2023 Wrap: Best Telugu Films of the Year

Safe films turned out to be damp squids while risks were rewarded fittingly this year
Best Telugu Films of 2023
Best Telugu Films of 2023

After the monstrous success of RRR in 2022, which reached its zenith in March earlier this year with MM Keeravani and Chandrabose bringing home Oscar trophies, you’d expect 2023 to pale in comparison, at least from a holistic level. But look deeper, Telugu cinema, whilst still far from making a splash like RRR, has had many interesting offerings that talk about both the cinema being produced and the audience savouring it. After Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna locked horns at the box office during Sankranthi, like they did numerous times in the early ‘90s and 2000s, the contribution of star vehicles hasn’t been significant. 

Major big-ticket releases like Agent, Bro, Bhola Shankar, Shaakunthalam, Raavanasura, Custody, and Skanda turned out to be bitter experiences. The onus was on the smaller films this year to make our time at the movies worthwhile, and they delivered big time. While we always had a C/O Kancherapalem or a Mallesham emerge like diamonds in the dirt every now and then, the fact that a film like Balagam got the widespread traction that it did is an incredibly healthy sign. It’s also a year that saw cultural representation come to foreground, even becoming a part of a film’s DNA. In addition to Balagam, films like Dasara, Mem Famous and Pareshan, to name some, made the Telangana culture an intrinsic part of their storytelling. 

Although it’s hard to find a pattern among the films that worked this year, it’s safe to say that safe films didn’t work while some risks were rewarded fittingly.


The documentation of Telangana culture in Balagam, done with a degree of precision and care, hitherto unseen on the big screen, is only one of the factors that makes this Venu Yeldandi directorial one of this year’s most beautiful films. Balagam can serve as an introduction to the lifestyle and culture of Telangana, to those unfamiliar with it, akin to how films like Angamaly Diaries, Garuda Gama Vrishaba Vahana, Kantara and Karnan offered a peak into the milieu they were portraying. Balagam is much more than cultural representation though. Set in the aftermath of a patriarch’s sudden demise, it’s an intricate human drama that exposes both our dark and vulnerable sides, the futility of materialistic conflicts in this stageplay called life, and the importance of family. For a film that carries such emotional heft, it also manages to be funny, often finding space for humour in odd and tragic scenarios. The final 10 minutes, where even a single word isn’t uttered, are utterly heartbreaking and heartwarming, reaffirming one of the film’s themes: that sadness and happiness co-exist in our lives. In the words of a patron, who I overheard talking to the middle-aged janitor at the film’s first screening in a multiplex, “It felt like I went to a village with my family for a picnic.” In the end, that’s precisely the feeling the Balagam leaves you with.


Karthik Dandu’s Virupaksha is a film that worked supremely well because of the effort it put into its world-building. Set in a forest-side village in the ‘90s, the film smartly establishes the geography and equations between the characters, making us fully familiar with its world. Once the creep-factor kicks in, this relentless screenplay, suffused with scares, gory deaths and an underlying mystery that’s solved with an unexpected final reveal, doesn't give you time to breathe. Virupaksha is a supernatural thriller done right; there are zero jump scares and the fear is always evoked using the tense atmosphere and a highly effective usage of sound design.


Rupak Ronaldson’s Pareshan is a film that flaunts its wackiness like your 8-year-old self would flaunt your Power Ranger Morpher or Bayblade in front of friends. Every scene competes with its predecessor in terms of quirk and mostly, the level of eccentricity only keeps going up as the story progresses. With characters and conflicts that feel too real for a film, Pareshan challenges the notion that you need something dramatic for the film. Instead, it finds moments in the most mundane things. There are numerous scenes and situations in Pareshan that are feel so unique that even if you try to draw references, you are likely to fail because you cannot compare them to scenes we have seen in the past, meaning they are truly original in many ways.


Ram Abbaraju’s Samajavaragamana was a throwback to the times when we had simple family comedies to offer us some respite from all the on-screen and off-screen turmoils. Samajavaragamana reminds you one of those clean comedies you watched with your family on a lazy Saturday afternoon as a child. Like Mad, there are no villains or major challenges here. It’s a comedy-of-errors that benefits big time from the comic timing of Naresh and Sree Vishnu, slaying it as father and son with a weird but affable dynamic. And in the age of pan-India actioners, these simple films would serve as welcome refreshers.


There hasn’t been a more discussed and debated Telugu film this year than Sai Rajesh’s Baby. Why is that so? What is so triggering about it? Why did it provoke such extreme reactions upon release? The answer to all these questions can be personal. But the truth is that Baby remains this year's most provocative Telugu film. It disturbs you, shocks you, disgusts you, makes you squirm in your seats on more than one instance, and compels you to scream at the messed-up characters on the screen as they take one misstep after the other. You can love it or hate it, but it's hard to be indifferent towards it. And that can only be done if the story and characters “affect” you. The morally ambiguous film puts you in a spot where it becomes hard to pick a side. Even if you clearly perceive what's ‘good and bad’, the ‘right or wrong’ takes a completely different, ugly twist in this drama that soars when the flaws of its characters start driving the narrative.

Month Of Madhu

Month of Madhu felt like a European relationship drama shot in Vizag featuring Telugu-speaking characters. Such is its subtlety and calming aesthetic. It’s all about the little things in Srikanth Nagothi’s sophomore feature in which every character is lonely and a little broken from the inside, be it the 20-year-old Madhumathi, the 40-year-old Madhusudhan, his separated wife, Lekha, or even her colleague who has a liking for her. The writing extends empathy to every character, never to reduce them to plot devices or judge them by their actions or worldview, even if they are far from perfect. It’s a film that discusses sexual awakening, loss, toxic relationships; it’s a film that normalises divorces; it’s a film that doesn’t romanticize losing one’s self in the institution of marriage. It’s not the progressiveness that makes Month of Madhu one of this year’s best; it’s how it communicates its themes, without ever rubbing them on your face, that makes it a unique film.


Mad is a film that travels at a speed of 100 gags a minute. The Kalyan Shakar directorial doesn’t take itself seriously at all and even if you do, it’ll make a joke out of the seriousness within 10 seconds. Not more than that. And it’s nearly impossible to explain why Mad is hilarious because the jokes are so silly that they make no sense on paper, but the actors make it work and how! Sangeeth Sobhan and Vishnu Oi own the screen like it is nobody’s business. We might forget the gags 10 years from now but Mad will remain the film that brought these two incredible talents to the foreground. There are no bad guys, no blood, no conflicts, and no emotions except joy in Mad. It’s the most chilled-out film of the year and yes, we need more films like Mad that want to do nothing but spread joy.

How Is That For A Monday

Sripal Sama’s Telugu indie, How Is That For a Monday, is a testament to ‘a small film with a big heart’. Set on an uneventful Monday in the life of Shyam, a Telugu IT guy working in the US, the film's screenplay begins as a thriller and later goes on to effortlessly blend relevant but rather huge themes like identity and race. It’s a lovely little 90-minute movie that leaves you with a satisfying feeling of having watched something with a heart of gold. Made on a shoestring budget, the film boasts of a great screenplay that flows like a river, with zero obstacles, tying every knot perfectly, making it a wholesome film.

Bhagavanth Kesari

Bhagavanth Kesari was hands-down the most enjoyable Balakrishna-starrer in ages. Nothing is ever meant to be taken seriously in Anil Ravipudi’s decidedly cartoonish worlds but Bhagavanth Kesari, despite all its gravity-defying fights, err, massacres, had a sincere intent at its core that fuels all its delightful over-the-top-ness. Balakrishna delivering a heartfelt speech about ‘good touch and bad touch’ was certainly not on my 2023 list, especially considering the actor had started the year with a rather distasteful Veera Simha Reddy. Bhagavanth Kesari offered everything you’d expect from an agmark Telugu masala entertainer and that includes some pitfalls too, but its sincerity takes the cake.

Hi Nanna

Shouryuv’s debut feature Hi Nanna is my most bittersweet Telugu moviegoing experience of the year. Featuring knockout performances from its three leads, Nani, Mrunal Thakur and Kiara Khanna (again, what a find!), the film might have been too heavy if you were expecting a ‘lighthearted Nani’ movie, but boy, Hi Nanna had some of the most sensitive and poignant moments from films this year. The restaurant scene where Viraj confronts Yashna’s is one of this year’s best and encapsulates how subtely the film explores mature themes, which in the hands of a lesser writer and filmmaker, could've easily become overdramatic. Speaking of risks that were rewarded, Hi Nanna is one such risk. In today's age, where scaling up seems to be the metric of success, how many stars would prefer following up a massive, successful actioner with a calm, emotional love story?

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