Politics and tinsel glamour are inexorably linked to each other in Andhra Pradesh, particularly after the advent of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), floated by the matinee idol of Telugu cinema NT Rama Rao, 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.
In sharp contrast to the past, Tollywood, as the Telugu industry is popularly known, has so far been lukewarm to the new regime in Andhra Pradesh headed by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. It is nearly two months since the YSR Congress Party stormed to power, but not a single film star or a delegation from the entertainment industry has met the chief minister. Such courtesy meetings were a regular practice in the past.
All in the family
The Telugu film industry, the second largest in the country after Bollywood in terms of the number of movies churned out per year, is traditionally dominated by a handful of families who control all aspects of filmmaking: Production, finance, distribution, exhibition and access to talent pool.
A majority of the industry bigwigs belong to Kamma community with which the TDP is largely identified. In fact, the main allegation against the industry is that it stifles creativity and fresh talent and blocks opportunities for others. As a result, Tollywood is known for churning out predictable, formula-based movies year after year and is being used as a platform for prominent families to launch their wards as heroes.
The swashbuckling political entry of NTR, who was seen as a demi-god by the film-crazy Andhra audience, had prompted several leading producers, actors and directors to join the regional party. The list includes producer D Rama Naidu, winner of Dada Saheb Phalke award, producer-actor Murali Mohan, actors K Satyanarayana, Jayaprada, Sharada and Mohan Babu who subsequently had a bitter fallout with the TDP supremo and former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and joined the YSRCP.
Bigwigs shun YSRCP
For the leading families in the film industry, the YSRCP is not an attractive proposition. However, in the run up to the April 11 elections, the party did attract a few film personalities but from the lower-rung of the hierarchy-driven industry.
The only prominent figure to join the party was Mohan Babu, a former TDP Rajya Sabha member who runs a chain of educational institutions in Chittoor district. This was after he had parted ways with the TDP leadership before the elections. Moreover, his actor-son Manchu Vishnu is married into Jagan’s extended family.
Actor couple Rajasekhar and Jeevita and comedian Ali had also attended the party, but they cannot count themselves among the industry bigwigs.
The recent appointment of a Tollywood lightweight – Pruthvi Raj, a comedian – as the chairman of Sri Venkateswara Bhakti Channel, run by the Tirumala temple board, shows absence of high-profile personalities in the ruling camp. This post was previously held by noted director K Raghavendra Rao, known for his close association with the TDP.
Almost all the Tollywood personalities have their business interests entrenched in Hyderabad. In the changed dynamics after bifurcation, they would rather prefer to maintain cordial relationship with the Telangana government than shifting their base to Andhra Pradesh which lacks the required ecosystem.
Though former Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu did make an attempt to develop the north coastal city of Visakhapatnam as the new Tollywood hub, the film industry has not shown much interest in it. It had moved from Chennai to Hyderabad in the 1950s. Most producers and actors have their business interests in and around Hyderabad. The families of NTR and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao (ANR), the two towering personalities of Telugu cinema, have film studios and properties in Hyderabad.
Though Jagan too has some friends in Tollywood including ANR’s grandson Sumanth, a classmate from school, he is not known to rely much on tinsel glamour to add value to his brand of politics. On this aspect, he is quite similar to his more illustrious father and former chief minister of the combined Andhra Pradesh YS Rajasekhar Reddy who was the most charismatic Congress leader and a mass leader in the mould of NTR.
Eighth Column: Chandrababu Naidu’s Capital failures
Tollywood, which typically displays the characteristics of a close-knit family, has split loyalties. A section of the industry is loyal to the family of megastar Chiranjeevi whose tryst with politics in the run up to the 2009 elections ended in a disaster. His younger brother and maverick star Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party also bombed at the political box office in the recent elections.
After supporting the TDP-BJP combine in the 2014 elections, Pawan Kalyan contested on his own in the last elections but he himself lost in the two assembly he had contested. Even after the elections, he is still critical of Jagan and his government, thereby blocking his supporters from gravitating towards the YSRCP.
NTR’s family holds sway
The first family of the TDP has an overwhelming influence on the regional party founded by the patriarch. So much so that there are calls for NTR’s grandson ‘Junior NTR’ to take over the mantle of the party which suffered humiliating drubbing in the recent assembly polls.
Maverick filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, a critic of Chandrababu Naidu, stirred up a hornet’s nest recently by his tongue-in-cheek remark, rooting for Junior NTR, a popular actor, to take over the reins and save the party from total decimation.
For the present TDP dispensation, headed by Naidu, it is nothing short of blasphemy to talk about handing over the party’s baton to any other member of NTR’s family. Naidu took over the reins of the regional party after dethroning his father-in-law in a bitter family coup in August, 1995. Since then, he has been running the party with an iron grip and has been grooming his son Nara Lokesh as his political successor.
However, the Assembly elections dealt a major blow to Naidu as his party lost power with its tally being reduced to 23 in the 175-member assembly. Lokesh’s tryst with electoral politics ended in a disaster as he was defeated in Mangalagiri constituency.
The TDP’s worst nightmare is to handle the demand for anointing NTR’s grandson as the party head to infuse new blood and rejuvenate a demoralised organisation. By raking up “Bring Junior NTR to save the party” slogan, RGV has hit the TDP where it hurts the most.
Junior NTR (Tarak for his friends) is a popular Telugu film star with striking resemblance to NTR who enjoys the demi-god status among Telugus. Not just the physical similarities, his acting style and dialogue delivery evoke memories of NTR. This has made him a big hit, particularly among the youth.
However, Junior NTR (36), was, for a long time, disowned by the first family of the TDP. Son of Nandamuri Harikrishna, he was born out of wedlock. He was accepted into the family fold only after he made a mark in the Tollywood. Harikrishna, himself an actor, died in a road accident in August last year. He was believed to have pushed for a greater role for his son in the party but his efforts never met with success.
The only time the TDP utilised the services of Junior NTR was during the 2009 Assembly polls in the combined Andhra Pradesh. He was the party’s star campaigner, drawing huge crowds in the coastal region and making an instant connect with the youth. In speeches, gesticulations and in attire, he evoked the memories of NTR’s legendary roadshows that are now part of Andhra’s political folklore.
However, Junior NTR’s electioneering came to an abrupt end after he met with a road accident in the middle of the campaigning and was advised complete rest for a few weeks. In the elections that followed, the Congress returned to power for a second term under YSR’s leadership. Since then, the TDP has virtually ignored Junior NTR.