As real as reel

It was a plot straight out of one of Chiranjeevi’s hit movies when his younger daughter Srija eloped with Shirish Bhardwaj. Ramesh Kandula in Hyderabad looks at the life of the Telugu superstar who wields tremendous clout and is seen by his community as leading a ‘third political force’ in Andhra Pradesh

ON his way to stardom, Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi had donned lover-boy roles in several blockbusters that celebrated the triumph of teenage love over the tyranny of elders. Never was he prepared for a role reversal in real life.

The ageing matinee idol found himself on the other side of the fence when his young daughter Srija eloped with her boyfriend and married him in a secret Arya Samaj ceremony.

Rudely shocked by the development, the 52-year-old megastar has withdrawn himself into a shell and largely remained incommunicado for over a month now. The actor’s larger-than-life image, crafted over three decades of his successful film career, took a severe beating as his pampered daughter gave a slip to the family members and walked out of home one fine morning, only to appear in bridal attire before television cameras a few hours later announcing her marriage.

In what looked like a stuff from syrupy romantic films, Srija, 19, a student of chartered accountancy, fell in love with Sirish Bharadwaj (22), an engineering student from a middle class Brahmin family, when she was barely 14 years. The actor’s family bitterly opposed her choice.

Then, in a true filmy style, she defied her parents’ wishes, planned her escape from home with the help of friends, met her sweetheart at the appointed hour and the couple entered into wedlock. The couple’s friends supervised the ceremony at an Arya Samaj temple and even sent the CDs of the marriage to news channels. The drama was played out before the cameras as local news channels feasted on the "breaking news" with a breathless coverage.

Like thousands of curious households, the crestfallen megastar watched the unfolding developments live on television as the couple, clutching each other’s hands, granted "exclusive interviews" to news channels in a moving vehicle, declaring that theirs was a legal marriage.

What came as a double trouble for the hero was the revelation by Srija that her family had "curtailed her freedom, forced her to discontinue her studies and confined her to the four walls of her home".

Chiranjeevi, one of the highest paid actors in India with some reports even suggesting that he is "bigger than Amitabh Bachchan", has a huge fan following and his image is one of a do-gooder, kind-hearted and loving family man.

The sensational disclosure by his daughter that her family had kept a tab on her movements ever since they came to know about the affair has severely damaged the superstar’s image. "I had discussed my marriage plans with my father an year ago. I was forced to take this decision because of negative response from my family. Now I am a major and entitled to choose my life partner," the runaway bride said soon after her marriage on October 17.

What followed the dramatic marriage had only added insult to the injury. The couple drove all the way to the national capital and approached a Delhi court for police protection saying they faced threat from Chiranjeevi’s fans. The court granted them police security.

It had all the ingredients of a silver-screen blockbuster. A popular actor’s daughter elopes with her childhood sweetheart. A threat from the girl’s powerful father forces the newly-weds to knock on the doors of the judiciary.

Sensing their plans, the actor released a brief video statement wishing his daughter good luck "wherever she is" and appealed to his fans to "shower blessings" on her.

However, he did not say whether he was accepting the marriage or not. Nor was there any invitation to the couple to visit him.

For Chiranjeevi, recipient of Padma Bhushan and numerous Filmfare and state awards, the trouble could not have come at a more inopportune time. He is said to be nursing political ambitions with proponents of the Third Front, as an alternative to the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), looking up to him for leadership.

Having acquired a larger-than-life image in a film career spanning over three decades, Chiranjeevi is seen by ‘Kapus’, a dominant community to which he belongs, as the best bet to fill the perceived political vacuum and end the domination of the Congress and the TDP in the state.

The speculation over the megastar’s foray into politics gathered further momentum with the left parties recently holding confabulations with him to explore the possibility of building a Third Front.

The leaders of the Kapu community, spread across the political spectrum, have been trying to persuade the actor to enter politics in the hope that his popularity would help galvanise the people into a major political force and catapult him to power.

Those who have been egging him on to take a plunge into politics say that he can replicate the "NTR magic".

The demi-god of Telugu cinema, the late N T Rama Rao, had stormed to power in 1983, within nine months of floating TDP, a feat that is unparalleled in the country’s political history.

However, Chiranjeevi, who has acted in over 145 films, has been very tentative and cautious about his political move though he has been allowing the speculation to remain alive. Sources close to him say that he is wary of the complex task of political management in the present scenario and is also not sure of support from across the communities.

However, there are reports that the superstar has been, of late, sending some positive signals about his political career. The titles of his recent films, loaded as they are with political message and the increased philanthropic activity through the blood bank he had floated years ago have not gone unnoticed in political circles.

The cost-accountant-turned film star has been quietly making efforts to build a larger-than-life image for himself. His recent films provide a glimpse of his political aspirations. "Born for the People" was the tagline for his 2002 film Indra that deals with political violence in Rayalaseema region.

Then came Tagore, a year later, in which the superstar dons the role of a corruption-buster who advocates formation of an anti-corruption force to wage a war against the menace. In Stalin, Chiranjeevi is a man of the masses, a do-gooder who comes in aid of those in distress. In this loaded film, the actor urges every citizen to help at least three others who are in need of help.

In Shankardada, MBBS and Shankardada Zindabad, the remakes of Sanjay Dutt starrers Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai, Chiranjeevi plays the lead role advocating Gandhigiri. From the dusty small town of Narsapur in West Godavari district, Konidela Siva Sankara Vara Prasad, his original name, has come a long way to dominate the Telugu tinsel world. With no family connection with the film industry, Chiranjeevi’s was a lone journey from rags to riches. After graduating from a college in Narsapur, he moved to Chennai, the hub of south Indian films, where he worked as cost accountant and enrolled himself in a film institute.

He made his debut in 1977 with Manavoori Pandavulu, a hugely successful film directed by Bapu. There was no looking back since then. Initially, Chiranjeevi, the dark-skinned, medium built actor, was more known for his dancing skills. Then he donned the roles of a villain in some films, notably K Balachander’s Idi Katha Kaadu and 47 Rojulu.

It did not take long for him to emerge as a leading romantic and action hero, starring in blockbusters year after year.

His first major success came with Khaidi in 1983. A string of blockbusters followed, notable among them being Challenge, Abhilasha, Raakshasudu, Manchupallaki, Shubhalekha, Jagadeka Veerudu, Athiloka Sundari and Atthaku Yamudu Ammayiki Mogudu. Chiranjeevi won a "Nandi" Award, instituted by the state government, for K Viswanath’s critically-acclaimed movie Swayamkrushi (1987). His movie Rudraveena, directed by K. Balachander, won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration in 1989.

During the 1990s, the megastar faced setback with a series of flops. However, overcoming the rough patch, he re-established his supremacy at the box office with Hitler. Later, his performance in Indra earned him the Filmfare Best Actor award.

Chiranjeevi’s career rose to new heights after his marriage with Surekha, the daughter of veteran comedian Allu Ramalingaiah, in 1980. His younger brother Pavan Kalyan is also a popular actor, referred to by his fans as "Power Star". Kalyan, a temperamental and intense actor, has been in the news in the wake of a bigamy case filed against him by his first wife Nandini in a Visakhapatnam court. Another brother Nagendra Babu is a producer and actor.

In January 2006, Chiranjeevi was honoured with Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India for his contributions to the Telugu film industry. He is also the recipient of a honorary doctorate by the Andhra University. The megastar’s family has been in the news for odd reasons quite often. The marriage of his elder daughter Sushmita with upcoming actor Uday Kiran was cancelled at the last minute following "irreconcilable differences" between them. After Srija’s marriage, the conspiracy theorists are working overtime to give a "political angle" to the episode. They say that some political forces who stand to lose if Chiranjeevi enters politics were behind the conspiracy to defame the actor and his family.

Eyebrows were raised over the meticulous planning of the couple in approaching the Delhi court and their plea that they faced threat to their lives from the superstar’s fans. Questions were also raised over how they managed to engage a high-profile Delhi lawyer, who is incidentally associated with the BJP.

The tone and tenor of the petition, virtually demanding that Chiranjeevi should invite the couple home and organise a reception, also gave rise to suspicion in some quarters.

Amidst all the turmoil, the megastar is yet to break his silence over whether he has finally come to accept the marriage.