Curating lists that are supposed to bring together the bests/worsts when it comes to movies is not much fun. Because, films aren’t methodical pieces of art, and what we feel for them changes with every viewing. The films you love do not have to be perfect pieces of cinema; it is enough if they speak to you. And, the opposite is just as true.
Then, there are mixed bags — films that have both good and bad in them; for instance, an otherwise-entertaining film with a distasteful domestic violence joke. Or, are box office numbers enough to suggest that one film is better than the other? Is Dookudu better cinema than Khaleja because it made more money? And what about films such as Arjun Reddy where the filmmaking is top-notch, but it hides behind the filmmaker’s hyper-masculine gaze?
This list is a subjective read of the last decade in Telugu cinema. So, if your favourite film is not in the list, know, for sure, that it is perfectly okay.
Many films call themselves romances, but they rarely stick to the genre, unlike this film. This is about two people in love, even though they haven’t realised it yet, and live apart for three years. It explores a couple growing together rather beautifully — superficial attraction, sexual tension, mutual understanding, and, eventually, heartbreak. Most of what makes this film special has to do with Jessie. She is a painfully complex character, which is a good thing. It is rare to see characters, let alone female, who cannot, rather need not, explain their every action.
This film’s lead has the most apt character arc for a commercial hero, while also being an antithesis — people force a man to believe that he is god, and the man refuses to be anything but ordinary. Mahesh Babu was perfect as this man-turned-god, and so was his comic timing. Trivikram is great at invoking myths to add a layer to his films. This immensely helps with a film that is almost an origin story of a superhero. The female lead needed to be much better, but that is something one can say about almost all entertainers.
Multiple storylines come together for an ending that can be seen from afar, but one that still manages to move you when it finally arrives. We follow the journey of three people trying to work their way through life. It is easier for one of them, but that’s taken care of soon enough. The film portrays city life — where slums and high-rise apartments co-exist, where people cannot but help dream big — and its people rather poignantly. Equally well-written are the characters of a sex worker trying to start her own business and her sidekick, a transwoman.
Kammula is known for his realistic characters, and Leader is no different. Arjun Prasad is not presented as a perfect specimen of human morality. He starts like that, but resorts to manipulation and deceit, like his father did. This breaks his mother’s heart, but it also shows how hard it is to escape compromise and corruption in politics. The movie’s most potent declaration comes from an old man who comes to Arjun for help. In any other movie, the hero’s reaction to it would’ve taken precedence over the old man’s pain and his disenchantment with the establishment, but this film knows that every experience is indispensable.
What makes this political thriller stand out is its understanding of human beings and their helplessness in the face of survival and greed. Katta loves his twists and betrayals, but what he loves more are the lonely moments before, or what follow the said twist. Even the cruellest character in the film — the youngest, Chinna —shows us the world through his eyes. And, even the film’s most innocent character— the mother — isn’t blameless. Standing tall on Sai Kumar’s riveting performance, this is a film that sees the world for what it is. As grey, monstrous and melancholic.
The Telugu film industry has this unhealthy obsession with great love. Two people fall in love and are never allowed to fall out of it. If nothing else, this film successfully breaks the idea that there is only one kind of love that’s worth celebrating. Both leads in the film fall in love with other people before finally getting together. In fact, they begin as friends. It is refreshing to see a film take a casual look at romance. Not to forget, the Telugu audience was introduced to the wonderful Nithya Menen through this film.
Eega let Rajamouli prove that with enough imagination and skill, no idea is too silly or outlandish to squeeze drama out of. It’s a housefly using all its might to defend a woman from a monster, after all. Even if it doesn’t bode well for the female character, it is still a highly engaging experience, ably supported by clever writing and CGI. The film’s biggest achievement is that it manages to entertain us despite the fact that, at its core, it’s a tragedy — even SSR can’t write a plausible happy ending between an insect and a human.
Lakshmi, the sensitive, strong wife, and SPB, the childlike, temperamental husband, are the only characters in the film, other than their cow and its calf. The solitude provided by village life is beautifully juxtaposed with the chaos in this family of two people with short fuses. The heartbreaking climax reminds one of Romeo and Juliet — killing oneself thinking the other is dead. Except, this Romeo’s death is the rather painful outcome of loving someone for so long that life takes itself out when she is gone. And, this Juliet wanted her Romeo to die before her, because she knows how hopeless he is without her.
If memory serves me right, this is the film that started the fad of horror-comedy, a legitimate genre now in Telugu. Even though the ghost happens to be a victim of rape — it always is — it never feels like a cheap trick used to emotionally manipulate the viewer. Not just that, there is a story beyond the ghost. There are other characters with their own struggles and issues, and the humour, thanks to Sapthagiri, seldom falls flat or feels icky.
This dark comedy was one of its kind when it released. It revolves around a golden idol of Ganesha and the fortune it promises for anyone who owns it. Even though it involves all the tropes of the crime thriller genre — gangsters, trigger-happy people, rich/shady Africans, brainy hero, and a clueless heroine — it still feels unique, and the surplus of oddball characters helps as well. The filmmaker employs great musical and visual cues to break the tension whenever the film gets darker than a dark comedy, and that is also what stops the viewer from getting weary.
Srinivasa’s directorial debut is a romantic comedy the way Hollywood intended it to be. Filled with easily solvable problems, silly misunderstandings, and references to the filmmaker’s favourite director, it is a joyous experience. Even with two newcomers as the leads, the film never feels half-baked. In fact, the new faces help bring freshness to the story. Music by Kalyani Malik complements the mood of the film and helps it be the breezy ride that it ultimately is.
What started out as a box office failure acquired cult status with time, and rightfully so. Sukumar’s female characters usually disappoint, and this film is no different. But, besides this, it had great cinematography and layered storytelling rarely seen in Telugu cinema till then. Mahesh Babu’s character suffers from delusions induced by PTSD, and the sequences pertaining to this are cleverly conceived. A rare film that managed to take the audience by surprise with its final reveal, thanks to a cheeky casting subversion.
Even if one might not know why this franchise captured the attention of the world, you can be pretty sure that it is one of the best period dramas to come out of this country. No other film depicts Rajamouli’s niftiness and unique ability to churn out memorable cinema out of worn-out plot points such as this. The rich production values, deceptively simple story lines/character arcs, and great casting turned what started out as a high-budget entertainer into a milestone in Telugu cinema history.
A period drama that tries to show that people are the same — for better or worse — everywhere, by drawing parallels between the Holocaust, World War-II and the caste system in India. This charmingly old-school love story could have been made better — an actress who knows the language would’ve done wonders — but it is still effective enough to connect with the viewer. The template might not be novel, but for Krish, what happens between two plot points is more important.
A love story unfolding in Rayalaseema needs to have some clichés and a lot of blood. What sets apart Hanu’s film is how these clichés are used to create familiarity, equipping the rest of the film with enough space to go crazy. The humour never feels stale, even if the setting is the same. The Balayya-loving hero played by Nani might be the film’s strongest point, but there is also a twisty road that never gets convoluted, and a love story where the love feels convincingly real. The deliberate absence of oversaturation, in frames and plot points, makes for a unique experience as well.
Four stories about four people unfold parallelly. They belong to different age groups, and are looking for different things. What ties them, and the story, together, is that they belong to the same family. Even if the disclosure doesn’t change anything, it forces us to amend our perspective. We understand their behaviour better, and patterns emerge. Yeleti’s film is as much a meditation on family and inherited traits, as it is about society and how it affects people living in it.
Even though the film is an official remake of the French film The Intouchables, Vamshi succeeds in rooting the story well. There are a few extravagances — thanks to the billionaire character played by Nagarjuna—but it’s mostly about two men helping each other get to a point where happiness feels like a possibility. While Karthi’s Seenu carries the film with his humour and gullibility, Nag’s Vikram exudes an emotional maturity that both the film and Seenu find useful to grow. It never fails to get the desired reaction from its viewer, and if that’s not a mark of a well-made film, nothing is.
A romantic comedy between two equals was an anomaly in an industry obsessed with girls in distress and men who take charge, until this film. Here, he looks for direction, and the woman happily leads the way. All she needs is someone to not mind her sharp edges; he doesn’t. There is a maturity with which Tharun Bhascker handles the romance — it moves from indifference and fondness to finally land at love. It seems inevitable, rather than a plot necessity. The chemistry between Vijay Devarakonda and Ritu Varma, Vivek’s music, and Priyadarshi’s impeccable comic timing make it more enjoyable.
A volatile yet charming woman falls for an NRI, who also happens to be her sister’s brother-in-law, and he falls for her too. Instead of being mature about it, she creates a mess of her feelings and his. It is fun, at times, and excruciating, at others, to watch Bhanu and Varun get to the happy ending, but that’s how Kammula works his screenplay. Villains are a non-existent concept in his films; the characters and their behavioural flaws are enough to keep them apart. Fidaa’s best part, though, is Sai Pallavi’s carefree performance, and her perfect Telangana Telugu.
It is long and relentless — most of the film is about Arjun’s pain and his refusal to take help — in its pursuit of destructive love, yet, it’s always interesting. Mostly because, it has uniquely written characters played by able actors. Vijay Devarakonda’s Arjun is revolutionary for a Telugu cinema hero, Shalini plays Preethi with silent defiance, and Rahul Ramakrishna’s Shiva is both the film’s tension-breaker and moral compass. Ignoring the elephant in the room, this film is a perfect example of a commercial film that didn’t have to give up its artistic integrity to be thoroughly engaging.
An upgraded version of Mana Voori Pandavalu, this film sees unlikely heroes fight against a feudal system, but with trademark Sukumar touches. The fight sequence in the night with only torchlights is a marvellously choreographed scene, and so is the film’s beginning. Set in a village, the film gets many things right about a life where caste is everywhere. The funeral scene is emotional manipulation at its most melodramatic, yet persuasive form. Ram Charan finally finds his stride, and the supporting cast — from Anasuya to Aadhi — adds to the overall output.
What is there to not admire in a movie that vivaciously celebrates the life of a female screen legend? Add to that a well-written screenplay (its refusal to find fault with its protagonist irked some), great cinematography (Dani Sanchez-Lopez’s exquisite frames), music, and acting. Nag Ashwin’s vision of Savitri seems to be of a woman who feels deeply. It made her a great actor, but also stopped her from looking past the darkness. Keerthy Suresh did a great job portraying this complex woman. Madhuravani’s love story sticks out, but her character’s journey — indifference to reverence — was something the younger audience related to.
An origin story of sorts of a man trying to follow his father’s legacy, only to realise that life doesn’t work like that. What’s not to like about a thriller that looks technically brilliant, and knows the rhythm of the genre so well? Sashi Kiran Tikka makes do with a shoestring budget and gives the viewer an entertaining experience. Even though it threatens to slip away at times, it sticks the landing more often than it doesn’t. Adivi Sesh has a way of twisting a straight rope into a complex bind only he can unknot, and that works well for this film.
Venkatesh Maha’s debut attempt is a film where a place is as important a character as the people living in it. The film’s slice-of-life nature effortlessly lends itself to a screenplay that’s as distinctive as it is universal. With characters as memorable as Raju, Saleema, Geddam and Rammurty, it is hard to not be moved by the simple beauty of this film. Even though the plot moves into heavy themes such as religion, caste, and patriarchy, it stays loyal to the film’s congenial vibe, allowing it the flexibility to be whatever the viewer wants it to be.
A smart film that knows how to have a good time. In films with two stories, there is always the risk of one outshining the other, but this film manages to seamlessly move from one to another. Sree Vishnu and Vivek Athreya make for a winning duo. Athreya knows how to have fun with a character that is in equal parts humorous and awkward, and Vishnu knows how to play him. But this film isn’t about any single character; it is about an almost-prefect screenplay executed masterfully on screen.