When I first set out to make a list of Puri Jagannadh's films, I had no idea the prolific filmmaker had made 33 films in 20 years.
In many ways, every commercial Telugu film today bears the stamp of Puri Jagannadh's films—whether it is item numbers springing up announced, or the story jet-setting to Bangkok at the drop of a hat. However, Puri Jagannadh's true achievement is to create a grammar of his own, and to remain relevant for two decades in spite of essentially churning out the same story over and over again.
For the sake of brevity, we have limited this article to his top 20 films, ranked from worst to best.
Prabhas plays a child estranged from his parents who grows up to become a police officer who breaks protocol to nab goons. The film featured a litany of Hindi actors (Sonu Sood, Mukul Dev, Makrand Deshpande) as goons, and children who speak like 35-year-old JNU students. Kangana Ranaut plays a cute doormat as the film quickly moves to Bangkok. There's no reason for the film being called Ek Niranjan, it could be called Hriday Ranjan and it wouldn't have made a difference.
Varun Tej plays a child estranged from his mother, reared by his father in Jodhpur (there must have been a problem with Bangkok visas!). He meets Disha Patani and somehow begins to fight for the rights of villagers against a cruel zamindar. Ali and Brahmanandam's comedy does not save this sinking ship, as the hero kills the villain and is reunited with his family in the end. The film offers absolutely nothing to the viewer, and sank Puri's stocks by a number of points.
When Puri announced that he was making a film with a heroine as a lead, he forgot to mention that Charmee would be playing every other Puri Jagannadh hero. Satyadev is looking for an ideal girl and uses the Lapakee app (I checked, there are knock-off apps on the Play Store!) to pick up prostitutes. He meets a good-natured prostitute in Charmee and helps her run away from the brothel and rescue her colleagues as well. The film features action sequences that are accompanied by a remixed track of 'Aigiri Nandini', but there's absolutely nothing in terms of a story. Even Brahmanandam is reduced to a vulgar caricature of himself.
The film deals with the impact of media on society, but chooses to adopt a hackneyed telling of incidents. All media professionals are crooked, all the politicians have hidden agendas. The film served as a quasi-launchpad into politics for Pawan Kalyan, and the references to real-life politicians (one of them is named Jawahar Naidu!) are hard to take seriously. The film ended up as relevant as a Vivid Bharati request show in 2019.
By the time this film released, Puri Jagannadh had acquired the reputation of a director who could launch (and relaunch) actors into superstardom. It made sense that Ram Charan would debut in a Puri film. The director throws everything into the mix—the hero is called Charan, there are fights and songs choreographed to highlight his strengths (and honestly, there weren't many), and familiar tropes like the leads stranded on an island. The film however came across like a low-budget Chiranjeevi film, and Ali's comedy track ("I'm Lachmi, please don't touch me!") should be saved for posterity to exemplify how our nation depicted people from the LGBTQ community.
Slickly shot in Paris and Spain, the film was made when Allu Arjun had firmly established himself as a bankable star. The film steers clear of usual Puri tropes like drugs, police and Bangkok, and instead marries a love triangle with the mafia. The film looks stunning to this day, and the music of the film helped it sail over its troubled plot-waters. The film came at a time when the director's stocks were sinking, and helped him retain his place in the industry.
Since Puri was launching the careers of a number of actors, his brother must have asked 'Bhaiyya, why not me?'.
'Why not?' Puri must have said, and began shooting the film–but I can list at least 20 reasons why the film need not have made. Starring the director's brother Sairam Shankar, the film suffered due to the actor's screen absence. It is difficult to watch the film without wondering how Ravi Teja or Allu Arjun would have played the role, and the film seemed as hollow as a bamboo pole lying idle in Bangkok.
Puri was in familiar territory here—a cop who was living with the trauma of a lost lover, a popular star (Nagarjuna) who was enjoying commercial success, and two heroines whose combined storylines wouldn't suffice to make one decent storyline. A love triangle that somehow manages to find gangsters in typical fashion, this film was inspired from Message in a Bottle. Honestly, the script should have been placed in a bottle and flung deep into the Arabian Sea.
An orphan becomes a police officer who specialises in encounters. The film was made at a time when our films were obsessed with encounter specialists like Daya Nayak. Actor Gopichand is saddled with a script that doesn't have usual Puri elements—there is no comedy, or a love triangle. Shot and released during the peak of the Telangana agitation, the film was completed in a mere 50 days. If you look at the script, you'll realise why.
Prabhas and Trisha are children who fight over a sand-castle. Trisha asks Prabhas to stay away for 12 years (perhaps to prepare in Sri Chaitanya for IIT coaching), and will only consider him after the self-imposed exile.
Prabhas get embroiled with gangsters in Chennai and Trisha is shown to be the sister of a gangster and all is well that ends well. The film works primarily due to its revamping of Prabhas, at a time when it was enough for a star to develop 6-pack abs and win over audiences.
When a film begins with a young man and woman trying to commit suicide, you can rest assured they are going to live, and end up happily together. This film was made before Ravi Teja was crowned Mass Maharaja, and works primarily due to the actor's earnestness.
It was also a break for the director from police and Bangkok, and proved that he could pull off a romantic story with only a hint of a love triangle peeping from the back.
Ravi Teja plays a kickboxer who lives with his mother. When she dies, she asks him to go find his father Ravi Teja—who is a kickboxer with a paunch. In the meanwhile, he meets Asin—a Tamil girl whose CV's objective reads 'I want to fall in love with a Telugu boy ASAP'.
To the director's credit, he merges the threads of kickboxing and estranged father and the chemistry between Prakash Raj and Ravi Teja end up making the film rather watchable.
Hansika Motwani plays a Buddhist monk who has given up the world's pleasures but cannot resist Allu Arjun's charms. Actor Allu Arjun developed abs to suffice for the film's wafer-thin plot and left the rest to the comedians and music director. The film proved to be a second lease of life for Allu Arjun, and retains a certain innocence to it, thanks to the lack of any sleaze in the film. The film was a huge hit and firmly established the director as a money-churning machine in the industry.
Starring Mahesh Babu and Kajal Agarwal at their peaks, the film talks about a gangster who moves to Mumbai and finds accommodation immediately. He is determined to become the biggest gangster in the country and twists politicians to achieve his aims.
He falls in love with the Police Commissioner's daughter and the rest of the screenplay is a formula that the director had mastered by then. The director somehow manages to bring out a certain boyish charm in the superstar and the film exploded at the box office.
In 2011, Puri Jagannadh moved to Mumbai and shocked one and all by announcing Amitabh Bachchan as the lead of his next film. Amitabh Bachchan plays an older Mahesh Babu in the film—a specialist hitman who returns for one final job.
The film is a tribute to the superstar, with every scene taking viewers back to the 70s, when AB kicked ass and mouthed heroic dialogues. It is difficult to take the film very seriously, and that is exactly what makes the film work. You end up watching the film to see what the director is going to make AB do next.
Pawan Kalyan was going through his golden phase when Puri Jagannadh debuted after serving under RGV for a number of years. Unlike RGV's other proteges who seemed to be shadows of the maverick director, Puri Jagannadh announced himself on to the big stage with a grammar that was uniquely his own. Co-starring Renu Desai, Amisha Patel and Prakash Raj, the film was proof of the magical abilities of Puri Jagannadh—to take wafer-thin plots and convert them into a magical pootharekulu. Made in the time when Pawan Kalyan used to actually emote, the film has aged surprisingly well.
Puri Jagannadh references himself as a director in the industry whose goes by the name of Idly Vishwanath. Ravi Teja plays an aspiring director from Krishna Nagar embroiled in love, a narcisstic superstar, and a fight to establish himself in the industry. The film proved that Ravi Teja was going to be the next big thing in the industry, and inspite of the sleazy plotpoints, manages to retain your interest.
The film tells the story of a child who wants to grow up to become a (Surprise surprise!) POLICE OFFICER. However, he is driven by the bribes that police officers apparently get (perhaps a reflection of the director's own disillusionment with the police by then).
Slickly shot and filmed to foot-tapping music, the film works primarily due to the performances of the lead. Jr. NTR manages to take every cliché in the book and make it is his own. The film doubled its costs and proved that there was nobody like Puri Jagannadh to relaunch a star's flagging career.
The film that was remade in a number of languages, Pokiri merges all of the director's tropes and changed the fortunes of Superstar Mahesh Babu and (some would argue) the industry's fortunes. With a new hairdo, and a role that highlighted his strengths rather than weaknesses—Pokiri was the first of Telugu blockbusters that would go on to be remade in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali and a number of other industries in the country. It was also the beginning of the Cops, Drugs, Bangkok trinity that the director would milk for years after.
While Badri was considered primarily a Pawan Kalyan vehicle, it was Idiot that made the industry fall in love with the director. Without the pressure of pandering to a superstar and his legion of fans, Puri Jagannadh and Ravi Teja got together in a winning partnership that would transform their lives forever. While the film might not have aged too well technically, the film brings a smile on the faces of every Telugu cinema fan, even today.
At the end of the film, the hero overcomes his obstacles, marries the heroine, studies hard and clears the IPS exam.
Puri Jagannadh, Ravi Teja, and the Telugu Hero would never be the same again.