In a way, this year was supposed to be the “back to normal” year for Telugu cinema. COVID, lockdowns and tighter pockets restricted theatres from thriving. While it meant that audiences can be accused of getting far too comfortable with home-viewing experiences, it also meant they were fed a diet of films from different regions – both national and international. But it also dispelled many easy narratives formed about cinema in a post-COVID world.
People only like spectacular films? Radhe Shyam couldn’t pull the audience to theatres while DJ Tillu infused the Telugu lexicon with new phrases and meme language while being a fun theatre experience.
The audience will come to theatres only for masala films with big stars? Bheemla Nayak and Sarkaru Vaari Paata struggled to cater beyond the fans of their stars (this too is debatable) while Sita Ramam was lapped up by all sets of audiences.
A big hit is required by the stars to attract an audience to theatres for their next release. Acharya had a disastrous run despite having two of the biggest stars while films like Masooda took their time but were rewarded for the thrills provided.
People rang the death knells for cinemas as a whole but as promised RRR brought back the glory of Indian cinema and more. It in fact tore down another myth that mainstream Indian cinema and Western institutional approval for excellence are two mutually exclusive categories.
But this year wasn’t without its disappointments - some of which never managed to really scale the expectations they set for themselves. My first on this list was Virata Parvam. Rana Daggubati, Sai Pallavi, and Venu Udugula teaming up felt like a film that would showcase the director’s abilities to the mainstream. But the film wobbled under its own assumed poesy and neither an excellent Sai Pallavi nor the angry pen of Venu Udugula could save the film. Similarly disappointing was Liger. Puri Jagannath himself doesn’t give you a reason to raise expectations but Vijay Devarakonda itching for a comeback, Karan Johar bankrolling this script implied that the ‘mass’ would rise above the cringe. In the end, there was no mass, only cringe. The only positive is that it sets Vijay Devarakonda up for another return to form after such a colossal failure. While much wasn’t expected of Bheemla Nayak and Sarkaru Vaari Paata and they were predictably mediocre, Acharya was disappointing partly because of the expectations Koratala Siva brings with himself. Siva has always used his films to present a utopic restructuring of society. Sometimes they feel less like cinema and more like a policy maker’s fantasy but his films have the polish and progressive tones most mainstream filmmakers miss, including Rajamouli. Seeing Chiranjeevi play a Naxalite felt like the conflicting nature about being a Comrade and the failures within society last seen in Gamyam would be explored. But in the end neither did it use the stardom and play-to-the-gallery nature of Chiranjeevi nor did it have the progressive voice of Koratala Siva.
But the duds were balanced by some truly wonderful films with terrific cinematic moments. Here are the best 10 films that Telugu cinema produced this year:
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I definitely prefer the first HIT over the second. Vishwak Sen’s broody Vikram Rudraraju worked over Adivi Sesh’s arrogant Krishna Dev. But as a film, HIT 2 gets the eerie mood right and plays on the duality of fire and ice (yes yes, another small indie film used the metaphor of fire and water but others can use it too). No other film managed to be so consistently good with how well it uses all the crafts at its disposal to set the tingly sense of a macabre mood throughout. Like with the first film, HIT 2 falters with the final reveal of the villain (it’s owing to the casting). Still, Sailesh Kolanu packs more interesting secondary characters in Rao Ramesh as the superior officer and Geeta Bhascker as the “mother-in-law” of KD. One of the reasons I’m forgiving of HIT 2’s flaws is that a sequel, even if it’s a standalone piece is harder to execute. They usually don’t have the originality and impact of the first, and directors tend to reserve the ‘bigger ideas’ for the third instalment. With the reveal of Arjun Sarkar as the protagonist for HIT 3, there’s no reason it has to stop at the third film but one can sense that Sailesh Kolanu has bigger and bloodier plans for the third part of the HIT series.
This selection of mine might baffle most as much as it baffles me that this fine film disappeared without any cultural impact – both with casual audiences and cinephiles alike. This film is one of the neater ones and sends its protagonist Anupama (Priyamani), an English Vinglish-esque housewife, into dark corners and a web of lies and murder. This film has a cynical outlook on life while it constantly teases you with the possibility of a redemptive ending. Unlike in Vivek Athreya’s films where good deeds are rewarded and bad goes rarely unpunished, here goodness gone temporarily astray is punished. Evil is punished. But even goodness that wants to abide by a moral code is sacrificed. This film isn’t just a statement that the order of the world lies in its bleakness but that evil comes through chaos and codified religion. This film is a stunning and un-Telugu-like debut from Abhimanyu but it is a pity that it fizzled out with bare impact.
Part of the problem might be that this film is more fun to discuss than to watch in that its ideas are far more exciting than their execution.
The biggest success of DJ Tillu has to be in choosing a naïve and morally despicable protagonist and an even worse romantic interest and generating some of the loudest laughs of the year. The premise of the film feels like a gory Ram Gopal Varma thriller but given the outrageous set pieces such as the ones where DJ Tillu has to dig a grave the film blends its oddness with humour. It feels unfamiliar but hilarious. So much depends on the way Siddhu Jonnalagadda delivers dialogue and treads the line between arrogant and naïve, relatable and ridiculous, and morally scrupulous and goofy opportunist, and the actor never misses a beat. The film’s second half, particularly the third act is all kinds of loose but the hilarious first half with a performance that barely gives you time to think makes this an easy pick into the top ten.
Like Adbhutham last year Oke ka Jeevitham attempted to narrate its ideas through the concept of time travel. But while the former used traditional rom-com tropes, Oke Oka Jeevitham used the attachment between a son and his mother. Where Adbhutham used humour and pop culture to cover conceptual cracks, Oke Oka Jeevitham uses emotional depth. The film’s theme reminded me of the book Before The Coffee Gets Cold where customers of a café are allowed to talk to departed loved ones before a magical cup of coffee gets cold. In a way the book and the film have the same message – that grief despite its overbearing nature will pass and we must eventually pick up the broken people and the jagged pieces in our lives and fix a life together. While director Shree Karthic extracted adequate performances from Sharwanand and Amala, it was the way he used Priyadarshi and Vennela Kishore economically that impressed me the most. He didn’t have the courage to make them equal leads but they were well-etched-out comedic sidekicks with clear purposes and goals.
As a genre, horror seems to struggle to find freshness to tell newer stories and the jump scares often seem familiar. Within Telugu cinema, horror seems like a gateway genre for debutante directors who want to keep production budgets low and yet want to prove their mettle. It has felt reluctantly embraced. But despite its flaws, director Sai Kiran leans into the genre and manages to spook the audience enough that the palms of the audience never confidently unclasp the arms of the chair. Masooda’s jump scares, particularly those close to the interval portions, feel straight out of a horror movie textbook. But what they lack in inventiveness, they make up for in execution. The film proves that formulaic stuff doesn’t have to mean a lack of entertainment. Sangeeta, Subhalekha Sudhakar, and Satyam Rajesh are rarely used in such genres but Masooda proves mainstream storytellers' inability to use character actors in fresh settings. They can pull movies by themselves without the help of male stars or their female counterparts if films have an adequate punch in them.
Like with most horror films Masooda has problems with its own mythology but good luck finding the devil in the details when the devil is lurking around the big screen.
Major worked cinematically for the same reason it might be problematic: it reduces the collective courage of countless heroes to the story of one person. Of course, the movie never directly credits Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan as being the sole saviour, but in choosing to tell one person’s story, it picks a side. And yet as cinema that’s precisely why it worked. It allowed us to follow and imbibe one person’s journey whereas countless other movies about the 26/11 tragedy use multiple plotlines and attempt to be all-encompassing. But making it a biopic of one man made the film feel like a story and even when it resorts to histrionics, the lapses weren’t unforgivable. Sandeep’s pre-army days aren’t adequately fleshed out and there are portions where Adivi Sesh confuses stoic for wooden. Shashi Kiran Tikka does an excellent job of imagining and re-imagining sequences to give us a flavour of real heroism while never losing respect for the subject of their story. But to me, the real hero of the movie is Sricharan Pakala whose background music papers over most cracks in the film. It definitely excited me for the next works of Adivi Sesh, who like Ayushman Khurrana in Hindi, is carving his own genre of films. What next and how long are the questions still lingering but Major is a great addition to his library.
How good is Vishwak Sen, the actor! I’m not talking about the star attempting to be one in a film like Paagal, but the actor who can show the vulnerable side of aggression whether in Falaknama Das or HIT: The First Case or even the indulgent Ee Nagaraniki Emaindhi. AVAL has him invert the trope where he is forced to show the aggressive side of an emotionally vulnerable Arjun Kumar. As the 33-year-old bachelor stuck in a familial framework that emasculates him using his bachelorhood, Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam feels like the coming-of-age story of an innocent man whose biggest nemesis is actually his own family. It’s a genius move to cast someone like Vishwak Sen, the poster boy of new-age aggression. Director Vidya Sagar Chinta and writer Ravi Kiran Kola create a world whose intricacies they understand: whether it’s the groom’s side haranguing the bride’s side about food or the mix of emasculation and pride felt by a father when his daughter puts money in his pocket. Just like Arjun Kumar, the film is tender for most parts but also aggressive in its own way when it chastises the rigid social framework it finds itself in.
What do we make on Ante Sundaraniki? The story of a Brahmin boy and a Christian girl in love doing anything to win the approval of their families, though old, felt like an unexplored premise in modern Telugu cinema. Given that it was being helmed by an exciting voice like Vivek Athreya and it had Nani and Nazriya, the film felt it should have been cinema royalty. In so many ways, it was. The relentless editing makes the romance feel like a heist film, as if Guy Ritchie and K Vishwanath decided to direct a Telugu rom-com. Vivek Sagar’s music takes the images on the screen and makes them touch the skies. The Chiranjeevi tribute is, for me, the best one there is and even Nani’s comedic performance feels like a hat tip to the comedic muscles of Chiranjeevi.
Vivek Athreya’s screenplay (not the story) gives one the joyful giddiness of solving a complex puzzle. But the story of the film, bereft of drama and bravery leaves one restless as if Athreya (or rather Sundar in the film) is repeating the same point. Its documentarian portrayal of a Telugu Brahmin household gets tiresome and while individual scenes are hilarious, the movie doesn’t fully realise its potential.
But the failure to reach the maddening heights it wants to reach doesn’t take away from the greatness of the film in most aspects. Nearly 6 months after its release I still struggle with whether Ante Sundaraniki is a wasted opportunity or a misunderstood masterpiece. Rather than take an inflexible stance, it is best to let the film be. Much like Leela and Sundar, the film can exist as a juxtaposition of two rigid ideas.
Sita Ramam had everything going for it to fail as a Telugu film. A director who has a mixed track record. It was a love story during the times when action films with big stars are flourishing. Even as a love story it was an epic love story that sprawled over time and geography making it an expensive investment. A male lead with nearly, not enough star power in Telugu cinema and a debutante female lead. The film isn’t perfect by any means but its audacity to exist on its own terms makes it one of the finest films of the year.
Hanu Raghavapudi’s directorial tells the story of Afreen (Rashmika Mandana) who has to deliver a letter to Seeta (Mrunal Thakur) decades after it was written by her husband Ram (Dulquer Salman). This film, the director’s best yet, has the epic quality that Radhe Shyam was so dearly missing. Sumanth and Rashmika’s acting pitch feels exaggerated even for this film but Dulquer, Mrunal Thakur and Vennela Kishore paper over most of the film’s flaws. Vishal Chandrashekar’s music sensibility comes to the fore in using SP Charan’s voice for romantic songs. That the singer’s voice sounds so similar to his illustrious father lends credence to the era in which the film is set.
The screenplay of Sita Ramam falters particularly in the second half when Ram and Sita are married. But the excellent story is riveting enough to keep you in your seat till the end. Hanu Raghavapudi has been looking for a film that opens the floodgates of mainstream acceptance ever since he did Krishna Gaadi Veera Prema Gaatha but has struggled since that film’s success. Given that he’s one of the few filmmakers who loves telling epic love stories it would have been a pity if he faded out without a success that could match his potential. The success of Sita Ramam may have saved a career that could live to tell another epic love story.
The film of the year has to be RRR. The interval sequence where Bheem (NTR Jr) enters with all the animals was enough to push it to the top of the food chain. For all the talk about Baahubali being a watered-down version of what Rajamouli is truly capable of, RRR saw Rajamouli return to his best in conceiving and executing outrageous set pieces that make your heart stop for a second before pumping you up with adrenaline. The story of Ram (Ram Charam) and Bheem going from friends to enemies to friends again while they pursue their individual goals and take down the British empire is so maddeningly imagined that at times we forget that these are supposed to be real heroes and this is alternative history.
Structural issues of a bloated second half aside, the film has been critiqued for pandering to Saffron forces and minimising Komaram Bhim to an oppressor caste idea of a savage. Both are valid criticisms but Rajamouli’s vision is never interested in historical accuracy let alone academic subtlety. It is interested in the singular purpose of entertaining the audience in a theatre. Both can co-exist.
If Baahubali was a clarion call that attracted the world towards him, RRR was a Rajamouli buffet. For starters, he began with two stunningly imagined action set pieces for both his protagonists and the sequence where they befriend each other. For the first main course, he began locally with Naatu Naatu and got every roof down with the dance sequence that is on the verge of becoming global cinema history. The interval sequence is the perfect amount of meat with so many animals and the motifs of his protagonists becoming literal on screen. The animals and water represent Bheem locking horns against the guns and fire of Ram. The second course ends with a bloody and rousing Komaram Bheemudo and Bheem’s escape. And just when you think you’re done and maybe a simple dessert would do, Rajamouli whips out an over-indulgent fusion of action set in a forest with bows and arrows playing against modern electric guitar riffs. By the end, you are stuffed but you wish you were hungry again just to experience it one more time.
There’s something for everybody in RRR. You could critique Rajamouli and hate his movies but RRR gives you at least a laugh, a tune, a dance, an emotion, adrenaline, and a tear. Something that makes you root for it. RRR raised the bar in a mediocre year for Telugu cinema. Rajamouli doesn’t scorn the idea of catering to the lowest common denominator or trying to please everyone. To him that’s the fun of it.