needs to know whether we can get what we want within the budget.”

The complete package

Even if there can be a gap of two years between releases, Madhav doesn’t take it easy. He rattles off his schedule: “Kick-boxing in the morning. Then Bikram yoga. In the evening I have dance practice and acting exercises.” What do they entail? “My coach gives me characters, and I have to play each character for a week. Try to be somebody else. For example, there might be Arjun who is flamboyant and spontaneous, Alex who doesn’t speak much, but when he does people get scared.”

I meet his coach Bavani Ganti, in yet another coffee shop, the next day. This time just opposite the Filmnagar temple. Ganti, who will direct Madhav in his next film, emerges from a meeting with a producer. “Producers say ‘tell me the story in two lines.’ When you narrate it, the producer must feel safe. They want all the elements — when a hero punches, 10 people must fly”. How can you tell if the meeting has gone well or not? He smiles, “When you hear ‘all the best’, you know it is not happening”.

Our conversation is punctuated by the sound of bells from the nearby temple. Scripts are sent here for special poojas before production starts. Ganti goes on to explain that producers like to keep you waiting outside the office. Or not take a call until you’ve called about 10-20 times. “A producer told me he always does this to test the director’s stamina, because you need a lot of it in this field.”

What tips can he give a newcomer? He thinks for a moment: “Observe auto drivers when they demand extra. They are natural actors.”

vening falls over Jubilee Hills. Madhav calls up, he is in the neighbourhood, at a theme bistro. An entire cliff-side overlooking a lake has been modelled to look like a Cretan village. A windmill turns slowly in the still air. Fishing nets are hung out to dry. A boat lies on its side in the gravel. The whitewash is striped with blue. In the distance, the spires of Cyberabad glitter. As night falls, the whole place transforms. Under the light of Chinese lanterns it becomes a party venue for Hyderabad’s jet set — an intersection of film, politics and real estate that drives the city. On Friday nights they sometimes have plate-breaking parties. Madhav tells me, “1,000-1,500 plates can get smashed in 10 minutes.”

Is this where you meet the producers and directors, I ask. “Some directors are very posh — they have offices in Manikonda or Srinagar Colony, they ask you to come there. While NRI people generally say Hyatt or The Park. Other directors pick an Irani café as they don’t feel real in hi-fi places.”

We are interrupted by the chime of an incoming SMS. He shows it to me — ‘Good Night Sir’. “Every day I get two messages from this guy, ‘good morning’ and ‘good night.’” Who is he? “I met him at a function. He is a Mahesh Babu fan. He got my number and called me once. I answered and it’s been like that since.” Fans are such that “if you reciprocate, they give you their life.”

Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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Published on August 21, 2015
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