Chiranjeevi in 'Acharya'
Chiranjeevi in 'Acharya' Image Credit: Supplied

Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi may have millions of precious memories during his four-decade reign, but there’s one humiliating moment that continues to rankle him.

The long-enduring idol, whose new film ‘Acharya’ is now playing in UAE cinemas, let us in on an incident in 1988 when he went up on stage to receive an award for his film ‘Rudra Veena’.

“As I went to receive the awarding in the auditorium, the walls were adorned by the pictures of Indian film legends, right from Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor, to Dilip Kumar, and so on. From South India, I saw only Prem Nazir from Malayalam and MGR and Jayalalitha together in one picture from Tamil and none of the other greats from South like Shivaji Ganeshan, Dr Rajkumar, The Late NTR, ANR, or Savithri … It was a very humiliating moment for me,” said Chiranjeevi in an interview with Gulf News.

He said he was gutted to realise that Telugu cinema — the industry that gave him fame, name, and dignity — was nowhere in the picture.

Chiranjeevi IANS-1650974158159
Chiranjeevi Image Credit: IANS

“I was greatly pained that Telugu Cinema did not merit any representation at all. It had no identity of its own. From that day to today, I feel greatly delighted and proud that Telugu cinema has come a long way and people recognise that Indian Cinema does not mean just Bollywood,” said Chiranjeevi.

His last line about Indian cinema being reduced to Bollywood — a glut of dazzling musicals, action thrillers, and sweeping romances churned out by the Hindi film industry — has always been a bone of contention.

South Indian actors and technicians have been crying themselves hoarse that Indian cinema isn’t limited to just Bollywood dominated by North Indian talents alone. For decades, those voices were drowned but in the last few years, they are being heard now.

The status quo that veered towards Bollywood has begun to see a tectonic shift with Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films dominating box office collections and garnering immense critical appeal in the last few years. Movies such as the recent blockbuster ‘RRR’ and ‘Baahubali’ have now made South Indian films a force to reckon with.

Ram Charan and NTR Jr in 'RRR'. Image Credit: Supplied

“Today Telugu cinema, or even Tamil, Kannada or Malayalam cinema are just as much a part of Indian cinema as Bollywood. Thanks to filmmakers like SS Rajamouli, Shankar, Mani Ratnam, Prashant Neil, Sukumar, and their ilk and also to great musicians like AR Rahman and so many other technicians. It has been a long time coming for Telugu/South Indian cinema and extremely well deserved. And I think this makes Indian Cinema far more vibrant and competitive,” he added.

His Eid offering ‘Acharya’, directed by Koratala Siva of ‘Mirchi’ fame and also starring his superstar son Ram Charan, is his attempt to blur the North-South divide.

Excerpts from our interview with Telugu cinema’s brightest and boldest talents. We talk about working with his beloved star son, his acting process, his pandemic-induced life lessons, and more:

Tell us about your role in ‘Acharya’.

I played a Naxalite in an earlier film called ‘Rakta Sindooram’. In that film, the character embodies sheer aggression. In ‘Acharya’, however, he is far more mature and composed. Typically Naxals are shown hiding in the forests and fighting the system. In this case, he comes to a village where justice is facing extinction. How and for whom, he is tasked with a mission to restore justice in this place and what odds he overcomes, forms the story.

This movie marks the return of the true-blue masala genre with larger-than-life characters. How do you ensure that you are bringing something fresh to the table?

‘Acharya’ has all the ingredients that entertain mainstream audiences, but they are also beautifully blended with a social cause and a greater purpose, a la director Koratala Siva style. It caters to the class and mass audiences alike.

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A still from 'Acharya'

What was the most challenging part of ‘Acharya’?

I would not say any particular part of ‘Acharya’ was challenging, but this film was the most exciting and memorable project for me because it has given Ram Charan and me an opportunity to discover each other like never before. We had spent about 20 days, 24/7 in the Maaredumilli forest region, and that is one of the most wonderful and pleasurable times we have ever spent together, and I would cherish it throughout. We have made new discoveries about each other both as artists and as father and son.

In the film too, our characters are designed in such a beautiful way that our characters get new insights into each other as we go. Our relationship goes beyond any definition. It is not father-son, it is not a mentor-mentee relationship or that of two friends. It goes just beyond everything. There are moments in the film that are emotional, enriching, and rewarding beyond words.

How do you look back on your blazing acting journey in Telugu cinema?

I don’t think it is my greatness that I have been in this industry for such a long time. I would credit my long and successful journey in cinema to the abundant love, and adulation that millions of my audiences have showered on me and continue to shower. They are the ones who give me energy, enthusiasm, and motivation, to constantly strive to entertain them better. I am eternally grateful to them and indebted to them forever. The love of my audiences is the force that propels me forward.

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What kind of roles appeal to you and why? Are good roles easy to come by now?

I do not wish to play serious and heavy characters or characters with too much complexity. I always look for roles that engage and entertain audiences and yet carry a message as an undercurrent to make a difference in their lives and the world around them like Tagore or Indra. The primary purpose of cinema is to engage the audiences and entertain them, de-stress them, and then endeavour to enlighten them perhaps provoke positive thoughts. Cinema cannot be preachy. Lighter vein characters with a mass touch and ones that do a lot of comedy, action, and songs are what audiences want from me and I always try to meet their expectations.

What has the pandemic taught you as an artist and an actor?

 The pandemic has taught me many invaluable and far more significant lessons to humanity across the world including us here. But if I must mention how it has changed me as an artist, I could work on myself a lot harder and become fitter. When people say I look far younger and fitter today, and wonder what’s the secret behind it. That is because of the quality time I could give myself during the pandemic, with adequate workouts and healthy food habits. Today I am working on four different projects simultaneously. This has never happened since the late 80s. Back then stars would get to act in multiple projects at a time. Later that practice diminished greatly. But today I am doing more work than pre-pandemic days. ‘Acharya’ is set for release, followed by ‘God Father’. Besides, I have two more films that I am working on right now and four more projects in the pipeline. So, I am busier than ever and perhaps among the few, who have optimised the time the pandemic period has provided us.

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Ram Charan and Chiranjeevi in 'Acharya'

In journalism school, we were taught never to work with family as it may lead to unnecessary ego hassles and clashes, but you both have broken that stereotype. How is it working with your son Ram Charan?

When sharing the screen, I look at Ram Charan only as a co-star and not as my son. Evidently, after ‘RRR’, Ram Charan has emerged as one of the finest actors in Indian cinema. Film after film, year after year, Ram Charan has been evolving and attaining greater heights as an actor and it is indeed a delight to be acting with him. In many scenes in this film, I was immersed in his brilliant performance and was overwhelmed by it. You will see a new level of his maturity as an actor in this film. It also challenges me as an actor myself and gives me that satisfaction. Where there is talent, other considerations like whether he is related to you or not do not matter. Both complimented each other while acting together.

How have you seen yourself evolve as an actor in the last few decades and how will ‘Acharaya’ alter your illustrious career?

‘Acharya’ might not drastically alter my career but what’s most precious for me is the opportunity to act alongside my son Charan. A father and a son being in the same league of stardom or superstardom is a very rare phenomenon. It is a very inexplicable feeling for me. So, more than the character of ‘Acharya’, the combination with Charan makes this film very, very special for me. In that sense, ‘Acharya’, takes the cake, among all my films in over four decades.

What kind of a creative moment is Telugu cinema having right now?

Today in terms of scale, technique, technical excellence, content, artistic elements almost in every aspect, we are making films on par with Hollywood. We are having access to huge budgets like Hollywood films. And the journey has just begun. Not so long ago, we used to be referred to as regional cinema. But today we are National Cinema. The boundaries have blurred. Today all actors in India, be it from any nook and corner of my country, are identified as Indian actors, and their films are being identified as ‘Indian cinema’. Numerous people have contributed to this change. And director SS Rajamouli is greatly instrumental in this transformation. Hats off to him.

Don’t miss it!

‘Acharya’ is out in UAE cinemas now.