In 1991, Chiranjeevi acted in a film called Gang Leader. The summer release was a box office sensation in Telugu cinema. Within a year, it got remade in Hindi as Aaj ka Goonda Raaj. Almost three decades later, in 2020, the film and its star seem more relevant than ever before. Despite having faint memories of movies I had seen before this one, Gang Leader was the film that woke me up to storytelling, capacity of entertainment and film form.
Recently, a series of unusual events triggered a contemplation that made me revisit my childhood, memories fascinated by cinema and my practice as a filmmaker today. It mirrored certain harsh truths about life that, over time, many of us may have accepted as normal state of affairs. For me, due to my love for Chiranjeevi and moving images, it shook things closer to home. Let me share how.
Baggy pants and machine guns
Set in a middle class Andhra household, with elements of romantic comedy and family sentiment weaved with heightened action sequences and Bappi Lahiri’s foot-tapping music, Gang Leader was a quintessential Telugu masala film. The rebellious character of Rajaram avenging the murder of his brother, untangling the mafia links, resonated with many at the dawn of economic liberalisation in India – especially the youth. Chiranjeevi’s breakdancing had become a rage. The film’s posters were everywhere – from billboards, magazines to hair cutting saloons. Kids in school annual functions could not think of anyone else to copy. Basically the film changed the way young boys walked, talked, dressed and romanced. In the company of my older brothers, I was no exception. All of us got those baggy pants and shirts stitched and dreamt of the sports shoes.
The songs from the film would echo through the streets of Nizamabad. Playing from the pandals of marriages to festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi, Sankranti etc. the lyrics rolled off our lips like nursery rhymes. An infinite sense of joy was in the air. It felt like the whole planet was engulfed by this music – as if echoing from the brightest stars of the farthest galaxies.
Just watch this song! A timeless gem of sorts where music, choreography and Chiranjeevi’s dance moves come together like magic. Look at the build up. His carefree walk and the careless gaze. The lyrics don’t really start until two minutes into the song. Yet, you can’t take your eyes off him. Such was his magnetic screen presence. It’s all designed to savour the Chiranjeevi swag. After two minutes, the first stanza goes like this:
“Kisukkumante kasekkipoye kiraayi gumpu idi kaade
Khilaadi nakkala bazaaru ki eedche A1 gang maade
G A N G.. gang gang, bajaao bang bang
(chorus) Gang Leader”
“To agitate trivially, we’re not random hired goons
Dragging cunning foxes to streets, A1 gang is us
G A N G.. gang gang, hit it bang bang
(chorus) Gang Leader”
Dressed in white, making him stand out with a special cinematographic effect, he’s treated as an angel. The song sets a tone to the entire film as he goes about cleansing the system. I feel it set a tone to his career itself later.
(Chiranjeevi in Gang Leader)
In the much-stylised opening sequence of Gang Leader, Chiranjeevi wields a heavy machine gun. Walking towards a bunch of bureaucrats in his captivity, he narrates each of their crimes through a long monologue. Towards the end, he declares them filthy insects feeding on society. As a punishment for their sins, in a charged rage, he dramatically guns each of them down as they awkwardly twitch to death like string puppets spilling blood.
The sequence turns out to be a dream as the lazy unemployed Rajaram is woken up by his nagging grandmother. However, at a time when rising corruption and unemployment plagued the country, the rat-a-tat of the machine gun reflected the angst of the youth. The gun blazes with an urgency to cleanse the system and sanitise society instantly.
Playing the youngest son and a pampered brat with emotional vulnerability and rebelliousness, Chiranjeevi swiftly penetrated into the aspiring middle class consciousness – as their own. The machine gun became a recurring stylistic prop in the hands of many heroes later. However, I never bought into the idea of gunning down wrong-doers.
I was drawn more to ideas of justice and beauty of science through my school years. Still, for the eight year old me, it left a strong impression and formed my early film consciousness. Slowly it graduated into appreciating arts in general. Seeking cinema beyond Tollywood, I explored regional films, world cinema and documentary film forms and eventually became a filmmaker. And gathering an understanding of its business and narrative politics over the years, I’m constantly compelled to think about the state of affairs of Indian cinema. Perhaps this led to the correlations I explore further.
When life is more surreal than cinema
The unprecedented COVID-19 lockdowns across the world made film stars become active on social media. Interestingly, on the very first day of the first phase of national lockdown in India, on 25th March, Chiranjeevi joined Instagram by posting a pic of him with his mother. It made national headlines. Social media erupted in joy on knowing that their much-loved star started sharing glimpses from his personal life first hand. He followed it up with a bunch of COVID-19 awareness videos and clicks of him doing chores at his new home to promote staying indoors and curb the pandemic.
(Chiranjeevi gardening in his house)
A week into the lockdown, on a peaceful Hyderabad morning, Chiranjeevi shared a video giving a tour of his new home. The media covered it widely as he shows his luxurious house with an infinity pool which is basically a swimming pool where the water flows over the edge creating a seamless effect with the sky and its reflection on the pool water. Standing around his fancy swimming pool, he ponders over the beautiful sunrise without pollution and urges everyone to “stay home and stay healthy”.
The chaos started by the deadly virus had just started picking up.
Two weeks into the lockdown, India saw a drastic rise in the number of COVID-19 positive cases and helpless deaths. Uncertainty and death hovered over the scorching summer of 2020. And Chiranjeevi posted another video from the same swimming pool. This time, it had things relating to the film Gang Leader/Aaj Ka Goonda Raaj which set off my contemplation.
In the video, shot from the high vantage point of his Jubilee Hills house, he captures rain and revels in nature. We see the cityscape with his infinity pool in the foreground. A loose translation of what he says, reads as follows:
“Wow! With this unexpected rain, it looks like all the flowers and leaves are dancing in joy… Those thunders and the rainbow feel like nature is trying to whisper good news to humanity… Like it is trying to assure ‘there is no need to be worried about anything’. This deadly disease is going to vanish and everyone is going to live happily ever after… In a way one must say that this lockdown the world over has respected the environment indirectly… There is no pollution anywhere. It makes me feel like it should continue like this… Perhaps mother nature is expressing her delight this way.” In what sounds patchy, like a last minute addition, he signs off saying, “However, this is a rain that nature is using to express its happiness but not a rain that will harm the farmers, and it never should… Jai hind!”
His thoughts and visuals fired my memories with a few strange coincidences. The first coincidence is that the clean cityscape of his videos closely resembles that from the Aaj ka Goonda Raj poster I remember as a child. The second coincidence is not as direct but it soon followed.
(Cityscape from Aaj ka Goonda Raaj poster
resembling that of Hyderabad in Chiranjeevi’s video)
Hyderabad skies looked cleaner largely due to the locking down of all chemical factories, otherwise usually it’s the corrupt industrialists who would be blamed for smogging the cityscape. Interestingly the Rajaram character in the film begins his stylised monologue by addressing a corrupt Director of Industries. Just that, Chiranjeevi here was neither holding anyone responsible for anything nor starting any bloodbath with a gun. He had no context to do anything like that in the breezy atmosphere. He was enjoying the beautiful weather. But to me it evoked many things. The name of the film itself resonated with the times we’re living in – Aaj ka Goonda Raaj, loosely meaning ‘today’s mafia rule’. When I started finding certain correlations, the feeling was quite surreal as if life was playing into cinema and vice versa. Let me start with the irony that set it all in motion.
I live within 7 km radius from where Chiranjeevi shows the cityscape of Hyderabad in his video. And within the same radius in Nampally exhibition grounds, hundreds of migrant workers from various states were sheltered under tin roofs in the burning sun. There were many such shelters across the city. In astonishing conditions, many were fighting for basic food and water and pleading with the authorities to let them go home. Mainstream media did not focus on it as much. But heart-wrenching tales of countless people walking long distances to reach their homes were all over social media. With public transport shut, women, men, children, with their meager belongings in hands, were seen wrestling it out with all uncertainty as they marched by foot. And yet here I saw Chiranjeevi, from his sparkling infinity pool, pondering over nature and wishing the lockdown continued for a pollution-free environment. It was obscene and disturbing. Was it delusion or apathy, I wondered.
The video lingered on. I heard fierce voices from within.
Am I looking at reel life Rajaram or real life Chiranjeevi? Well, both. Aren’t they the same migrant workers who made him a star? Wasn’t it the popular reason given by the makers of ‘mass films’ that it caters primarily to the average Indian labourer? Those front seaters, who come to cinemas to soothe their harsh realities. Hasn’t that been the license to design formula films with simplistic storylines padded with hyper realistic fights, sleazy item songs and what not? And they don’t exist in his imagination now?
Can’t a star celebrate nature?
While referring to the images of clear skies and clean waterways circulating on social media during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Pradnya Mangala in her article states why “we have to foreground social justice in every climate debate and action.” She says, “the segregated environmental spaces and unequally distributed natural resources are the key indicators of injustices imposed on the marginalized sections of society… Only ruling classes who do not have these kinds of immediate concerns related to basic human needs can celebrate the clearing of the sky in the midst of a pandemic.”
Vidyasagar, in another article, tells how “the dominant discourses of environment and nature are embedded with the values of Brahmanism and caste prejudices.” He explains that, “the paradox of Brahmanical environmental intellectuals is that they critique the process of modernization and support the Gandhian tradition which is based on the ghettoization of the natural landscape and discrimination in distribution of ecological resources. Ambedkar firmly believes that only the just distribution of natural resources can shape a democratic-egalitarian society. Otherwise, such injustices lead toward the exploitation of marginalized sections of society.”
At 64, with a career spanning 41 years through 150 films, Chiranjeevi has been closely rendering Bahujan realities keeping social justice at the centre of his cinema narratives. Additionally he has been engaging with public welfare and policies as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and Member of Parliament (MP) serving the downtrodden. Therefore, one can imagine that he’d be updated about ground realities better than any average film star. So, he knew it all or didn’t he? It made me think what his consciousness must be like.
Is this what he understood by ‘social distancing’? Perhaps this was the only time he could have been a star in real life too, no? Was he blind beyond his infinity pool? Did he forget how he became a star?
(Collage of Chiranjeevi working stills)
Birth of the Mega Star
It’s common knowledge that caste is integral to the functioning of Telugu film industry. Journalist Priyanka Richi writes elaborately on how Chiranjeevi’s stardom was a carefully constructed phenomenon by the Kapus to install a member of their own caste on the turf dominated by the Kammas until then. Both Kamma and Kapu are traditionally Shudra castes in the hierarchy of the Hindu varna system. Due to their economic mobility and social capital, today they are classified as forward castes.
Disappointed by the unfavouring policies of N.T. Rama Rao as Chief Minister in the 80s, a legendary filmstar himself belonging to the Kamma caste, the Kapu forces attentively managed Chiranjeevi’s career seeing him do diverse roles in his films. From playing a snake charmer in Punnami Naagu to a cobbler in Swayamkrushi he did them all. As his stardom began to rise, Chiranjeevi’s writers, especially the Paruchuri Brothers and others, adapted contemporary socio-economic politics into his storylines which were charged with his hypermasculine performances. In the 90s, this gave rise to the ‘angry young man’ archetype of Telugu cinema that dominates the stories even today. Although he was considered a bankable star in the 80s, since his debut in 1978, Chiranjeevi became unstoppable with massive consecutive hits through the 90s.
As mentioned earlier, Aaj ka Goonda Raaj loosely translates to ‘today’s mafia rule’. And Chiranjeevi’s entire career has been hoisted on presenting him as the saviour in an unruly society of post economic-liberalisation India. Throughout his numerous films, we repeatedly see him sanitise the world around him by saving it from the injustices that he encounters, especially playing Bahujan roles. In Gharana Mogudu, he plays a factory worker who marries the owner, played by Nagma, which leads to an aspirational interplay of gender confrontations and class conflict. This film made history as the first to have grossed over 10 crore at the box office. At the time, the national media dubbed him bigger than Amitabh Bachchan.
In Mutha Mestri, he fights for the rights of the local market workers against an underworld leader. As the story progresses, we see him enter politics in his pursuit to save the poor. In this song from the film, he assures “I’m the leader of this street, saviour of the poor… those who don’t understand their pain and labour, I warn them… I am the leader of the band”. In another song from Rikshavodu, where he plays a rickshaw puller, he salutes the rickshaw pullers elevating them larger than life. He even reprised the role of Charlie Chaplin in Chantabbai. I could go on with many such instances throughout his career. But let me not digress. With gifted talent and an inimitable screen presence, he was highly sought-after for many writers, directors and co-stars, resulting in some of the best collaborations Telugu cinema has ever seen. This led to a series of blockbusters earning the love of a wide spectrum of audiences. Gradually he became the king of the box office and was referred to as ‘boss of Telugu cinema’. While this assigned him a legendary status as the Megastar, I wondered how he must be processing the story realities he plays – as an artist.
Do the stars take a deep dive into the social realities they play or just mouth dialogues and perform dances passively? Everyone loves the Megastar as he twinkles in their lives through his films, making them laugh, cry and fight everyday battles. A sense of empowerment instills human beings while watching themselves in a star, who’s otherwise just another human being like all of us. Should the role of a star then extend beyond those reel lives? It’s a classic question which has always divided people sharply.
(1946 lobby card of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life)
What stars shine unevenly?
While trying to dig into the origins of how the word ‘star’ for popular actors came into being, I came across an illuminating article by Megan Garber who says, “Stars are stars, certainly, because they sparkle and shine—because, even when they are bathed in the limelight, they seem to have an incandescence of their own. But they are “stars,” much more specifically, because they are part of Western culture’s long standing tendency to associate the human with the heavenly… Stars have long suggested a kind of order—and orientation—within chaotic human lives. They have long hinted that there is something bigger, something beyond, something more.”
Siva Sankara Vara Prasad was christened as Chiranjeevi, meaning immortal, for the screen by his mother. A strange coincidence again as that’s my name – Amar – when translated into English. Chiranjeevi is an immortal star in the history of Indian cinema already. And through his fans’ network he has been carrying out various charity works, of which his Eye and Blood Banks have been key initiatives.
So, let me not give you an impression that Chiranjeevi has done nothing during the COVID-19 crisis. Like most celebrities initiating charity work for the families of daily wage workers in the film industry, he too started the Corona Crisis Charity drive, which has been distributing daily essentials by raising funds. There were many awareness and concern videos released by many of them. However, almost every film celebrity, with few exceptions, never referred to the lakhs of migrant workers and other marginalised communities in crisis. The only message from their appearances was about staying indoors and washing hands to kill the virus. It only felt redundant and delusional after a point. Look at this lockdown short film Family, featuring the leading stars of the country, where the story is about the excesses of a lost pair of sunglasses.
Meanwhile, hoards of men, women and children in the country were on the move without any roof on their head, food to eat and water to drink. How should such a blatant denial of the existence of a vast majority of humanity be understood? What could be the part of their heart that selectively ignores certain realities. The dichotomy startled me.
The first time I heard the word ‘star’ and understood what it meant was during the solar system lesson in childhood. It was one of the most profound revelations about life to imagine the universe. Until then, I imagined the world to be a flat saucer and had nightmares of falling off its edge. I felt safer knowing that the Earth was round and there were other planets also governed by the Sun. As I fell in love with science, it was fascinating to know that the Sun is a star that discharges energy constantly to eventually die over millions of years. Just like our mortal celebrities perhaps in that sense. But as long as they live, they will emit light abundantly all over the universe – infinitely. Sadly Chiranjeevi couldn’t shine beyond his infinity pool.
Hold on! But, isn’t it the responsibility of the governments to reach out to its citizens in crisis, why pick on artists? Well, when they promote a film, they say it’s for everyone, across the whole socio-economic spectrum of society. When they reach out during an unprecedented pandemic, why do they reach out only to those within the industry? Can they dare say they make films only for the families within the industry?
When they position themselves as protagonists in their stories, they fight for everyone, don’t they? So, is this license to shine unevenly between their reel life and real life an eternal condition of the film business? What is the root of this social apathy in India that stops a star from shining to their fullest cosmic potential in that sense?
Please read the next part of this article here.
Amarnath Sandipamu is an independent filmmaker-writer. He blogs and shares details on his work at amarnathsandipamu.wordpress.com
I would like to thank my friends Pushpendra Johar, Kush Badhwar, Amarbabu Kareddula and Deepu Myneni for their valuable feedback, insights, and language inputs in putting this piece together.