This Sankranthi, the Telugu people will taste a heady cocktail of their biggest passions — movies and politics.
Along with large family gatherings, great food, and cockfights, movie watching is an integral part of Sankranti festivities.
Sankranti — which marks the harvest season and is called Pedda Pandaga (big festival) in Telugu households, especially in coastal Andhra Pradesh — has always been a time movie buffs look forward to, assured as they are of several major releases with heavyweight stars.
And this Sankranti, the movie watching experience will be particularly special as Tollywood is set to witness a clash of titans at the box office.
Squaring up against each other are two top Tollywood heroes: ‘Megastar’ Chiranjeevi and ‘Nata Simham’ Nandamuri Balakrishna.
While Balakrishna aka Balayya’s Veera Simha Reddy will release on 12 January, Chiranjeevi aka Chiru’s Waltair Veerayya will release the next day.
The promotions, songs, teasers, and trailers of both movies have generated a lot of interest among film buffs.
What has particularly piqued their interest is a strange coincidence: Both movies are from the same production house — Mythri Movie Makers —and both have Shruti Haasan as the leading lady.
And adding spice to this already heady cocktail is politics — and caste.
Apart from the fact that they are huge Tollywood stars, what is common to Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna is their stints in politics.
Chiranjeevi, 67, forayed into politics with the launch of the Praja Rajyam Party in 2008, which he later merged with the Congress and even served as a Union minister during the second United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.
Balakrishna, 62, has been an active campaigner for the TDP, a party founded in 1982 by his father and legendary Telugu star NT Rama Rao, or NTR. He finally contested an Assembly election from the Hindupur constituency in 2014 and has been an MLA ever since.
Chiranjeevi, who belongs to the numerically strong Kapu community, has stayed away from politics after his stint as minister at the Centre.
However, his brother Pawan Kalyan, another top Telugu actor, is active in politics and heads the Jana Sena. And he has, of late, been cosying up to the TDP, seen as a party of the powerful Kamma community.
Desperate to end the dominance of the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh, the Jana Sena and the TDP, which was once the arch rival of Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam, all but sealed an alliance earlier this week when TDP chief and former chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu called on Pawan Kalyan. It was their second meeting in recent times.
More evidence of the bonhomie between the Jana Sena and the TDP came when Pawan Kalyan, for the first time, accepted an invitation to be a guest on Balakrishna’s long-running Telugu talk show Unstoppable that is aired on an OTT platform.
The Pawan Kalyan episode on Unstoppable, a show that is hugely popular in the two Telugu states, is expected to be aired during Sankranti.
The TDP’s desperation to woo the Jana Sena is understandable.
In 2014, the just-launched Jana Sena extended support to both the BJP and the TDP and campaigned extensively for both parties. Chandrababu Naidu came to power in what was truncated Andhra’s first election.
In 2019, however, Jana Sena contested all the 175 seats to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly on its own, cutting into TDP’s Kapu votes and allowing YSRCP of Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy to sweep to power, capturing an overwhelming 151 seats. The TDP is estimated to have lost some 30-40 seats because of the Jana Sena’s presence.
Pawan Kalyan in 2020 entered into a formal alliance with the BJP, but appears to believe that the best chance to beat the YSRCP lies in a tie-up with the TDP. And he even seems prepared to break his ties with the BJP if the saffron party expresses its dislike for a tie-up with the TDP.
So where does Chiranjeevi stand in the current political churn in Andhra Pradesh?
The Megastar is playing his cards close to his chest. While he has a good relationship with Chief Minister Jagan Mohan of the YSRCP, it appears as if the BJP is wooing him to expand its presence in Andhra Pradesh.
Chiranjeevi was invited to attend an event at Bhimavaram in July last year where Prime Minister Narendra Modi indulged in some public display of camaraderie with him. Later in the year, the National Film Development Corporation conferred the Indian Film Personality of the Year award on Chiranjeevi, in what was seen as a part of the BJP’s “Look South” policy.
At the same time, in a rare comment on politics, especially his brother, he recently said at an alumni event: “We’ll see Pawan Kalyan in a bigger position one day with all your blessings.”
It is against the backdrop of all this intense politics that the Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna movies are clashing during Sankranti. But this is nothing new for them.
It will, in fact, be the 10th time in their respective careers that Balakrishna and Chiranjeevi will be clashing at the box office during Sankranti. And the score has been about even.
It was in 1987 that Chiru and Balayya’s movies first clashed during the Sankranti season. While Chiranjeevi’s Donga Mogudu was released on 9 January that year and was a blockbuster hit, Balakrishna’s Bhargava Ramudu released on 15 January had what can be called a decent run.
In 1988, the tables were turned. Chiranjeevi’s Manchi Donga was released on 14 January, while Balakrishna’s Inspector Prathap hit the screens on 15 January. While Manchi Donga didn’t do too well, Inspector Prathap was declared a box office hit.
In 1989, Chiranjeevi’s Athakumogudu Ammayiki Mogudu was released on 14 January, while Balakrishna’s Bhale Donga was released the next day. Both movies were hits at the box office.
The next clash came almost a decade later, in 1997, when Chiranjeevi’s Hitler and Balakrishna’s Peddannayya were released during Sankranthi. Hitler became a comeback vehicle for Chiru after a string of flops, while Peddannaya did average business.
I wish Bala Mavayya and @KChiruTweets Garu all the very best for their upcoming movies #VeeraSimhaReddy and #WaltairVeerayya. I will definitely join millions of Telugus during the #Sankranthi festival to catch a slice of action,dance and mass entertainment loaded in these movies. pic.twitter.com/fRGQ21vjEh
— Lokesh Nara (@naralokesh) January 11, 2023
In 1999, Balakrishna’s Samarasimha Reddy was released on 13 January and was one of the biggest grossers of his career, while Chiranjeevi’s Sneham Kosam, released before Samarasimha Reddy, received a mixed response.
Annayya and Vamshoddarakudu of Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna, respectively, clashed at the box office in 2000. While Annnaya did average business, Balakrishna’s movie didn’t do well.
In 2001, Balakishna’s Narasimhanaidu was released on 11 January and turned out to be among his bigger hits. On the other hand, Chiranjeevi’s Mrugaraju, released on the same day, turned out to be the biggest disaster in the Megastar’s career till that time.
After three years, the actors’ movies Laxmi narasimha and Anji were released in 2004. Both did well.
And after a gap of nine years, Chiranjeevi’s Khaidi No 150 and Balakrishna’s Gauthami Putra Shatakarni locked horns during the Sankranti season. Both were runaway hits.
Now, in 2023, Chiru’s Waltair Veerayya and Balayya’s Veera Simha Reddy are set to hit theatres this Sankranti. And people of the two Telugu states will deliver their verdict soon.