Sometimes you can pinpoint an actor’s ascent to stardom to a precise moment in his or her filmography. In Mahesh Babu’s case, that moment comes 47 minutes into Okkadu (2003). In that film, he played Ajay, a kabbadi player, whose life changes when he goes to Kurnool and sees a dreaded factionist Obul Reddy (Prakash Raj) harassing a hapless young woman, Swapna (Bhumika Chawla). At around the 47th minute in the film, Ajay humiliates Obul Reddy at Kondareddy Buruju centre, a landmark in Kurnool, and saves Swapna.
The scene turned into a landmark moment in the actor’s career and in hindsight, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that it was at that moment that the ‘Prince’ (Mahesh Babu’s moniker when he made his debut as a lead actor in Rajakumarudu) was on his way to becoming a superstar.
17 years later, with his latest film Sarileru Neekevvaru, Mahesh Babu is back on the same turf; however, a lot has changed now. He’s no longer the silent young man, whose eyes spoke louder than his words. Co-incidentally, Mahesh Babu is an army officer named Ajay Krishna in Sarileru Neekevvaru and a significant part of the film is set in Kurnool.
Calling it a feast for the audience, Mahesh Babu says, “AS Prakash, the art director, recreated Kondareddy Buruju in Ramoji Film City and when I saw the set, all those memories of shooting Okkadu came back. I got so nostalgic. It’s a good feeling. This is a perfect film for Sankranthi and right from the day I heard the script to when we saw the final cut, I could feel a blockbuster vibe.”
In the past few years, Mahesh Babu has added blockbusters like Srimanthudu, Bharat Ane Nenu, and Maharshi to his credit; however, by his own admission, he had decided to take a break from doing back to back message-oriented films post Maharshi.
“A lot of my fans have been wanting to see me in an action entertainer like Dookudu, and it was on my mind too. I need to connect with the story emotionally and only then can I put my heart and soul into it. So, when Anil Ravipudi pitched this story, I felt that I got a solid script in my hands to get back to the commercial cinema space after a long time,” he reveals.
Apparently, when Mahesh Babu and Anil Ravipudi had initially agreed to work together, Sarileru Neekevvaru was supposed to take off at a much later point of time; however, Mahesh Babu changed his mind after he saw Anil Ravipudi’s F2.
“I was sure that I wanted to do this film sooner or later. I really liked F2 and Anil has built his reputation as a director who can blend comedy and drama in a unique way. Since I’ve been wanting to get out of my comfort zone for a long time, I felt that it was the right time to do Sarileru Neekevvaru right after Maharshi. Films like Srimanthudu, Bharat Ane Nenu, and Maharshi have a strong story and I’ve to surrender myself to do what the role demands. There are boundaries which you can’t cross because the characters are meant to behave in a certain way. The role which Anil had envisioned for me gave me the scope to break free from all those boundaries and do something different. There’s a lot of action and comedy, but at the same time, I shouldn’t be playing this role like how I performed in Khaleja or Dookudu. The first 3-4 days were a little difficult, but it was a breeze after that and I enjoyed the process,” he adds.
The film’s promos, so far, have dropped ample hints about how an army officer is appalled to see the violence and bloodshed in the hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh, and takes the onus of helping his friend’s family from the tyranny of a local politician. One of the aspects which impressed Mahesh Babu was the blend of comedy and patriotism in the script, and he admits that Anil Ravipudi surprised him in a lot of ways.
“The film deals with an army officer’s social life and how he deals with injustice in the society. Anil has filled the film with a lot of entertainment and heroism, but at the same time, the character (Ajay Krishna) has been treated with a lot of respect. I was amazed to see the energy and positivity with which Anil pulled off the entire shoot. The director’s energy rubs on to everyone on the set. There were days, while we were shooting in Kerala, when the light would go off by 3 pm and we were able to shoot for only four hours in a day; however, Anil was quite positive amidst all that," he says.
He goes on to add, "We wrapped up the film in about five months and sometimes, I’m in disbelief that we shot so much in such a short span of time. The team worked on the film without a break for almost 120 days and full respect for Anil, cinematographer Rathnavelu for pulling it off this feat. You need immense confidence and clarity to be able to do such a thing. I feel that people will respect Anil Ravipudi even more after watching this film. He has helped me explore a new dimension of my acting skill and the film itself is a fresh take in the commercial cinema space."
The actor is all praise for his co-star Rashmika and says, “She has done a fabulous job in the film and there were a lot of times, during the shoot, when she took me by surprise. There are a lot of senior actors in the film like Rajendra Prasad and Vijaya Shanti, and Rashmika got into the groove quite quickly. She’s quite spontaneous too and I’m confident that she’ll go a long way in Telugu cinema.”
Post Sarileru Neekevvaru, the actor is going to take a short break before he begins his next film, which will be directed by Vamshi Paidipally, who had recently helmed Maharshi. “I feel it’s important to unlearn before you start working on something new and that’s why taking a break in between films is essential for me. Both Vamshi and I are quite excited about our next project and I can’t wait to start shooting for it soon,” he says.
In the last few years, apart from the big budget films, Telugu cinema has also witnessed the rise of a new wave of cinema, like Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya, Brochevarevura, Pellichoopulu among many others, where the script was truly the star of the film.
Ask him if he would be willing to be part of this new wave, Mahesh Babu offers a reality check, which puts in perspective why most stars are in a dilemma about choosing the right script. “Experimenting with films is easier said than done, to be honest. The scripts needs to be a fresh take on a subject, and at the same time, it has to be accessible to everyone. When the budgets are really high, you have to make sure that everything falls in place. Otherwise trade will suffer if you take a big risk. And that’s not an easy thing to do when the stakes are so high, especially when it comes to a big star’s film,” he adds.