The story goes that when Chiranjeevi met Dr Manmohan Singh to discuss issues related to Andhra Pradesh sometime in 2010, when he was heading the Praja Rajyam party, the then prime minister requested him for an autograph. It seems highly unlikely that Dr Singh would have ever seen any of Chiranjeevi's 149 films but the tale is nevertheless related by Chiranjeevi's fans to convey the Telugu megastar's charisma and aura that they believe transcends geographical boundaries.
Which is perhaps why Sankranti has come three days early on 11 January with Khaidi No 150 — Chiranjeevi's return to the big screen in a full-fledged role after a decade. Social media, with the hashtag #BossIsBack, is abuzz with Chiranjeevi's 150th film, a remake of the Tamil blockbuster Kaththi (The Knife) starring Vijay.
Rewind to 2008 when Chiranjeevi tried to do an NTR by plunging into politics and launching the Praja Rajyam party. But the elections a year later proved a harsh reality check. The real life political thriller that Chiranjeevi promised, did not play to script and he had to be content with 18 seats in the then Andhra Pradesh assembly. For Chiranjeevi — used to making a heroic impact within three hours — playing a side character role in Andhra politics wasn't a delicious prospect. His filmi grooming did not impart the patience necessary to operate the nuts and bolts of a new political machine, that needed servicing all the time. He merged his Praja Rajyam with the Congress in 2011 and got a Rajya Sabha seat and independent charge of the Union Tourism ministry.
The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh buried the Congress in the residuary state and Chiranjeevi went into hibernation. He and his colleagues are frank enough to admit that there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the party as the anguish over the division of the state has not entirely dissipated.
Since the Congress bit the dust in 2014, Chiranjeevi decided to look at the big picture. He was on the threshold of a landmark film in terms of numbers and he wanted it to be the mother of all comebacks. Struggling to find a fresh script that would do justice to his image as a politician as well as a mass hero, he ended up buying the rights to Kaththi. It casts Chiranjeevi in a double role, that of a petty but streetsmart criminal and a Communist ideologue who fights for the cause of the farmers.
It is easy to see why Chiranjeevi chose this film to remake. The Telugu version, while being largely a faithful copy of the original, has dwelt more on the farmers' issue with an eye on image building for the part-time politician. At the same time, Chiranjeevi realises that his fans and admirers will want an out-and-out typical Chiru flick, complete with action, fiery dialogues and his signature dance steps. That is what Khaidi No 150 has served to achieve.
Not wanting to take any chances, Chiranjeevi has put a lot of himself into the movie. Starting with the title itself. Khaidi in 1983 was Chiranjeevi's first big hit. Realising that the title brought him good luck, he repeated it in 1988 with Khaidi No 786, which also hit bull's eye. The choice of Khaidi No 150 as title is proof that a Chiranjeevi nervous about getting his second innings in Tollywood right, has become a prisoner of his own superstitions. As an added attraction, son Ram Charan (who has also produced the movie) and nephew Allu Arjun have made cameo appearances in the film.
Khaidi No 150 — those who have seen Kaththi will tell you — will serve the two-in-one purpose that Chiranjeevi is hoping to achieve. The actor also knows how the success of Tagore in 2003 helped launch his political career. The film, again a remake of a Tamil superhit Ramanaa focused on the fight against corruption and helped position Chiranjeevi as a honest politician in 2008. In fact, the evocative SP Balasubramanhyam number 'Nenu Saitham' from Tagore was chosen as the theme song of Praja Rajyam, when it was launched. Chiranjeevi even chose director VV Vinayak for Khaidi No 150 having seen him at the helm with Tagore.
The initial reports are very encouraging. The collections of Khaidi No 150 have crossed $1 million at the US box office in the premiere shows, which is more than what Baahubali and PK grossed.
Where does Chiranjeevi go from here? While he is in no mood to return any time soon to the political theatre, he hopes the people of Andhra Pradesh will appreciate that his heart beats for the farmers, even if it is just a film role. It is a sentiment Chiranjeevi can exploit at a later date should he get an opening in the state's political theatre. In the short-term, the movie's commercial success will only motivate him to don the greasepaint more often. Two more filmmakers are in line to sign up the Megastar.
Undeterred by Chiranjeevi's political flop show, younger brother Pawan Kalyan has taken on an active political role with his Jana Sena. The Kapu caste that the two brothers belong to has a 27 per cent population in Andhra Pradesh. But there are no indications at the moment that Chiranjeevi would be part of Pawan Kalyan's political moves.
The Chiranjeevi fan, whose craziness quotient competes with that of the Rajinikanth fan, obviously makes a clear distinction between Chiranjeevi the Megastar and Chiranjeevi the politician. He loves the former — and if past electoral performances are anything to go by, would love him to continue entertaining in the world of make believe.