They make abut 150 films every year in Telugu, and the turnover in the industry is about Rs 500 crore. Of these 150 films, only 20 per cent turn out to be box-office hits. The rest are flops. The few successful films are those starring the big heroes, and they are less than a handful. There is the swashbuckling superstar Chiranjeevi, who at 51 continues to be the lodestar of Telugu films. And there is the gentle romantic hero Nagarjuna who mesmerizes and pushes Telugu-speaking young girls into a tizzy and a swoon. Chiranjeevi certainly commands a larger-than-life image in the imagination of the film-crazy fans in Andhra Pradesh and beyond. The gym-honed Nagarajuna wears his 40 odd years quite lightly, and he also projects the urbane and suave image of an actor, who impresses the classes and who is gradually being accepted by the masses as well.
Nagarjuna, who is married to beautiful Amala, the Kalakshetra-trained artiste-turned-actress who set southern screens on fire with her exotic charms in the 1980s, adds much intelligence to his imaginative histrionics. At a time when urbanized romance was the only genre that fitted the bill of success, the actor portrayed 15 th century saint-poet Annamacharya, who composed 32,000 lyrics for Lord Venkateswara of Tirumala. The audiences were more than taken aback by the convincing performance of Nagarjuna. Against odds, the period film became a commercial hit. Nagarjuna followed this up with another film in the same genre. This time he played the 17h century Ramadas, the poet and devotee of Lord Rama, who built a temple for the god in Bhadrachalam and who was imprisoned by the Qutb Shahi king Abul Hasan Tanashah on charges of embezzlement, but who is later exonerated because Ramoji and Lakshmoji – Rama and Lakshmana – as the legend goes, appeared to the sultan in a dream, and they pay the money.
Was it difficult for him to have done these two roles? Was he surprised by the positive response he got from the audience? Nagarjuna, who talked while shooting for an action thriller titled, "Boss", says it was a difference experience. "I was not totally surprised by the success of Annamacharya. I think people were fed up with the Westernized urban romances, and they wanted something simple. Annamacharya took them back to the language in all its simplicity, and emphasized familiar and simple values that were refreshing." He admits that playing the roles of Annamacharya and Ramadas brought him in touch with the Telugu language. "I cannot speak Telugu without using English words. But while playing these roles, I had to speak pure Telugu dialogues, and it made me aware of the language as it was spoken in those times." He clarifies that he has nothing against English.
In present-day Telugu films, unlike in Hndi, many films still portray rural heroes and stories set in villages. Nagarjuna says that his audiences have begun to accept him in the role of a rural character in the last few years. The US-educated actor feels comfortable in playing the village hero. He points out that the vacuum left by the Hindi films set in villages is now taken over by the Bhojpuri films. He says that Telugu films are confined to Telugu-speaking region, which is quite compact, and where the village is still an important factor. In Hindi, the appeal is increasingly towards the urban audience, as well as to the diaspora.
He is also not unduly worried about globalization and westernization. He is aware that beneath it all, people cling to homegrown cultural values. So, every language film has its own secure staked-out area. He is not worried that Hindi or Tamil films may overwhelm Telugu. "Forget about Hollywood. We cannot even transplant the cultural values of Hindi films nor that of Tamil in Telugu. Romancing the sister's daughter will be considered incest in the north, but it is perfectly valid in the Telugu cultural context. Even with neighboring Tamil films, the cultural values are distinct. For the Tamils, the full moon day or Amaavaasya is an auspicious day. Not so for the Telugus. For the Telugus, Amaavaasya is an inauspicious day. It is Poornami or full-moon day that is auspicious."
Are there experimental films in Telugu like Mani Ratnam's "Shiva" in which he and Amala played the lead roles, and which marked a turning point for the Telugu films? He says that there is always experimentation in terms of techniques, and technically telugu filsm today are as competent as others anywhere else. But beyond that he is not willing to be thrilled by the idea of experimentation in telling stories and in acting. "Beyond a point experimentation does not make sense. Film is dominated by the actor. The audience is focused on the actor on the screen. So, technique may not mean much for the viewers."
He is also not an enthusiast for the serious cinema. "When I go to see a film, I want to relax, and I want to enjoy watching a good story. I am constantly engaged in solving problems in my daily life. I do not want to engage in solving problems of the characters on the screen as well," he says. Nagarjuna is not willing to abandon the fundamentals of commercial cinema of good story, good acting and glamour on the screen.
Does he have much time for his family? Yes. He does make it a point to spend time everyday with his two sons. "I cannot do without this time spent with the family. I do no believe in quality time spent once in a while. I need to spend time with the family everyday." And he says that he wishes he had a daughter. "Now, it is difficult," he says with a sigh of regret.
Nagarjuna has recently purchased a television channel called "Maa TV" or "Our TV". All his energy is spent on dealing with this new challenge.
With no airs , he remains the most accessible matinee idol. He has his own views, but he shares them without a trace of arrogance. It is this gentleness, perhaps, that endears him to his fans in the cities and villages of Andhra Pradesh.