Sickle in mouth, an enraged Dharani (Nani), his face smeared with blood, leaps through the flames to wreak terrible revenge. The on-screen leap of faith not only makes for a gritty, violent climax, it has also taken Nani to the top of the Telugu box office. After a lukewarm reception to his last few films, his latest release Dasara (2023) has clicked big time at the box office. Directed by debut filmmaker Srikanth Odela, the action drama is set in the Nineties and has Nani playing Dharani, a lower caste man who hits back with vengeance when those he loves are threatened. The film also stars Mahanati (2018) fame Keerthy Suresh and Dheekshith Shetty in important roles.
Gautam Jain of Ormax Media estimated that the Telugu film took an opening day collection of Rs 15.3 crore in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. “Dasara has collected a gross box office total of Rs 51 crore in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over its four-day weekend,” Jain said. Worldwide, the film has made a gross collection of Rs 80 crore, the biggest for Nani so far.
Film critic Sangeetha Devi of The Hindu said a lot was riding on Dasara because it was a do-or-die situation for Nani. The actor is among the few male stars in the Telugu film industry who don’t come from film families and desperately needed a hit after his romcom with Nazriya, Ante Sundaraniki (2022), tanked at the box office. Prior to this, his period action drama with Sai Pallavi, Shyam Singha Roy (2021), had also underperformed and is estimated to have earned between Rs 40 to Rs 65 crore worldwide. The film was reportedly made on a budget of Rs 50 crore, and took a good opening but didn’t become the blockbuster that the team was hoping for.
With Dasara, Nani was taking a risk. It’s his highest budget film yet at Rs 65 crore and is helmed by a debutant director. “As a person, Nani has a lot of goodwill in the industry, especially for someone who’s an outsider. He’s very open to new ideas and directors, and you don’t have to go through a hierarchy in his office to meet him and narrate a story. This is why many of the emerging directors in Telugu associate themselves with him,” said Devi.
From playing a man who is reincarnated as a fly in SS Rajamouli’s fantasy blockbuster Eega (2012) to playing the romantic hero in films like Ashta Chamma (2008), Ala Modalaindi (2011) and Ninnu Kori (2017), and the tragic hero in the sports drama Jersey (2019), Nani’s filmography is an eclectic mix of ideas. What he hasn’t done all these years – at least to the extent of his male colleagues – is play the hypermasculine hero.
Devi pointed out that even in Dasara, until the interval point, Dharani is projected as someone who is a bit of a coward. “Nani has a huge female following, and it’s not only because of his charming looks. Initially, with films like the Bhale Bhale Magadivoy (2015), his comic timing helped him build a female fanbase, but after that, if you notice, his films always give importance to female characters,” said Devi.
In Dasara, Keerthy Suresh plays Vennela, the third corner of the love triangle involving Dharani and Suri (Dheekshith Shetty). While Vennela and Suri belong to a dominant caste, Dharani belongs to a lower caste. Despite delivering a National Award-winning performance in late actor Savitri’s Telugu-Tamil biopic, Mahanati (2018), Suresh has since struggled to find meaningful roles that explore her potential. In Dasara, Suresh’s role doesn’t rise above that of a “love interest” between the two men, but at least it’s pivotal.
“In one scene, Vennela also gets to question how she has been treated by the men around her. I thought that was a nice touch. If you remember, director Sukumar was criticised for how he portrayed Rashmika Mandanna’s character in Pushpa: The Rise (2021). Vennela is much better than that,” said Devi. Though the film takes on a hypermasculine turn after the interval, with Dharani transforming into a bloodthirsty avenger of injustice, you don’t see the usual tropes associated with such films, particularly the ‘item’ song.
Post-2010, Tamil cinema has seen the emergence of a strong anti-caste wave led by directors like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, Vetrimaaran and TJ Gnanavel. While traditionally, Dalit and adivasi protagonists have been pushed to the margins in cinematic narratives and treated as objects of pity, these films invest them with agency and reimagine them as powerful, politically aware individuals who take on systemic injustice. Movies like Madras (2014), Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Karnan (2021), Asuran (2019), and Jai Bhim (2021) have created an influential discourse in film circles about caste, power dynamics, appropriation and representation.
In Telugu, films like Sukumar’s Rangasthalam (2018), Asuran’s Telugu remake Narappa (2021) directed by Srikanth Addala, Karuna Kumar’s Palasa 1978 (2020) and Rahul Sankrityan’s Shyam Singha Roy (2021) are among the few films to have explicitly mentioned caste as an oppressive factor. In comparison to Tamil cinema, the representation of caste politics in Telugu films is still at a nascent stage. For instance, in Dasara, Dharani’s fight becomes about protecting the dominant caste woman Vennela from the attention of the villain (Shine Tom Chacko), who is also of the dominant caste.
Unlike the Tamil films that have set a precedent, the anti-caste fight in Dasara is limited to the entry of lower caste men into a bar, and doesn’t really look into issues like land rights, institutionalised discrimination in education, forced endogamous marriages or even how there is a difference in the justice system’s approach towards people of different castes. Though many of these Tamil films have “mass”, whistle-worthy moments, they are rooted in everyday caste dynamics. In contrast Dasara, for instance, shows both Dharani and Suri (Dheekshith Shetty) experiencing an equal amount of custodial torture and there are only passing references to where the dominant castes live as opposed to the lower castes. The film reduces a community’s struggle – which is what the Tamil films articulate – to a rather generic love story that looks new for Telugu audiences because of its relatively-oblique references to caste.
“I would put the film in the same space as Rangasthalam (Odela was Sukumar’s assistant director in the film) where you have an underdog hero like Chitti Babu (Ram Charan) and he’s forced to fight because of caste politics and his own survival. There’s not much machismo from Dharani until the interval and he lets Suri and Vennela take centrestage. Much later, he takes up the sword because he has to do what he has to do,” said Devi, acknowledging that the violence in the climax is “over-the-top”.
She reasoned that this is because the makers probably wanted to make a “mass” film and couldn’t therefore afford to include the language of realism that’s embedded in the anti-caste Tamil films. “They know that a film like Jai Bhim or Karnan will not work with the Telugu audience,” she said. The film’s references to local culture like the Bathukamma and Dasara festivals, which are an integral part of the cultural tapestry of rural Telangana, has also helped it work across audiences in the Telugu states.
“I rewatched the film to soak in the Telangana dialect and culture specificities. I noticed a small group of girls in the row before me cheering Suresh during that bridal dance. And these girls screamed and clapped all the way during the climax mass scene. Isolated observations out of which I am yet to figure out the hows and whys, but I don't see this often with massy Telugu cinema,” said Devi. She noted that other than Mahesh Babu, who also attracts a sizable female audience on day one of a release (like Nani), the other A-listers mostly bring in men for the first few shows.
The film was simultaneously dubbed and released in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. Nani had aggressively promoted the film beyond the Telugu states, but the response to the dubbed versions hasn’t been that encouraging. This could be because of big Tamil releases like Silambarasan’s Pathu Thala (2023) and Vetrimaaran’s Viduthalai Part 1 (2023), and the film’s pre-release buzz that drew comparisons to pan-Indian blockbusters like Pushpa and KGF (2018, 2022). It’s also possible that Dasara may look too derivative for a non-Telugu audience that has watched similar and better fleshed-out anti-caste films in Tamil.
A reliable source in the trade who didn’t wish to be named said that Dasara has collected big money in the Nizam area in Telangana state, and broken records for Nani films in America and Canada. “But its collections saw a drop on Saturday and Sunday in Andhra Pradesh, and comparatively did less business in the ceded Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. The collections from the non-Telugu versions in the rest of India market is quite low,” he said. The source added that as of now, Dasara can be termed a “smash hit” but that for it to be called a blockbuster, one has to track how it does in weekdays and the upcoming weekend.
For now, however, Nani must be heaving a sigh of relief that this time around, his instinct didn’t let him down.