Tollywood, as the Telugu film industry is popularly known, is probably the only enterprise that grabs media headlines, not for the quality of its output or coveted awards but for the bitter rivalry within its ranks.
It is an industry where actors are worshipped like demi-gods, not because of their acting talent but because of the caste and clan they belong to.
Over the years, Tollywood has acquired a dubious distinction of promoting a culture where fan clubs double up as custodians of caste pride and the followers of heroes act as the self-appointed guardians of their star’s image and also his caste. As a result, the fights between the fans of leading actors often turn into a bitter caste battle.
A majority of the popular actors belong to either Kamma or Kapu, the two influential communities which control the levers of power in the entertainment industry.
When megastar of Telugu cinema Chiranjeevi and another popular hero Rajasekhar were involved in a public spat recently, the spectacle followed a familiar pattern. The war of words between the two actors, at an event organised by the Movie Artistes’ Association (MAA) in Hyderabad, was a classic demonstration of how bloated egos of some stars was causing damage to the industry.
Soon after the clash, Rajasekhar announced his resignation from the post of executive vice-president of MAA, a faction-ridden industry body, while Chiranjeevi, the founding president of the association, sought disciplinary action against his co-actor for disrupting a public function and using intemperate language against other office-bearers of the association.
The Telugu movie industry is the second largest in the country after Bollywood in terms of the number of movies churned out per year, and is traditionally dominated by a handful of families who control all aspects of the film making: Production, financing, distribution, exhibition and access to talent pool.
As a result, Tollywood is known for churning out predictable, formula-based movies year after year to serve as a platform for the prominent families to launch their wards as heroes.
Politics and tinsel glamour are inexorably linked to each other in AP, particularly after the advent of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) floated by NTR, the matinee idol of Telugu cinema, in 1982. Film personalities of all hues had a major say in the affairs of the TDP in the past and were often given plum posts.
At present, the industry is dominated by the families of Chiranjeevi, N T Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageshwar Rao (ANR) and Krishna.
Chiranjeevi’s younger brother Pawan Kalyan called ‘Power Star’ by his fans, and son Ram Charan are also actors of considerable repute. The megastar’s brother-in-law Allu Aravind is a leading producer who had launched his sons Allu Arjun and Allu Sirish as heroes.
Similarly, NTR’s clan comprises his son Nandamuri Balakrishna, popularly called Balayya, and grandsons Kalyan Ram and Junior NTR. ANR’s son Nagarjuna is a leading actor whose son Naga Chaitanya is also following his family’s footsteps after being launched as a hero in the 2009 movie ‘Josh.’ The family also runs a production house Annapurna Studios.
Mahesh Babu, one of the biggest superstars of today, is the son of the yesteryear star Krishna, a contemporary of NTR and ANR. The family owns a production and distribution company Padmalaya Studios.
Tollywood, which typically displays the characteristics of a close-knit family, has split loyalties. A majority of the industry bigwigs belong to Kamma community with which the TDP is largely identified while another section is loyal to the family of Chiranjeevi whose tryst with politics in the run-up to the 2009 elections ended in a disaster.
With the advent of social media, the tussle among the fans of Telugu heroes is turning murkier and abusive, with each trying to score brownie points over the other and turning social media platforms into caste battlegrounds.
The elections to MAA in March last year saw a high-decibel and acrimonious campaign with allegations from the rival camps flying thick and fast.
Actor VK Naresh, who is the son of veteran actor-director Vijaya Nirmala, was elected the president of the association. He was supported by Chiranjeevi and other bigwigs of the industry. However, he has a running feud with Rajasekhar, who was elected executive vice-president, and his wife Jeevitha, the general secretary of the association.
The association is vertically divided into two camps, led by Naresh and Rajasekhar. In October last year, the two factions indulged in a war of words after Rajashekar and Jeevitha called MAA executive committee members for an informal meeting at the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce without informing president Naresh. The couple accused Naresh of mismanaging MAA and taking decisions without consulting others. They also accused Naresh of misappropriating funds raised through events and demanded his resignation.
The industry saw a spate of artistes being publicly accused of sexual harassment by actor Sri Reddy in 2018 and the Telugu Film Chamber was forced to make it mandatory for every production house to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
Rift in the open
The New Year began on a sour note for Tollywood when an event organised to launch the 2020 diary of MAA turned into a battleground for angry exchange of words.
The trouble started when Rajasekhar snatched the microphone from screenwriter Paruchuri Gopala Krishna and launched into a tirade against his colleagues in the association.
“In films, we as heroes speak out against issues. In real life, why should we keep quiet? The problems I am facing in the association are causing tensions in my family,” the veteran of 70 films said, before storming out of the meeting.
His sudden outburst left actors Chiranjeevi, Mohan Babu, Jayasudha, Murali Mohan, Krishnam Raju, and producer T Subbarami Reddy red-faced. While Mohan Babu and Jayasudha objected to Rajashekar snatching the microphone and speaking out of turn, others tried to stop him from airing his views.
Later, Chiranjeevi accused Rajasekhar of unnecessarily creating a ruckus. “It was a well-planned attempt to disrupt the proceedings. If MAA has a disciplinary committee, it should take action him,” he said.