The film went on to become one of the highest grossing Telugu films in and marked Mahesh Babu's career resurgence after a few unsuccessful films. Still, it is regarded as one of the classics of contemporary Telugu cinema by critics and won 3 Nandi Awards and a Filmfare Awards South in Best Director category. The film was dubbed into Tamil as Nandhu and in Malayalam as Target. It was later remade in Hindi as Ek and in Bengali as Wanted starring Jeet and Srabanti. It was also dubbed into Polish for a release in Poland as a Poszukiwany (Seeking) thus becoming the first Telugu film released in Poland. The film was also dubbed in Hindi as Cheetah – The Power of One and released through YouTube on 11 February 2013 by Goldmines Telefilms.
At a remote Dhaba in Atikapamala, 20 km from Suryapet, Vijayawada, a young boy named Nandu pulls out a gun and kills the local don, Vanka Suri. Fleeing to Old City, Hyderabad, Nandu is spotted by Sadhu (Rahul Dev), a local don who is impressed with Nandu and takes him under his wing. Sadhu and his gang plan to rob the local bank with the help of Nandu and a few other kids. The heist goes off smoothly, but Sadhu is betrayed to the police by one of his lieutenants, Narsing. At the local police station, the police beat up Sadhu, while the corrupt SI and Narsing divide the money between themselves. Nandu creates a distraction by causing a short circuit and escapes with Sadhu and another kid, Malli. Sadhu tells the two of them to run away and leave him, since the SI might find and kill them. Nandu calmly replies that he won't, because he has already killed the SI.
Years later, Nanda Gopal aka Nandu (Mahesh Babu), is a professional hitman for hire. He performs the hits with his partner Malli(Sonu Sood) planning the escape. Nandu displays his proficiency with weapons as he kills Narsing, who has become a don himself and escapes with Malli. During a cabinet celebration hosted by the Chief Minister, opposition leader Shiva Reddy (Sayaji Shinde) plans to become the CM. He hatches a plan with his colleague Baji Reddy (Kota Srinivasa Rao);arrange a failed assassination attempt on him at the next party meeting, which will ensure that he will get votes through sympathy. His aide Farooq (Posani Krishna Murali), says that such a thing is possible, but will cost a lot of money. He hires Nandu to do the job for 1.5 crore rupees. After receiving the payment, Nandu and Malli plan the assassination attempt at the party meeting. They choose a nearby building to hide and a car to escape in once it is done. However, before Nandu can shoot Shiva Reddy, someone else fatally shoots him. Within minutes, police surround the building and Nandu tries to escape, but the car that Malli is driving collides with a truck and explodes, killing him. With no way left, Nandu does a daring jump off a building and onto a train. In one of the compartments, he meets Pardhasaradhi a.k.a. Pardhu (Rajiv Kanakala). Pardhu reveals that he ran away from his village Basarlapudi when he was young and explains that he is finally returning to his village after 12 years. Later that same evening, the police arrive at Gudivada, where the train is running 20 minutes late. The SI of the search party spots the back of Nandu and shoots at him, but Pardhu accidentally comes in the way and is shot instead. Nandu manages to escape and heads for Basarlapudi to inform Pardhu's family about his death. However, after meeting with Pardhu's family, Nandu is unable to tell the truth and masquerades as Pardhu. Thinking that Nandu is Pardhu, Pardhu's family accepts Nandu into their family. Pardhu's cousin Poori (Trisha Krishnan), is instantly smitten with Nandu and tries constantly to get his attention. Meanwhile, Nandu comes to know of the family's troubles and solves many of them, while disclosing his identity to Pardhu's closest friend, Ramana (Sunil).
Meanwhile, CBI officer Anjaneya Prasad (Prakash Raj) is handed the case of Shiva Reddy's murder. Investigating the crime scene, he notes three things wrong with it;that the bullet was not fired from the murder weapon, that the police surrounded the building immediately after the shot, as if they were tipped off and that the bullet would not hit Shiva Reddy on the center of the forehead from that angle. Probing further, he comes to Basarlapudi to meet Nandu, under the suspicion that he may be the killer. Prasad interrogates Nandu and tries to get his fingerprints, but Nandu outsmarts him by taking back the card on which the fingerprint powder was sprinkled. Soon the clues lead to Malli but it is known that he is dead in that car accident. But shockingly, the petrol tanker which caused the accident was also hired by Malli.
Left with no other way, Prasad interrogates Sadhu, who has been in prison for few years. Sadhu confirms that the murder was not done by Malli, but by Nandu. He discloses the method of payment as being through banks. Prasad does so and finds that a cheque from Nandu's bank for 10 lakhs was encashed by Pardhu's grandfather Satya Narayana Murthy (Nassar) for Poori's sister's marriage. He calls the house and tricks Nandu into responding to his real name. Nandu escapes, but Prasad breaks the news of Pardhu's death to the family and Nandu's real identity. Nandu comes back, amidst outrage from the other family members for his betrayal, and reveals the truth behind his masquerade. Murthy then takes Nandu into his study, where he acknowledges Nandu as his grandson Pardhu. He gives him a gun to seek out the actual killer. He is explained earlier that Pardhu's father's death was caused by the gun backfiring on him when he went hunting, due to a rock being lodged inside the barrel. Nandu calls up Baji Reddy, threatening that he had recorded the prior conversation on tape and that he would send it to the CBI if he didn't reveal who the real killer was. Baji Reddy reveals the killer as none other than Malli, who had in fact faked his death by paying off someone to drive the getaway car instead of him. It is also revealed that he shot Shiva Reddy dead on Baji Reddy's orders from the floor below and tipped off the cops. Nandu then reveals that he did not record the earlier conversation, but he has recorded the current one. En route to Malli's location, Prasad spots him, but his assistant Ravi (Ravi Prakash) fires at him but misses. Nandu escapes, but Prasad forces Ravi at gunpoint as to who hired him.
Nandu then finally meets up with Malli, who reveals that he was tired of splitting the money from the hits between them, and he was offered 2.5 crores for killing Shiva Reddy and trapping Nandu for murder. The two are ambushed by a team of police led by the same SI who shot at Nandu, hoping to recover the tape. Nandu dispatches the cops one by one, then fights with Malli. Malli gets the advantage by grabbing Nandu's gun and points it at Nandu. As he pulls the trigger, the bullet backfires and kills Malli, revealing that there was a marble stuck inside the barrel, which belonged to one of the kids from Pardhu's family. Prasad arrives at the location and is given the tape by Nandu. Later, due to getting sympathy votes, Shiva Reddy's party wins and Baji Reddy is in line to become the CM. However Prasad meets with him and reveals he has the tape. Baji Reddy mockingly says that the tape won't count in court as evidence, but Prasad says that Shiva Reddy's son Pratap Reddy (Ajay), who is bent on getting revenge for his father's death, will kill him when he hears the tape anyway. Trapped, Baji Reddy commits suicide.
Later Prasad meets up with Nandu, who is paying his final respects to Pardhu. Prasad says that the person who killed Shiva Reddy was killed in an accident, and the person who hired him committed suicide, leaving him. He then addresses Nandu as Pardhu, allowing Nandu to go back to Basarlapudi to Pardhu's family.Mahesh Babu as Nanda Gopal(Nandu) / Partha Sarathi(Pardhu)
Trisha Krishnan as Poori, Pardhu's cousin
Sonu Sood as Malli, Nandu's partner
Sayaji Shinde as Shiva Reddy, opposition party leader
Kota Srinivasa Rao as Baaji Reddy, Shiva Reddy's close aid
Nassar as Satya Narayana Murthy, Pardhu's grandfather. SP Balasubramanyam has given voice for Nassar.
Prakash Raj as CBI officer Anjaneya Prasad
Sunil as Ramana, Pardhu's friend
Brahmanandam as Krishna Murthy, Poori's uncle
Rajiv Kanakala as Pardhasaradhi a.k.a. Pardhu
Rahul Dev as Sadhu
Ajay as Pratap Reddy, Shiva Reddy's son
Sudha as Poori's mother
Giri Babu as Poori's father
Dharmavarapu Subramanyam as Poori's uncle
Tanikella Bharani as Naidu
Brahmaji as Nagasamudram Bujji
Posani Krishna Murali as Farooq
Ravi Prakash as Ravi, Anjaneya Prasad's assistant
K. Vishwanath as CBI Officer (special appearance)
Vajja Venkata Giridhar as Giri,Pardhu's friend
Harika as Lalitha,Poori's sister
In an interview to the media about his film Julai, Trivikram shared his views on this film stating :
Initially Trivikram wanted to do this film with Pawan Kalyan and narrated the script to him. But he did not show much interest in signing the film. Mahesh Babu listened to the script of this film in 2002 but Trvikram and the film's producers had to wait for him till he completes the shooting schedules of S. J. Surya's science fiction film Naani and Gunasekhar's family drama Arjun as they were his existing commitments then. The shooting started a month later after the completion of Arjun. For his characterization and the dialogues uttered by the character he played, Mahesh had to adjust to Trivikram's style of dialogues which took 10 days. Trisha Krishnan was selected as the female lead, in an interview to the media on 29 June 2005 at the event of audio release stated that she would be seen in a role with shades of comedy though she added that her role was a limited one.
Murali Mohan later revealed that he wanted his friend and former Telugu actor Sobhan Babu to play the role of Satya Narayana Murthy which would have marked his comeback film who was busy with a highly profitable real estate business then. For the same, Murali Mohan even issued and sent a blank cheque to Sobhan Babu's residence at Chennai as the remuneration. But Sobhan Babu refused to do that role and rejected the offer politely. Later, Nassar portrayed that role with S. P. Balasubrahmanyam dubbing for him in frail voice and his performance was appreciated by critics.
For the film's shoot, 160 motion cameras were imported from London to shoot time-freeze effect shots in action sequences which was clarified by Mahesh himself as still cameras only. Because of non compromising, not more than 10 shots were shot per day. 4 to 5 complicated action sequences were shot under supervision of Peter Hein with much finesse and the climax sequence was shot indoor which took enormous time to complete thus making the principal photography end after a span of two years. A big set was constructed at Ramanaidu Studios in Nanakramguda at Hyderabad where most of the film's family scenes were shot. On 7 August 2004, a scene featuring Mahesh and Sunil was shot on the bridge of the lake at ICRISAT campus in Hyderabad.
Mani Sharma composed the music for this film marking his first collaboration with Trivikram Srinivas and eighth collaboration with Mahesh Babu. The film's soundtrack was released by Mahesh Babu's father and prominent Telugu actor Krishna on 29 June 2005 at the house set of the film constructed at Nanakramguda through Maruthi Music label. This album consists of six melodies composed by Mani Sharma while Sirivennela Sitaramasastri and Viswa penned the lyrics. Apart from Krishna, the film's lead pair, producers and Maruthi Music representatives attended the event.
The audio received moderately positive response from critics. IndiaGlitz wrote "Mani Sharma has tried to please all. If you are going to compare this one with his previous offerings for Mahesh, it does not do any one any good. On its own, the album has its moments." Upon the film's release, Mani Sharma's work was acclaimed by the critics and audience alike. IndiaGlitz wrote "Mani Sharma's music, especially the title song, is very good. His re-recording also fits the bill." idlebrain.com wrote "Music by Mani Sharma is good. The picturization of the first song which comes as background song for titles is wonderful. Neetho Cheppana song has got typical Mexican music. Background music and rerecording of the film is good." Sify.com wrote "The highlights of Athadu are the camerawork of K. V. Guhan and the melodious music and background score of Mani Sharma. The Neeto Chappana number picturised in the tea estates of Darjeeling is the pick of the album."
The film released in 79 centers in Nizam region in Andhra Pradesh and was distributed by Maruthi Movies in which 3 centers screened the film for only 2 days. The film released in 24 centers across Visakhapatnam and was distributed by Sri Venkateswara Films. Sri Bharathi Pictures released the film in Krishna district in 18 centers. The film was released simultaneously in 3 screens in Chennai and it was also the first Telugu film to do so.
The film was released with 6 prints in United States and was distributed by Vishnu Mudda and Soma Kancherla of Crown DVD distribution company in San Jose, Dallas, Detroit, Virginia, New Jersey, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis, Phoenix at Arizona and also in centers like Lowell at Massachusetts, MA, Tulsa at Oklahoma, West Virginia, Springfield, Boulder at Colorado and Corpus Christi at South Texas. Because of the demand, another print was imported from India for screening. The film's first screening in USA happened at Cine Plaza 13 at North Bergen on the night of 11 August 2005. At Connecticut, a special screening was conducted on 19 August 2005. Initially one show was planned but because of the demand another show was screened. There at the theater, a turn out of 442 people was observed which included standing audience for 434 seats and about 60 could not be accommodated. Apart from USA, the film released in selected screens in United Kingdom, Singapore, Germany and Australia.
The DVD of the movie was released by Aditya Music under its Aditya Video Brand and won the best DVD award for its quality and is considered to be one of the highest sold DVDs in Tollywood history. After 7 years, MAA TV renewed the contract by paying an amount of ₹3.5 crores which was a record price for a 2005 Telugu film.
List of Athadu and its remakes
Sify.com stated, "The highlight of the film is Mahesh Babu who looks cool, confident and competent as a hit man with his expressive body language and mannerisms. Athadu just about makes it as a slickly packaged entertainer but only for want of a better alternative." IndiaGlitz gave a review stating "The story sure has splendid potential, but the director does not use them to the hilt simply because he attempts to do too many things almost simultaneously. Yet, all things considered, Athadu is a good entertainer. The problem is you can't praise it as the best yet cannot rubbish it as being useless. It is somewhere in between with more pluses than minuses." Cinegoer.net gave a review stating "True the film gives an image of a Hollywood base for the drama. Even the taking, screenplay structure and execution of scenes, less talk and more action – all add to this image. But there are elements in this film that only a Telugu man can do it originally. That is the love track. And the way Trivikram put to view the scenic structure between Mahesh Babu and Trisha is impressive and refreshing."
The film netted ₹ 1 million from 3 screens in Chennai in its opening weekend debuting at second position pushing Shankar's Anniyan down to the third place. It collected approximately ₹220 million (US$3.4 million) in its total run. The film had a 50 days run in 205 centers and a 100-day run in 38 centres. The film had a 175-day run in Sudarshan 35 mm, Hyderabad, grossing ₹ 1.40 crores from the theater., although it got positive response from audience and critical acclaim.