The last month has been strangely symbolic of the state of the Telugu film industry. There were four releases—Jersey, ABCD, Sita and Maharshi.
Two moronic films that reduced my IQ by at least 10 points, one superstar vehicle, one honest story with a riveting performance. Maharshi set the box office on fire, but Jersey had to put in a last-minute dive to recover its costs.
It is sad that while the younger crop of actors like Nani and Vijay Deverakonda are experimenting with their roles, the superstars continue to play safe—churning out the same tripe with a different tribe. A quick look at the films of the biggest stars will further prove my point.
Mahesh Babu's last three films were Spyder, Bharat Ane Nenu, and Maharshi. All safe films that catered to fans. The same is true for superstars Pavan Kalyan and Balakrishna too. They continue to play various versions of Maryada Purushottam Sree Ram—all larger than life, righteous characters who initiate the victory of good over evil.
However, one can't help but feel that it should be the stars taking the large risks. With a fan base that literally worships them, they do not run the risk of losing it all due to one experiment.
Of course, one could argue that films are essentially business enterprises, produced with an intent to make money. A film in that sense, is not very different from a start-up company. You begin with an idea, acquire manpower and resources, and put your product out in the market. From that perspective, films that do well are great for the industry.
But a wider perspective could be had by looking at the states around us—Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
In Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan was among the biggest stars, and went on to star in a string of films that elevated the standards of Tamil cinema. Decades of experiments, of pushing the boundaries little by little—has borne fruit today. Tamil cinema today creates some of the most stirring, stunning work in the country. All made by young filmmakers who grew up watching their idol push the boundaries every Friday.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Kannada film industry witnessed a lull and had to reinvent itself to come back into vogue among the people of the state. Decades of playing safe nearly caused the industry to implode.
When a superstar takes a risk, he or she is sowing seeds for the future. Tamil filmmakers of today were getting an education in cinema while growing up. Their horizons were being expanded, their worlds widening. If our biggest stars take risks, they will be ensuring the longevity of the industry. And since most stars bring their sons into the trade, it makes economic sense too!
When I say 'risks', I do not mean arthouse cinema devoid of songs, fights and entertainment. If one were to turn one's attention towards the west, the kind of films that Tom Hanks churned out in the 90s are baffling.
Hanks became a household name with 1993's Sleepless in Seattle, and quickly shot to the top league. In the next ten years, from 1993 to 2002, Tom Hanks created a filmography that would give any actor in the world wet dreams.
These were all huge, global blockbusters. They were all commercial films in every sense of the word; and yet each one so starkly different from the other. Film after film, he was in a zone of his own.
The DVD rental shop near my house in Bhubaneswar had a special stack of Tom Hanks films. If he ever found people confused while choosing a film, he would slide the pile of pirated Tom Hanks movies and say, 'Take any one from this!'. Tom Hanks is testimony to the fact that one could make tons of money while still blowing people's minds. He has changed the way a superstar could use his status to chart new paths.
One could argue that this our superstars play safe due to failures.
NTR: Kathanayakudu was far removed from the usual Balakrishna fare, and it sank. Mahesh Babu's films Khaleja and Nenokkadine caused minor blips in the state's GDP. At the height of his popularity, Chiranjeevi starred in K. Viswanath's Apadbandhavudu. Bats were seen flying out of the theatres.
But there is something truly unique about Telugu cinema. The loyalty that our superstars enjoy comes from decades of love and adoration. It can withstand a few tremors. Unlike the younger crop of stars like Nani and Vijay Deverokonda, the superstars' fan clubs will continue to flourish. Neighbour fan-clubs will still paste 20 faces on a flexi-poster.
Surely that sounds more appealing than the Yearly Sankranti Navarasa Bonanza?