It is mid-July this year and the Shilpakala Vedika auditorium in Hyderabad is packed. The crowd is excited and is at its vocal best. The function, held on a Saturday evening, is the audio release of Telugu star Mahesh Babu’s film Srimanthudu. The event goes according to script—the music is launched followed by a live performance of the songs and then various artistes speak.
When the superstar takes the stage, the fans get frenzied. He thanks all the artists involved in the film and then he says something unexpected: “You are always in my heart. Last time I disappointed you. If you think I have made a mistake, please forgive me.” For a moment, the hall falls silent before his fans erupt into cheers. Their hero was apologising to them for the poor performance of his earlier film Aagadu (2014). An outright potboiler, it failed to recover even half its budget at the box office.
“When a film fails, the stars usually blame everyone other than themselves but Mahesh Babu is one of those rare heroes who own up for the failure and apologise,” says Sreedhar Pillai, a columnist who tracks the film industry. “A film fails for many reasons and it need not necessarily be on account of the star. In fact, there was no need for him to apologise.”
Mahesh Babu does not agree. “I made a mistake in choosing the script and let my fans down with Aagadu. When I saw them cheering for me so excitedly at the Srimanthudu audio launch, I felt very bad and spontaneously chose to say sorry for disappointing them,” he tells Forbes India at his residence in the posh Jubilee Hills locality of Hyderabad.
Failure is something the top-billed actor—who has delivered some of the biggest blockbusters the Telugu film industry has ever seen, such as Okkadu (2003), Athadu (2005), Pokiri (2006), Dookudu (2011), Businessman (2012) and more recently Srimanthudu—takes very personally. In fact, after Aagadu bombed at the box office, he retreated into a shell. “I shut myself off and did not meet anyone for a month or two,” he says. “It was an introspection phase for me.”
Those two months were neither the first, nor the longest, phases of introspection for the actor. Between 2007 and 2010, he removed himself from films after two of his movies—Sainikudu (2006) and Athidhi (2007)—flopped. These failures hurt him as they happened immediately after the two biggest hits of his career—Athadu (2005) and Pokiri (2006)—that propelled him to superstardom. “First there are two blockbuster films and then two flops follow, despite the fact that I gave it all I could. I was confused and scared,” he says. He announced he was taking a short break.
Months extended to years. He did not listen to any scripts and spent his time reading books and playing with his young son. This began to worry his father Krishna Ghattamaneni (a leading Telugu actor who has starred in over 350 films) and his wife Namrata Shirodkar (a former Bollywood actor and model whom Mahesh Babu married in 2005). It was only in 2010 that he returned to the screen with Khaleja, which turned out to be a moderate hit.
“The break helped me. I emerged stronger,” he says. “My approach to work changed. Rather than focusing on the final outcome, I began to enjoy the process.” He began to observe and learn and has no qualms in saying that despite being a superstar who typically dons the role of a larger-than-life hero bashing his enemies to pulp, he is very nervous whenever he goes to the sets. “I realised that if I do not fear, I will not learn. If I do not learn and grow, the star in me would die,” says Mahesh Babu, whose favourite actor is Aamir Khan, whom he admires for the variety of roles he has enacted on screen.
There are compelling reasons for Mahesh Babu’s fear and nervousness and why he takes failures personally. “For a superstar like Mahesh Babu, his last hit becomes the barometer that gauges his stardom. His next movie has to be a bigger hit,” says Pillai. His next film Brahmotsavam, due for release in 2016, will have to collect at least 10 percent more than the Rs 150 crore that Srimanthudu collected at the box office, he adds.
There are financial implications too. “A film involving a superstar is made with high budgets and this means that it must become a massive hit to recover the money,” says Mahesh Babu. “The opening is critical and so is its promotion.” These factors put enormous stress on the star. “The pressure is immense,” he admits. “To manage it, I strike a proper work-life balance. At home, I am not a star. My father never brought his stardom home.”
Today, Mahesh Babu tries hard to understand what his fans expect from him. “They expect a clean, content-based film that brings out my natural style of acting and has a social message,” he says. Srimanthudu, his latest blockbuster and the second biggest grosser ever in the Telugu film industry after Bahubali: The Beginning, did just that. It had a strong social message: The protagonist adopts a village and takes responsibility for its development.
The fact that he lost sight of this when he took up Aagadu still rankles him. “The audience is evolving. Gone are the days when the presence of a star alone could carry the film through,” he says. This, according to him, is a new trend that is being witnessed in the Telugu film industry.
“The biggest strength of Mahesh Babu is the natural flair he brings out on the screen,” says AR Murugadoss, the director of Ghajini (2008) and Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty (2014) that set the Bollywood box office on fire. Next, Murugadoss will be working with Mahesh Babu on a light action film. It will be a Telugu-Tamil bilingual and will go on the floor in April 2016. It will, of course, have a social message delivered subtly.
Fans and directors apart, advertisers too love him. “Mahesh Babu reflects the image of one who dares to be different and is a cut above the rest… As a leading actor, he is a quintessential combination of style and spirit, a go-getter always aspiring to reach greater heights,” said JS Srinivasan, vice-president, sales, TVS Motor Company, while announcing the star as a brand ambassador in June 2013. He also endorses brands such as Thums Up, Idea, Santoor, Intex Mobiles and Paragon. His box office hits and brand endorsements have together placed him at rank 36 on the 2015 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List, though he’s down six places from rank 30 last year.
The forty-year-old Mahesh Babu began acting when he was only four years old. “Every summer vacation my father ensured that I acted in some film or the other,” he says. He acted in nine films as a child artiste and had a considerable fan following when his father asked him to focus on his education.
He re-entered films in 1999, after graduating from Chennai’s Loyola College, with the lead role in the film Raja Kumarudu. His first blockbuster film was Okkadu that grossed Rs 32 crore—the highest for any Telugu film at that time. With that film, he announced his arrival as a star and there has been no looking back since.
The massive success of Srimanthudu prompted the inevitable questions: Whether he, like the character Harshavardhan he played in the film, would also adopt a village and transform it.
“My brother-in-law Jay (Jayadev Galla is a sitting member of Parliament and managing director, Amara Raja Batteries Ltd) broached this subject even before Srimanthudu was made,” says Mahesh Babu. “I have decided to adopt Burripalem village [where his father comes from] in Andhra Pradesh and another village in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana.”
In the hamlets, Mahesh Babu will invest in providing basic amenities such as drinking water, roads and drainage facilities. The social messages will spill over from his reel life into his real life. And he will be a real hero because of it.