Death in Tollywood

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Is Chiranjeevi the reason for Uday Kiran’s suicide?
A controversy can engulf a politician when he least expects it. Especially if it originates in the place where his stature was built. So it is with Chiranjeevi, erstwhile matinee idol, major Congress party leader and Union Minister of State for Tourism, who suddenly finds himself boxed in on two fronts at Hyderabad.

With his trusted group of about a dozen MLAs (most from his Praja Rajyam Party, which merged with the Congress in 2011) wanting to desert the grand old party, the one-time hero is now being pressured by the party High Command to keep his flock together. On top of which, the shocking suicide of Uday Kiran, a young actor in the Telugu film industry, has prompted detractors to point fingers and accuse him of being part of a mafia that throttles external talent.

The 33-year old actor who was found hanging on 5 January was a favourite of young people in the state, and had been called the ‘hat trick hero’ for three successful films—Chitram, Nuvvu Nenu and Manasantha Nuvve—between 2000 and 2003. A middle-class Brahmin boy with no filmi connections, Uday Kiran fit perfectly in the space vacated by earlier heroes—like Chiranjeevi, whose films had become unpredictable at the box office.

Trouble began for Kiran in 2003, when he got engaged to Chiranjeevi’s daughter Sushmitha, despite initial opposition from the senior actor. It is unclear whether the megastar’s daughter was already in a relationship with the young actor prior to this development. But for ‘mysterious’ reasons, as the local media puts it, the engagement was soon cancelled and offers began drying up for Kiran, as is evident from the fact that he has done only about 20 films in a career spanning more than a decade.

It is an open secret that the four families of Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh and Balakrishna (the latter three are scions of yesteryear heroes and film producers) have held a vice-like grip over the Telugu film industry ever since it relocated from Chennai to Hyderabad two decades ago.

Between the four of them, they control nearly 700 theatres, about 60 per cent of all functional single screens in the state, and denying theatres to outsiders is a favourite tactic of theirs. Additionally, there have been many instances in recent times when even the successful films of others have had to make way for the productions of ‘Aa Naluguru’ (‘Those Four’).

Interestingly, if two films by different members of this closed group are released at the same time, theatres are divided evenly among them to avoid clashes with each other’s fan bases and to ensure their respective films get whopping initial draws.

Pongal is an auspicious time for film releases in the state and Chiranjeevi’s son Ramcharan Teja’s delayed venture Yevadu is to be out on 12 Jan. Mahesh Babu, another top star, has his Nenokkadine lined up too, but plans to release it two days earlier on 10 January to catch the first round of audience craze. In the midst of such turf protection, the industry has seen new faces tirelessly make efforts to break into the big league, with limited success.

Dasari Narayana Rao, a Central minister, Congress politician and industry heavyweight, has openly alleged that the “industry mafia killed Uday Kiran” and that his presence “was supposed to be a major threat to the big families of Tollywood”. A section of the Telugu media quoted a Chennai-based producer, AM Ratnam, who was shooting a bilingual film in Tamil and Telugu with the deceased hero, as saying that his film was almost 80 per cent complete but he was pressured to “stop it from getting completed” by people said to be from the Chiranjeevi camp.

It is rumoured that the vengeful actor also blocked Uday Kiran’s chances by pulling a few strings in neighbouring Chennai when the dejected hero wanted to approach Tamil film banners. Though he managed to star in noted director K Balachander’s project Poi in 2006 (later dubbed in Telugu as Abaddham) and in a 2010 project called Penn Singam based on a novel by then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, he could not do anything significant.

At the young actor’s funeral procession, and as he was consigned to flames, angry fans raised anti-Chiranjeevi slogans. The cremation was largely ignored by the bigwigs of the film world, barring one of the four families, that of Daggubati Ramanaidu who was seen along with his actor son Venkatesh. Notably absent was the Chiranjeevi camp. The actor-politician himself has not responded to the widespread speculation over his involvement in Kiran’s death.

Interestingly, Chiranjeevi’s second daughter Sreeja too eloped in 2007, marrying Shirish Bharadwaj, a Brahmin boy. For a long time, the actor-politician had to lie low on this issue, as it was regularly played up in the local media.

Surprisingly, the girl filed for divorce a few years later, returning to her father with her daughter in tow, and all was forgiven. The reason for the tumult in the lives of both his daughters is alleged to be the same—marrying outside Chiranjeevi’s Kapu caste.

With competition from fellow Congressmen hotting up and his reputation under the scanner, Chiranjeevi, a clear aspirant for the Chief Minister’s chair in a split Andhra state, has a PR disaster on his hands.