Revisiting Khaleja: Mahesh Babu’s underappreciated movie that is among his best works

Have you ever wondered why some movies fail to strike a chord with the majority of the audience and critics despite getting most of the things right? Have you ever found yourself in the minority when it comes to defending what you think was a good movie but for some inconceivable reason is being dismissed by the majority?

Tollywood superstar Mahesh Babu‘s Khaleja is one such film, which didn’t get its due when it released. And I’m not sure even a decade later whether the audience has come to fully appreciate what this film managed to accomplish within the narrow confines that defines mainstream entertainment in Telugu cinema.

In 2010, before the release, Khaleja had created quite a hype among the movie-going audience. Mahesh and director Trivikram Srinivas were coming together after a gap of five years. Their previous outing Athadu (2005) was a smash hit at the box office.

In Athadu, Mahesh played this stoic hit man with a dry sense of humour. His stone-faced acting added weight to the mysterious Clint Eastwood-esque persona of the guy you should never make the mistake of messing with. The performance was such a hit that he even carried some of that energy into Pokiri, which was another smash hit in Mahesh’s career. Both Athadu and Pokkiri came to re-define his onscreen image as he shrugged off his boy-next-door charms to the stoic with a killer vein persona. And it kind of created a hero template for Mahesh, which he tirelessly pursued for the next few years in the hope to repeat the success of Athadu.

Trivikram wanted to again redefine Mahesh’s onscreen image with Khaleja. Mahesh’s G Seetarama Raju is fluid, talkative, and spontaneous in the movie, as opposed to the cold, the calculative and expressionless killer in Athadu.

In Khaleja, Trivikram examines the concept of God. After a series of events, Raju finds himself in a village full of people who venerates him. “In this village, everybody thinks you’re a god,” Subhashini (Anushka Shetty) tells Raju after he was knocked unconscious for a few days in a bloody fistfight. “You could have told them that I’m just a taxi driver, no?” wonders Raju in his usual playful tone.

The villagers are under siege by some unseen power. It’s as if the village has been poisoned with people of all age groups falling dead like insects. In a state of sheer panic and helplessness, the villagers turn to God. And the village’s fortune teller tasks another believer with the job of finding their god, their saviour, aka Raju.

Raju, meanwhile, is wandering the dangerous terrains of the Rajasthan desert. He’s on a personal mission and he’s oblivious of the power that is shadowing his every move. As he navigates the desert, he finds a few allies — Baabji, Miriyam and Subhashini. And when these characters and their quirks are put together in the same frame, we get a goldmine of irreverent, dark comedy. Mahesh especially lets his hair down and loses his inhibition to sink his teeth into his character Raju, which marked a significant pivot in his career.

Besides the narrative fluency with which Trivikram unravels the plot of Khaleja, he also packs it with a handful of electrifying moments. Especially, in the pre-interval stunt scene, when Raju hunts down those who tried to kill him. Or the action scene set against the medical camp when Raju for the first time steps up to save the villagers.

Khaleja is one of the best works in the careers of Mahesh and Trivikram.

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