The actor had an interesting career graph in his pre-Pokiri days, surprising many with his unconventional choices
Why is it that an actor's choices are mostly interesting before they grow to be a star with a particular image? In certain cases where they are not a privileged kid, they don't have the luxury to 'pick and choose' and their career is driven more by the logic of 'grab what you get'. It's no easy for the first-timers who arrive with the pressure of living up to the legacy of their successful parents. Yet, all said and done, there's no better phase than the initial years for actors to discover their forte, take risks, try their hands at different subjects in the quest for versatility.
That's when they get to discover the magic of cinema, develop their sense of taste, realise what they seek from stories and ultimately what works at the box office. There's pressure to succeed yes; that makes them hungrier with an added advantage being that, they are slightly uncorrupted about the ways of the industry. We're discussing this in the context of leading star Mahesh Babu's career on his 46th birthday. Pokiri catapulted him to super-stardom and gave him an unprecedented fan base, but before its blockbuster success, a lot went into the making of Mahesh Babu, the actor.
Rajakumarudu was a safe and staple launch vehicle for the actor that packaged elements of action, romance, emotion and the song-dance routine to showcase his skills and who better than K Raghavendra Rao to helm it. His next, Yuvaraju, was an unlikely follow-up, an out-of-the-box choice for a barely one-film old actor. Having to essay a young man who's unaware of impregnating his college student in a drunken state and that he's a father to a five-year-old boy and realising this at the cusp of his marriage to the love of his life, is quite a challenge to take up so early in a career.
Though Mahesh was raw and hardly had the maturity to handle a complex role in Yuvaraju, it proved that he didn't mind taking occasional gambles. Going by Telugu cinema jargon, it was the Krishna Vamsi-directed Murari that worked superbly as Mahesh Babu's 'relaunch'. An unusual story of a clan whose men are cursed to die early in their lives, where the actor played the ice-breaker between warring families, Murari was a commercial film with a touch of novelty. It certainly exploited Mahesh Babu's comic timing, composure and intensity to the hilt and was a statement that he'd indeed arrived as an actor. Who can forget how he teases Sonali Bendre by the words 'Enthila'?
Then, there was a calm before the storm. Takkari Donga and Bobby were among the biggest duds of his career. Of the two, Takkari Donga is certainly the more watchable dud, where Mahesh takes over from his father Krishna's popular cowboy act since the days of Mosagallaku Mosagadu. The film may not have a coherent story but it isn't without its sparkles, especially with Mahesh Babu's terrific dialogue delivery and his uber-cool screen presence. Mani Sharma's songs too give something for the audiences to cheer about. With Bobby, let's just say and put it mildly that it was a misfire of epic proportions.
When all the pressure was on Mahesh Babu to deliver the goods, there came Okkadu, easily the most sensible, grounded and equally entertaining action film in the actor's career. This was a film where one felt the boyish-looking Mahesh Babu transformed into a man. He looked at ease and was a picture of confidence in front of the camera. Thanks to Gunasekhar, the film has enough larger-than-life, mass appealing moments but with a strong emotional core and purpose to the story. While it was actor Krishna's fans who loyally supported Mahesh through his earlier films, Okkadu was a film that gave Mahesh a distinct identity as a performer and he won many hearts with this act.
Nijam, next, was a solid attempt by director Teja and Mahesh Babu to get into the 'Bharateeyudu' zone, giving a new spin to Shankar's vigilante justice films; the only problem being that it was coming right after the epic success of Okkadu. Expectations had sky-rocketed and any other typical mass entertainer would've reaped rich dividends at such an occasion. However, a story like Nijam where Mahesh Babu had to be an actor first and not a star, couldn't bear the burden of the audience's expectations. Yet, when you look at Nijam as a standalone film, you admire Mahesh's choice and risk to play a submissive, shy youngster who effortlessly transforms into a violent rebel to cleanse the society.
Now, we arrive at the most misunderstood film in Mahesh Babu's career, Naani. This was an adult comedy based on the premise of a young boy who transforms into a man every morning and returns to his original state by the night, owing to a chemical reaction. The SJ Suryah-directed film is equally vulgar and weirdly entertaining at places but it's a joy to watch Mahesh Babu play a man who is essentially a child at heart. The actor took a big risk by going against the grain. The film was devoid of the staple ingredients of a commercial entertainer and even AR Rahman's memorable soundtrack couldn't salvage this. With a lesser-known actor who didn't have to succumb to the image trap, Naani would've had a different result. Interestingly, the Tamil version of the film, New, where its director SJ Suryah played the lead role, was a surprise hit at the box office. Well, that explains it all.
The next release, Arjun, on paper, appearws to be a usual brother-sister sentiment drama where the former rescues the latter whenever she's in trouble. However, Gunasekhar used this sentimental trope to tell the story in a thriller-like format in the backdrop of Madurai. The film has terrific repeat value even today but call it bad luck, it was embroiled in piracy issues during its theatrical run where it couldn't perform to its fullest potential.. Mahesh Babu is superb as the caring, emotional and arrogant brother though it's Prakash Raj and Saritha who steal the show and make for a perfect antagonist-duo.
Widely believed as the best film in Mahesh Babu's career to date, both in terms of its commercial appeal and arresting storytelling, Athadu was surprisingly a loss-making venture for its producer, actor Murali Mohan. The film is a memorable action drama that has something for everyone. Mahesh Babu could communicate through his body language with composure and an unexplainable aura that no other film of his has managed to replicate later. The film continues to rewrite history with the TRP ratings whenever it airs on television. If you need to choose only one film to prove why is Mahesh Babu a class act, Athadu ought to be your choice. After Pokiri, his career took a different trajectory but it's the pre-Pokiri phase of Mahesh Babu that many associate with a certain fondness. Needless to say, these were the stepping stones in the life of a superstar.