Despite his latest release and directorial debut, the hugely expensive Johnny, faring disastrously at the box office, actor Pawan Kalyan's place among the top five stars in the Telugu film industry remains secure, at least for now.
Kalyan, younger brother of superstar Chiranjeevi, created a record in the Telugu film industry by selling Johnny for a record-breaking Rs 210 million and releasing it in more than 300 theatres. Viewers made a beeline for the first few shows, but the tragic tale of a young man running from pillar to post to save his cancer-stricken wife failed to click with the audiences.
His fans felt that if Kalyan had made a youthful entertainer -- the sort he's known for -- the distributors would have laughed all the way to the bank. A few industry bigwigs praised his directorial ability, but others questioned the choice of subject for his debut venture.
Kalyan's disappointed fans, however, are already looking forward to his next film, produced by his other brother Nagababu. Directed by Veerasankar, it stars Uday Kiron as his leading lady. He is also working on a film directed by Karunakaran for ace producer Aswini Dutt. It remains to be seen which film reaches the theatres first.
Shy by nature, Kalyan dreamt of becoming a film technician. It was Chiranjeevi's wife Surekha who convinced him to become an actor. Chiranjeevi's brother-in-law Allu Aravind launched Kalyan with great fanfare in Akada Abbai Ikkada Ammayi, but the movie failed to make an impact at the box office.
Suswagatham (1995), his second film, was a huge hit and made Kalyan a star. Then came another runaway hit, the remake of the Tamil hit Love Today, which made Kalyan a favourite with the youth.
Another remake, Gokulamlo Seetha (1996), established his acting credentials as Kalyan essayed the role of a playboy who decides to reform.
His hat-trick came with the blockbuster Tholi Prema (1997). His pranks in the movie reinforced his image as a youth icon. The success of this sensitive love story of an average student pushed Kalyan into the big league.
Thamudu (1998), loosely inspired by Aamir Khan's Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, followed. It captured the imagination of both the youth and the masses and turned out to be another huge hit. Kalyan was officially a superstar now. Playing a student who lacks interest in studies endeared him to the youngsters, his pranks won him a female fan following, and his unique fights attracted the masses.
Kalyan teamed up with a new director, Puri Jagannath, for his next film, Badri (1999). His superstardom was evident when the movie traded for an astronomical sum, leaving the Telugu industry amazed and his critics carping. But Kalyan silenced them when the love story opened well and went on to make a huge profit.
Badri's action sequences were well appreciated by the audiences and added a new dimension to Kalyan's loverboy image. "I pick those down-to-earth characters to identify myself with a wider section of the youth," said the superstar. He consciously began to increase the gap between his releases.
Producer A M Ratnam signed him for a remake of his Tamil hit Khushi. The movie exploited Kalyan's loverboy-cum-action hero image. The ego clashes between the protagonists (Kalyan and Boomika) were widely appreciated and the film went on to become the biggest hit of his career, grossing Rs 27 crore (approximately US $5.72 million).
By the time Khushi was remade, rumours about Kalyan ghost-directing most of his movies were rife. People began to speculate that he would soon direct a film. The grapevine had it that he would direct another big Telugu star, Venkatesh, but Kalyan announced Johnny, starring himself.
By this time, he had stopped interacting with the local press and even skipped the press meets organised to cover his films. He only granted interviews to a few English magazines, but later discontinued this practice as well. He shot his debut venture in a low-profile manner and shrouded it in secrecy. The media were warned against using stills of Johnny without permission.
Just before the film's release, Kalyan was in the news when he accused the Deccan Chronicle Group of publications of making baseless allegations against him and his brother, Chiranjeevi. He, Nagababu and Allu Aravind staged a dharna before its office in Secunderabad, with fans organising a rasta roko (road blockade) in his support.
Johnny was eventually released amid high expectations and Kalyan received much critical acclaim for both his acting and directorial skills. Neither, however, could save Johnny from sinking.
The question Kalyan's fans are pondering over now is whether he will announce another film as director -- after his next two films are completed -- or decide to remain just an actor.