2021 was a strange year for Telugu cinema: For a few months, it felt like we'd never see a film in a theatre again. Then, suddenly, before you processed one big release, another came knocking at your doorstep. Many big films such as RRR and Radhe Shyam were postponed giving smaller films like SR Kalyanamandapam and Pelli SandaD a chance at the movies.
This rapid pace of release also meant that some films like Raja Raja Chora, which needed a clear marketing strategy to prepare the audience, were just happy to be presented on the big screen, leading to mixed results. While others like Akhanda proved that there is no such thing as too much masala for the Telugu audience.
Given all that, making this list of best Telugu films of the year was at once an easy and hard task. The number of great films to choose from were few but to rank them and eliminate a couple was harder. In the true spirit of Christmas I'd like to declare that all were great films and eventually COVID is the winner. Sadly, my editor doesn't approve. So, here goes.
There are three notable absences from this list. Vakeel Saab because neither was it a full-fledged Pawan Kalyan film nor a faithful remake of Pink. Raja Raja Chora, the heavy lifting of which was done by music director Vivek Sagar and despite a few hilarious moments in the second half, it was too long for its runtime. Shyam Singha Roy did not make it to the list either because it managed to make only one-half work, quite ruthlessly abandoning the other.
It's been a while since Balakrishna set screens on fire. Since Goutamiputra Sathakarni, Balakrisha the actor and star hasn't been utilised by any director. Similarly, director Boyapati Srinivas' previous effort Vinaya Vidheya Rama was trolled heavily for how illogical it was and since the film Legend, there seemed to be an X-factor missing in his films.
When the duo joined forces in Akhanda they gave a film that can only be labelled a modern cultural Telugu experience. It's similar to the Rajni-mania of Tamil Nadu but it's not quite the same. There's genuine joy and quite a bit of mockery but it's an experience that makes sense to only those who watch it in theatres that's quite beyond plot and politics. And given the times, what better thing to celebrate about a film than its ability to give joy to those who come to the theatres.
Everyone knows that Allari Naresh, despite being the face of a billion comedies, is a capable actor. Whether it was Gamyam, Nenu or even the hammy Vishaka Express, his acting abilities stood out whatever the result of the film may have been. But since 2012 the comedy gamble hasn't worked and luckily for us he decided to take the actorly route.
Naandhi is a courtroom drama about a man wrongly convicted for a crime. Director Vijay Kanakamedala's screenplay dragged at a few places. However, seeing the lovable Allari Naresh be tortured papered over the screenplay cracks because as audience you wanted him punished for not adequately utilising the actor within. Also, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar's performance was solid. She's one of the few actors who's made her Tamil-accented Telugu a strength — rather than clip it, she plays into it and that works wonders.
Had Pushpaka Vimanam been a film from any other industry, I reckon that the Telugu people would have been kinder to it. The film was a decent hit and got some good reviews but it didn't explode the way I thought it would when I saw the early morning show on the first day of its release.
Anand Devarakonda as Sundar was terrific. He shines as the awkward government school Maths teacher whose wife elopes immediately after their wedding. Director Damodara handles the comedy set pieces well while retaining tension in the screenplay about what could have happened to this poor woman. He delicately creates a protagonist who we laugh at and are suspicious of about having committed a terrible crime.
Maybe he could have cast someone other than Sunil in the role of the corrupt cop with dubious intentions but the film worked well for me and is a great addition to the comedy thriller genre, the infamous slippery slope in Telugu cinema.
Jaathi Rathnalu grew on me. Don't get me wrong, I was impressed in the first viewing too. I laughed till I developed abs during the film's first half. I haven't seen such goofiness in a Telugu film since Allari Naresh dropped the ball in the comedy genre. But by the time the film reached its third act I had had enough. The farce had stretched beyond what I considered its comedic limit.
But over time, re-watching the film left me with a chuckle in nearly every scene. Faria Abdullah and Naveen Polishetty got the perfect balance between making chemistry seem lovable and laughable.
The biggest star of the film has to be the writer-director Anudeep KV, whose awkward and quirky sense of humor translated effectively on screen. It'll be exciting to see if he can retain and add storytelling to the potent comedic voice within him.
Cinema Bandi written and directed by Praveen Kandregula is one of those delightful little films that punched above its weight. I would have liked to see how the film would have done at the box-office had it been released in theatres rather than directly to Netflix, particularly in the Telugu towns bordering Karnataka where the film takes place. This film is not quite C/o Kancharapalem in how universally accepted it was but the film's soul were its actors and the dialect they nailed. As someone who hails from that part of the world, I know how little the dialect and its potential for humor has been exploited on screen without punching down.
The story of Veerababu, Ganapathy and the residents of Gollapally who make Thatha Raasina Titanic is definitely feel-good done right. Particularly Rag Mayur as Maridesh Babu and Uma YG as Manga were fantastic and were one of those couples that the internet really should be getting behind.
One of the reasons why I am loving the new version of actor Venkatesh — affectionately called Venky Mama by his fans — is the way he is letting himself age on screen. Drushyam which was helmed by Sripriya felt soap opera-like in the way it was staged but Drushyam 2 directed by Jeetu Joseph looked more cinematic without losing the soul of the original or the nativity of its new setting.
Venkatesh is in fine form as Rambabu, plunging into darker depths to save his family but somehow Venkatesh comes out making you root for him. I would go as far as to say that I liked Rambabu more than Geroge Kutty because the latter seems like a risk taker but the former feels like he has rigged the entire system.
I strongly believe this film would have been a great theatrical experience as the film reaches its final hour.
Uppena had many stunning debuts. First and foremost is director Bucchi Babu Sana, who also wrote the film, took familiar plot points and arrived at them in a refreshing manner. He set up the milieu of the fisherman community with a sociologist's eye. But the most important question he asked through his familiar story was what masculinity means in a film culture obsessed with machismo. The fact that the final twist got leaked prior to the film's release on the internet didn't hamper the cinematic experience. There was tension as to how he'd reach that point and how sensitively he'd handle the moment.
And this is where the debuts of actors Vaishnav Tej and Krithi Shetty come into the fore because as young lovers their freshness on screen and how they played the classic romantic beats of young love on screen – the first time they exchange looks, the first kiss, the first fight as a couple – all appeared new. Particularly Vaishnav Tej's ability to convincingly express pathos during close up shots gives hope that despite hailing from a family that is known for mass and macho cinema, he may have given Telugu cinema its first Abhay Deol-esque actor.
If there was any disappointment with the film it was with it's most illustrious debut — that of Vijay Sethupathi for whom this was his first direct Telugu cinema. He didn't dub for himself and in a film that questioned many cliches his character played into some of the oldest cliches of Telugu cinema.
But other than its debutants the one veteran who did his job to near perfection was music composer Devi Sri Prasad. His songs and background music showed you that despite a two-decade old career there isn't a music director who can more deftly handle romance in Telugu cinema.
If there was a film that surprised me this year it was Adbhutham. The sci-fi comedy thriller explored time travel and romance taking great pains to entertainingly simplify its concepts. The leaps of logic are immense; but the film sets the tone right at the start with ominous clouds hanging over the city of Hyderabad, which alter the fabric of time and space.
The writing team of Prashant Verma, Mallik Ram and Manideep Pallerla respect the audience's intelligence but are also cautious about the pop-cultural references they might not get. This film managed to weave Telangana separation, the release of the film Manam, the Indian general election and so many more cultural landmarks to highlight the plight of its separated lovers.
And while Adbhutham's protagonist Teja Sajja has had a knack of picking good scripts like Zombie Reddy and Oh Baby, it's the film's other protagonist Shivani Rajashekhar who steals the show getting the right balance of acting and chirpy required in her role. For the first time in a while, the chirpiness of a character seems natural as opposed to an attempt at being overly cute.
The film borrows liberally from many Hollywood films and South Korean films but they seem more like tributes than plagiarism. This film really lived up to its title meaning 'wonder(ful)' and without even a share of the marketing budget provided to me I have recommended this film to countless others.
Sekhar Kammula's career has been plagued by the 'second film mistake.' He followed Anand with Godavari, a similar venture, the softness inherent to the film, the conflicts it showed, and the dialogues all contributed to the feeling of dejavu. Similarly, Happy Days was followed by Life Is Beautiful two films later and it became a recurring joke that the latter was a remake of the former.
Given that, Love Story, the casting of Sai Pallavi, the film's general visual palette felt too close to Fidaa. But I was happy to be proven wrong.
Love Story is Sekhar Kammula's angriest film. While Leader felt like the idealism of a college student expressed through a Facebook post, Love Story is the mature anger of an adult organizing their first protest. The film tells the story of Revanth, a Dalit Christian Zumba trainer, and Mounika, an oppressor caste woman fighting for economic independence in Hyderabad. Both belong to the same village and Mounika has a secret from childhood that impacts her life even as an adult.
The film handles caste politics, child abuse, and inter-generational conflict with such ease and simplicity that it feels like Shekhar Kammula doesn't get enough credit for how he never goes for chest-thumping dialogues but tender moments. This film had a kissing scene between its leads that felt truly earned by plot as opposed to an attempt to titillate viewers. While Sai Pallavi and Eashwari Rao were in fine form as expected, the revelations of the film were Akkineni Naga Chaitanya and Rajeev Kanakala and the music of Pawan CH.
There were rumblings about the film's abrupt ending and I too hold that complaint, but I believe the real reason one keeps thinking about the film so many days later is how jagged and cruel the ending felt. This makes the film and its politics worth thinking about months later.
Undoubtedly this year's finest work because it combines everything that makes Telugu cinema lovable. It has star power, masala, and it takes the beats of a gangster drama seen in the likes of City of God and Gangs of New York and presents them in the context of the smuggling of Red Sanders in Chittoor — a setting never fully utilised in Telugu cinema.
It takes a special kind of film to get better with each viewing and Pushpa has that effect. I've seen it thrice and each time I'm spotting something new – an actor's expression, a dialogue that I didn't fully register, set-ups whose payoffs I missed, and so on.
But the film's greatest punch came from Allu Arjun, who, prior to this, I didn't rate highly as an actor. He has that pure star charisma last seen in Chiranjeevi of the 90s when playing to the gallery was itself an art form. But through Pushpa Raj he also showed us that within him lies a performer — not once breaking character to appease fans but hacking away at the part to perfection. The climactic sequence where his character is overcome with arrogance is Allu Arjun's finest work yet.
Pushpa is hard to nail because it's the biographical tale of a character's rise in a world that is steeped in illegality and immorality. With cinematographer Miroslaw Kuba Brozek complementing Sukumar's writing, Seshachalam Forests become synonymous with Pushpa Raj himself – at first glance they look like they are easy to exploit, but their danger lies in the number of deaths they cause directly and indirectly. The climax, which garnered mixed response, sets up beautifully for the next part leaving us wondering how will the two mad men who care for nothing but their egos destroy the world around them.
But to me the highlight of the film was Jagadeesh Prathap Bandara who plays Keshava and is the narrator of the story. It's an inspired choice by Sukumar to choose Pushpa's most lovable and least grey character to narrate the story and the actor is a revelation.