Readers Write In #540: 20 Years of Okkadu: The making of Mahesh Babu

Posted on January 16, 2023

13


By Aman Basha

Watching the birth of the Prince and also, a damn good, nay, great movie

Nostalgia is an underrated emotion in our lives. Human memory is often selective in how it chooses to recollect the past. We often forget the bad and remember mostly the good, wishing for “those days” again. We seek the innocence and lost promise of youth. The urge for nostalgia seems stronger these days, driving the strange success of two sexagenarians donning their old costumes in mediocrely written potboilers finding huge patronage this festive season.

This too, when Telugu Cinema seems to have found its golden age, the moment of international glory and attention, worth celebrating with a ‘Naatu Naatu’? More than the two Sakranti releases, what has been peculiar is the ‘rerelease’ trend that has gripped the Telugu audience like a mania when this year had a heaping of good cinema content.

Then why is that the greatest frenzy seemed to be happening in the theatres screening Pokiri and Jalsa? These are recent films, certainly with great pop culture value and hugely popular milestones for their respective lead stars, but available on YouTube. The 4K restoration is a technical achievement that can be done by any bored batch of engineers (plenty of whom are Telugu). Then what is driving the huge audience for these noughties re-releases.

Perhaps it is the disappointment that has settled on the fans of Telugu Cinema’s current big star duo, Pawan Kalyan and Mahesh Babu. At a time when Telugu cinema is pushing boundaries, both have been delivering films that are various levels of disappointing. The despairing fans took to these re-releases as a means to celebrate as the new films were not worth much.

It was not out of any nostalgic attachment that I attended Okkadu, it was my sheer addiction to the crazy celebrations that I seemed to have missed out on the Pokiri or Jalsa rerelease. The hooting, whistling, dancing in the aisles can distract when you’re watching a movie for the first time, but when it’s a film you’ve seen countless times, these gimmicks become the point.

(Yes! Yes! Yes! Kamariyaaaa)

Yet I still had some trepidation. Mahesh Babu hasn’t made a film that can be watched twice in nearly 4 years, and the blows of Sarkar Vaari Paata and Maharshi made me worry if my nostalgia was set for major disappointment as I felt after all Mahesh films recently. Little did I know the surprises in store.

The first surprise was hearing the “Babulake Babu” slogan, that I previously thought was for Pawan used for Mahesh. The second, great and pleasant surprise was how well the film stood and that it was even better than in my memory.

The initial portions of Okkadu left me with a more content look than Ajay after his cigarette drag. The West Side Story inspired gang rivalry in old Hyderabad is shot almost in the rhythm of a comic musical, with some superb stunt work, especially involving ladders and other props. The Hare Rama song gave people around me an opportunity to cut loose in the aisles, but I was left admiring Mahesh’s dancing (which he’s not a Chiranjeevi at) and the way Gunasekhar shot the diversity of Hyderabad.

Okkadu was also at the point where its lead was not the Super Star or even the ‘Prince’, but just Mahesh, star son trying to prove his worth. As a result, Ajay can be allowed to be unheroic, even losing a point in a kabbadi match (sacrilege!). Much of the thrill of Okkadu is in watching the making and crowning of Mahesh Babu the hero from Mahesh Babu the extremely handsome (as even this movie mentions) actor.

The hero might have lost much of his charge today, dogged by the failure of going different, trapped in a message giving image of his making, such that the remarkable fresh air his persona was, is forgotten. It would be not be an overstatement to say that Mahesh Babu redefined heroism for the Telugu audience, by being understated.

Okkadu is one of the few masala films where it is easier to remember the villain’s lines or the hero’s father’s lines, but there seems to be not one mass dialogue for the hero. Unlike a Balakrishna who’d deliver long monologues for public applause, Mahesh at best smiles.

His stoicism was helped or was perhaps meant to help draw the audience’s attention to his looks, itself an anomaly compared to the previous generation of heroes like Balakrishna and Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna was handsome too, but a handsome man while Mahesh still looks something like a boy.

A hero is said to be only as good as his villain. And when it comes to Mahesh Babu the hero, that villain is always Prakash Raj. Take any popular Mahesh Babu movie from Okkadu to Arjun to Pokiri to Khaleja, and Prakash Raj is the bad guy. Of all the villains that Prakash Raj has played, and not just to Mahesh Babu, Obul Reddy easily ranks as one of his best, letting loose the trademark Prakash Raj hammy villain that is equal parts menacing and hilarious. Meme culture depicting Obul Reddy as some sort of Arjun Reddy seems to have transformed his darkly comic love lines into punch dialogue, the audience repeating them en masse.

(I love you! My Love-uu! Na Gundenala Pattukupothe ela!)

When he’s not playing the bad guy, Prakash Raj is probably playing Mahesh’s father as he splendidly did in Seetamma Vakitlo. Here, the father duties are discharged by Mukesh Rishi of Bulla fame, in one of his few positive roles and best performance after Sarfarosh. After being part of the ideal joint family in Murari, Mahesh is here in a very real nuclear family, the relationship that Ajay shares with his father is very well written, both trying to one up the other in front of the mother. The father is suspicious and mostly bickers with his son, but never loses confidence or stops supporting him.

It has always baffled me that Pawan’s biggest hits were romances like Tholi Prema and Khushi while Mahesh Babu has never done one hit love story. In this regard, Okkadu comes closest to being that love story. The primary emotion driving the film is not family feuds or social issues, but the villain’s psychotic obsession for the heroine. The Seeta Rama dynamic is the blueprint for the Ajay Swapna relationship with Obul the Ravana. After all, the Ramayana was India’s greatest love story.

While Sita is Rama’s wife, Swapna means nothing to Ajay. He is only in Kurnool for a Kabbadi match, and sees Obul Reddy mishandling Swapna by chance. It is only after taking her on the way to Hyderabad, that he learns her backstory. In a subversion of the Ramayana though, Ajay hides Swapna in his home, while Obul Reddy hunts for her, with Ajay’s DCP father on the case too.

The Ajay-Swapna relationship has shades of the Jai-Radha relationship from the greatest masala movie, Sholay where a woman bereaved from loss slowly finds joy and love again with a laconic tall handsome stranger. In a film culture then dominated by unreal heroines, this romance was as special as the Charminar is to Hyderabad, a city itself the symbol of love.

Okkadu can be said to have marked the end of the faction era of Telugu cinema where films carrying caste based titles like Samarasimha Reddy and Aadi glorified feudal factionist village lords as heroes of Rayalseema. Here too, was a factionist Reddy but he was a villain and buffoon to boot, beaten up by the city bred hero at the Konda Reddy Buruju center of Kurnool in the heart of Rayalseema of all places.

It is said that anything in India can be convincingly analyzed from the caste prism and it is never truer than in Andhra, when not only politics, but cinema too is inescapable from the caste system. Even the most popular stars, quite talented actors, end up becoming representatives of their castes and have caste based fan clubs. The big star exception to this is Mahesh Babu. The only fanaticism he attracts is among the females.

All this theorizing may make Okkadu seem only like a great disruptive movie, a movie that is important in the changes it brought. I had the same opinion, but Okkadu stands up not just as a well-aged movie, but an example of a great realistic well written masala movie.

The entire movie carries a kinetic pace with the plot unfolding in the space of only a week. The action stretches, more in the Terminator style of relentless chase scenes, are very realistic and muted, with even background music erupting only in a few stretches. These chases happen through forests, villages and most thrillingly the lanes of the Old City. Though the hero is a kabbadi player, Obul Reddy has special powers, making for a thrilling climax. The realistic style in which the movie was made has helped it age very well.

The absence of a typical comedy track further helps Okkadu as a gripping watch, but this doesn’t mean that the film is dead serious. To the contrary, Okkadu has great dollops of humor integral to the plot, coming from Prakash Raj’s histronics, Mahesh’s impish sarcasm and especially his fearful silent look in front of his father.

One of the great features of masala movies and any great movie in general is the “echo”. Events that previously happen are repeated once again in a different way, the previous event being sort of a setup for the same event to evict a greater reaction from the audience. Echoes bring a certain rhyme to the movie, and it occurs through Okkadu, say take the scenes where Ajay gets himself out of being surrounded by hostiles. The death of the villain doesn’t happen in the hands of the hero, but it echoes with the conflict setup of the movie. In fact, it doesn’t seem like Ajay kills anyone in Okkadu.

Okkadu also scores in how it tells a universal story in a manner that is extraordinarily specific to its locales. One of its most whistle-worthy scenes involves the sizable Muslim population of Hyderabad.

There are a multitude of areas where Telugu cinema has made great leaps these days, but an aspect where not only Telugu cinema but also Indian filmmakers are flailing hugely is when it comes to songs in films. The half-heartedly made, badly placed songs in movies today become especially apparent when compared to the songs of Okkadu, my favorites of which is the lovely Cheppave Chirugali, to which everyone started dancing and Nuvvemmaya Chesavogani, which seems misplaced at the start but cleverly sets up the lead couple, later becoming a duet for them.

With Okkadu, Mahesh Babu became the star who offered something different from the rest. Okkadu was followed by Arjun, Athadu, Nijam and Pokiri which crowned him as the Prince of Tollywood. When he seemed to finally be on top on the Telugu star hierarchy, the flops began, Khaleja too, which is everyone’s favorite today. Even after Dookudu brought him back to the fore, the Superstar still kept trying to do different, acting in a film like Seetamma Vakitlo, where his character didn’t even have a name.

But it was not meant to be, the audience made disasters out of fine thrillers like 1: Nenokkadine and Spyder, and made a hit out of a cynical film like Maharshi which seemed designed in the format of previous successes like Srimanthudu and Bharat Ane Nenu. Since then, the Mahesh Babu who was at the forefront of freshness and innovation seems beholden to formula at a time when Telugu cinema’s boundaries are being pushed like never before.

Here’s to hoping that this Tella Dora (white savior), as he’s literally called in Maharshi (props for self-awareness), is gone and Telugu Cinema’s ‘Hollywood hero’ makes a comeback soon without making everyone wait 5 years for SS Rajamouli to give the Mahesh we need. Or else, I’ll probably just buy tickets for the Athadu re-release. Mahesh Babu, a cool assassin? FDFS Corner tickets please!!