Thammudu turns 25: Here’s how the ‘freemake’ of ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’ cemented Pawan Kalyan’s stardom in Tollywood

'Thammudu', which re-releases in theatres on 15 June, was one of those many special 'early' films for Pawan Kalyan.

BySrivathsan Nadadhur

Published Jun 15, 2024 | 1:23 PM Updated Jun 15, 2024 | 1:23 PM

25 years of Pawan Kalyan's Thammudu

The initial years of any established star in the industry produce some of the most heartfelt performances in their careers. The reason is not so hard to decode; they’re vulnerable, hungry, uncorrupted by the ways of the industry, and respond unconventionally to otherwise familiar situations on and off screen, resulting in magic in its rawest form that can’t be put to words.

Thammudu (1999), which turns 25 this year and re-releases in theatres on 15 June, was one of those many special ‘early’ films for Pawan Kalyan.

A ‘freemake’ of Aamir Khan and Ayesha Jhulka’s 1992 hit Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Thammudu was directed by PA Arun Prasad. It puts the spotlight on an aimless youngster who finds purpose in his life through sport (kickboxing).

The timing of the film couldn’t have been better for a resurgent Pawan Kalyan in the pre-2000s era, who was finding his mojo as an actor with multiple hits after a forgettable debut Akkada Ammayi Ikkada Abbayi (1996).

Until the monumental success of Tholi Prema (1998), he was still Chiranjeevi’s brother with chocolate boy looks who could act well.

While Thammudu‘s director approached Pawan Kalyan with a script similar to Tholi Prema initially, it was the mutual decision of the actor-director duo to look at Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar in a new light.

Though the cycling backdrop was to be retained in the Telugu version too, the director chose kickboxing for the want of a sport that’s mass-y, intense, and where the emotion could be more pronounced.

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Story of an underdog

Director Arun Prasad's Thammudu turns 25 this year

Director Arun Prasad’s ‘Thammudu’ turns 25 this year. (X)

Thammudu is about the underdog son (Subbu) of a cafe owner, who spends most of his time with equally aimless friends and a female bestie (Janaki).

The father pins his hopes on the elder son Chakri to win a kickboxing championship, until the opponent Rohit mercilessly attacks him and leaves him unfit for the match.

Subbu redeems himself by training for the championship in his brother’s place and emerges victorious.

Be it Gokulamlo Seeta (1997), Suswagatham (1998), or Tholi Prema, Pawan Kalyan was more or less playing different versions of the same character in his films then—an irresponsible man-child who’s yet to come of age and didn’t look past his youthful abandon.

Thammudu followed suit too, but the packaging was sharper and gripping. The storytelling was simple, sincere, and a welcome break from the mushy melodrama of the mainstream fares.

Though the film captures the transformation of the easy-going Subbu, there’s no desperate effort to make him likeable (at least for three-fourths of the film).

He keeps flunking his exams, fakes his identity to woo a rich girl from a rival college, and ignores a girl who has stood by him through his thick and thin since childhood. You identify with him and don’t judge him for his flaws.

Despite the film’s strong emotional conflict, PA Arun Prasad’s breezy screenplay ensures Thammudu is as enjoyable in its silver jubilee anniversary.

The first hour hits the sweet spot with the lively college episodes, the witty one-liners, Subbu’s streetsmart characterisation, and the flippant, sweet little-nothings at the canteen.

The regulars in Pawan Kalyan’s films back then—Ali and Venu Madhav—offer formidable company to the actor.

The plot only thickens post-intermission, which you don’t quite mind. Thammudu‘s discourse is at times simplistic.

Thammudu uses a class conflict to portray how high society constantly looks down upon the middle class. Both the supposedly rich characters in the story—Lovely (whom Subbu falls for) and Rohit (whom Subbu fights against) have no identity at all.

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Bowled over by Pawan Kalyan’s commitment: Arun Prasad

Pawan Kalyan played Subbu, an aimless youth who finds purpose in his life through kickboxing

Pawan Kalyan played Subbu, an aimless youth who finds purpose in his life through kickboxing. (Supplied)

In a conversation many years after the film’s release, director Arun Prasad recollects, “Even before he was a star, Pawan Kalyan had a clear idea of what would click with the masses. I was surprised by his eagerness to perform the scene where he alters his voice like a maid on the phone to impress his girlfriend. The crowd was in raptures in theatres as they watched it and I was awestruck by his understanding of mass pulse (which didn’t fail him until the 2001 movie Kushi).”

Pawan Kalyan’s tryst with martial arts began with Thammudu, for which he was trained by Chennai-based Shihan Hussaini. The actor famously didn’t reveal his identity (as Chiranjeevi’s brother) to the karate expert, who was reluctant to coach him.

In a recent conversation, Hussaini shared how the star waited outside his house for a month as a testament to his determination. The actor received no special treatment from him in this stint and earned a black belt in karate shortly.

Everything that Pawan Kalyan did with Thammudu contributed to his aura in the coming years.

He performed daredevil stunts like a pro, looked cool even while dancing beside a decked-up buffalo, spoke to pigeons about his love, dressed up like a coolie, drinking a beedi in the middle of a dream sequence in Paris.

He sported fancy white overcoats, and stylish blazers and wrote his fashion statement that resonated with a new generation of viewers.

Ramana Gogula’s magical music

Thammudu is also the film that gave wings to a new musical sensation—Ramana Gogula(fresh after the success of his music video Aye Laila (1996), which was also the inspiration behind the famous “Vayyari Bhama Nee Hamsa Nadaka” song).

Ramana Gogula’s musical style freed itself from classical leanings and was refreshingly indie and unsophisticated, mirroring the recklessness of its protagonist.

If “Made in Andhra” was the youth anthem of the times, the soothing “Pedavi Datani” (Sunita’s voice is the icing on the cake) reflected the feelings of a lovestruck girl lost in imagination with her man in snow-capped mountains.

Kalakalalu” was perhaps the only ‘conventional’ number in the album that defied trends and continues to win over music enthusiasts even today.

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Everyone added value to Thammudu

Pawan and Preeti Jhangiani in Thammudu

Pawan and Preeti Jhangiani in ‘Thammudu’. (Supplied)

The legendary cinematographer Madhu Ambat was at his best in the songs, while also lending an undeniable visual flourish to the film despite the limitations in terms of locations.

Preeti Jhangiani’s girl-next-door looks, Aditi Govitrikar’s haughty screen presence, and a solid supporting cast—be it Mallikarjuna Rao, Surya, or Achyuth, Chandramohan, and Kitty—added value to the film.

The director, who successfully remade Thammudu as Badri (2001) in Tamil with Vijay later, remarked that it was hard for any actor to match Pawan Kalyan’s spontaneity.

“Even the likes of Vikram, Vijay, and Ajith are his fans in the Tamil industry.”

A couple of years later, Pawan Kalyan was seen in a remake of Vijay’s blockbuster Tamil film Kushi, a career-defining hit in the former’s career.

Thammudu was a mass film that didn’t alienate the family crowds either. It’s a film that exploits the strengths of a charismatic actor, but not at the cost of storytelling. It’s still vibrant, funny, and strikes a chord where it matters.

As Pawan Kalyan marches onto a newer arena as Andhra Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister, it’s worth revisiting an outing where he’s just a 20s-something boy having fun.