Tollywood
The more Mahesh Babu ran, like Tom Cruise does in most of his films, his image as an action hero was imprinted firmly on the altar of Telugu cinema.

Is there anyone in Telugu cinema who has been running as much as Mahesh Babu does in his films? There are quite a few memes declaring that his ‘running style has a separate fan base’ and numerous fans have tried to imitate him. 

It’s little wonder then that one of the posters of his 25th film, Maharshi, brought back memories of Pokiri, the film which turned him into a superstar back in 2006.

The more he ran, like Tom Cruise does in most of his films, his image as an action hero was imprinted firmly on the altar of Telugu cinema.

Some of his earlier films like Murari and Takkari Donga now feel like warm up laps that prepared him for the marathon ahead. The handgun went off in 2003 with Gunasekhar’s Okkadu being the first milestone. In the film, there’s an elaborate sequence where Mahesh Babu runs along with his co-star, Bhumika Chawla, in the bylanes of Hyderabad and the barren lands in Kurnool, Rayalaseema.

The film introduced an intense actor who immersed himself into the role so much that he ran as if his life was dependent on it. Then, in 2005, Mahesh Babu stepped into the shoes of Pardhu in Trivikram Srinivas’s Athadu, which had him running and even climbing a wall while escaping from a mob. Towards the end of the film, he runs again, but this time, he’s inside a church facing his nemesis.

The lap which changed his acting career, however, came up in 2006 when he outran most of his peers with Puri Jagannadh’s Pokiri. He runs a lot in this film too. One time, it’s to catch a train to save his girlfriend Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz) from a bunch of goons; another time, he runs towards a gym to see his father, where director Puri Jagannadh gave the Telugu audience one of the best twists of the decade. The film’s success turned him into a superstar and also turned his running style into an art form.  

But what’s a race without some drama and heartbreak? The failure of his subsequent films, Sainikudu and Athidhi, a delay in the production of his next film, and a long hiatus from films made his fans restless. When was he going to make a comeback? And would he be able to reclaim his space which was under constant threat from other stars in Tollywood?

In 2010, when Mahesh Babu came back with Khaleja, he was a different man. The long break had helped him rejuvenate and look at his career from a fresh perspective. The wisdom of age had changed his approach, and no longer was he the daredevil from Pokiri or the silent assassin in Athadu. As taxi driver Raju, Mahesh Babu shifted gears to become a talkative man who could take a joke and land punches with ease.

And, of course, he ran in the film, and this time, it was to catch hold of a character named Govardhan (Subbaraju), who would provide him some crucial information to continue his journey. The makeover and the characterisation, even though it was highly appreciated by his fans, wasn’t enough to strike gold at box-office. Khaleja was a flop at box-office; however, people warmed up to the film a lot more, a few years after its release.

The roaring success of Sreenu Vaitla’s Dookudu in 2011 was good enough to catapult him ahead of the race. The combination of his post-Khaleja persona and the swagger of an actor, who knows he’s on top of his game, worked wonders for Mahesh Babu. As a dashing cop, he chased villains in the streets of Istanbul, the corridors of Binny Mills, and and cleared doubts, if there were any, about his crowd-pulling prowess at the box-office. The superstar had arrived with a bang. And the expectations on him kept soaring higher.

Later, in films like Businessman and Aagadu, the actor kept up the tempo of Dookudu and ran towards another milestone, although the degree of success kept varying. While Businessman did well at the box-office, Aagadu failed to click. Another film which didn’t work with the audience but has slowly gained a loyal fan following was Sukumar’s 1-Nenokkadine. One of the most memorable scenes in the film has Mahesh Babu running towards his childhood with Sukumar introducing Gautham (Mahesh Babu’s son) in the foreground.

In his more recent films like Spyder, Srimanthudu, and Bharat Ane Nenu, the actor is considerably more restrained than his Dookudu days. As criticism mounted against his ‘subtle acting’ style in his recent works, the actor reasoned that he’s being faithful to the roles written for him and that it would be unfair to do something which the director didn’t envision. In his latest film, Maharshi too, there are glimpses of him running towards something...although we don’t know if it’s a metaphor about him chasing success, which is one of the themes of the film, or simply running because he has been doing that for so long.

The conversations about the actor these days, beyond why he keeps running so much in films, have also been about his action hero image. In his films post Pokiri, the actor has tilted more towards urban themes and has been more sophisticated in his approach towards handling his ‘mass hero’ image.

Films like Dookudu, 1-Nenokkadine, Srimanthudu, and even Bharat Ane Nenu are examples of the choices that he has made in recent times. And with this, there’s a section of people who wonder if his films are ‘mass’ enough and why is it that some of the films haven’t outperformed in some areas of Andhra Pradesh even when they're declared as  blockbusters in Nizam and overseas territories.

In the larger context of what the actor has been doing throughout his career, to expect him to do the same thing which his peers do would be akin to diverting his focus from the race track. Maybe, he doesn’t have to prove anything now as long as his endurance and love for cinema continue for the years to come.

Not surprisingly, every time Mahesh Babu appears in a panche or a lungi (Bharat Ane Nenu and Srimanthudu), every time he takes up a weapon other than a gun (Maharshi), and even when he sips tea from a glass tumbler, it feels like a conscious effort by the filmmakers to balance the actor’s image. Because, this is what the fans want. Isn’t it? The actor has publicly acknowledged the pressure that he has to bear to impress the audience.

“Telugu cinema has the best audience in the world. If they like a film...it doesn’t matter which language it is from, they’ll go watch it. At the same time, if they don’t like my work, they’re extremely blunt about it and won’t even watch them,” Mahesh Babu has said in the past.

The stakes are really high for the actor these days. With most of his recent films being sold for high prices before the release, Mahesh Babu has landed in a zone where the margin for error is shrinking. “Every film has to be a blockbuster for all the stakeholders to make money. And I need to get my judgement right about every film I want to take up,” he acknowledges.

From the young actor who stopped at nothing to help a young girl in Okkadu, today, Mahesh Babu has become a hero who continues running, with a strong sense of purpose, because he doesn’t want to stop what he started. That’s a good thing. “I want to keep acting even when I turn 100,” he said in a recent interview. Maybe even then, he’ll keep running. Or at least walking. Because like a dialogue in Maharshi goes - “There are no full stops in success, only commas.”