In the promotional poster for Pushpa 2: The Rule, Allu Arjun is seen in an attire atypical for a mass film. He is clad in a sari, adorned with garlands, including one strung of lemons, his eyes peering from distinctly patterned face paint. This is an image that subverts our expectations of the hypermasculine aesthetics of a mass film, or even a Pushpa film, but its genesis seemingly lies in the milieu that Pushpa is set in — a real world referent cursorily mentioned in Pushpa song 'Daako Daako Meka', indicating the festival in Tirupati called Gangamma Jaatara, in which men dress in sarees. This is only the most explicit example of a trend in commercial Telugu movies — that of going “hyperlocal”.
While Telugu cinema has used dialects and cultural specifics from its many regions over many decades, never have the details been so specific, the evocation of these life-worlds so deliberate. For a Telugu viewer, the most immediately palpable difference between older Telugu commercial films and recent offerings is linguistics. For years, the predominant dialect in Telugu cinema has been one based in the Coastal Andhra/Vijayawada-Guntur region. Films featuring characters from regions such as Telangana and Rayalaseema tended to feature patronizing and offensive stereotypes.
Following the bifurcation of Andhra and Telangana in 2014, partly due to filmmakers emerging from the Telangana region, partly due to commercial filmmakers waking up to the potential to speak to specific markets and allowing for their films to benefit from the infusing of “rooted” cultural specifics — commercial films now speak many Telugus. What is interesting is that the big mass commercial films are “rooting” themselves in Telangana, Rayalaseema, and hitherto unexplored parts of Andhra Pradesh.
Sukumar’s 2018 blockbuster Rangasthalam is set in a village in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh—a fertile agricultural region, and the villain, Phanindra Bhupathi, is a feudal brahmin despot who has monopolized control over the village and its resources, standing unchallenged as the sole nominee for the Society President year after year. The villagers passively accept his regime because of the myth of Bhupathi’s caste supremacy, even as he exploits the farmers and farm labourers with money-lending and appropriating their produce with the help of a few henchmen. The protagonist of Rangasthalam, Chitti Babu waters the farms in the village for a living. Thus, Rangasthalam’s “rootedness” goes far beyond the East Godavari dialect and cultural aesthetics — the conflict between protagonist and the antagonist is built around the caste-class axis that seeks to control the resources specific to its geographic location. Though ostensibly a callback to a certain kind of rural movie from earlier decades like Mana Voori Pandavulu (1978), there is a retrospective aspect to the film— allusions to the persistence of casteism across political parties and even revolutionary movements.
This was also true of Sukumar’s next, Pushpa, which though less politically inclined, was set in the Seshachalam hills of Chitoor District in Rayalaseema, the plot revolving around the smuggling of red sandalwood, a coveted type of wood from the region which is transported to other countries. Both films infused the genre-typical mass moments with politics—Rangasthalam with the protagonist’s rebellion against the villains’ caste supremacy and Pushpa with the subaltern protagonist’s assertive stand against the privileged villains.
The Telangana movement and the subsequent bifurcation has allowed for the Telangana dialect to come into its own — a distinct new wave of Telangana film is seen in titles like Pelli Choopulu (2016), Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018), Arjun Reddy (2017), Virata Parvam (2022, which chronicles the Naxalite movement in the 90’s), Fidaa (2017), Love Story (2021), Mail, Mallesham (a biopic of Chintakindi Mallesham, inventor of the Asu machine), Skylab (2021), Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam (2022) and most prominently, Balagam (2023). Balagam, a comedy-drama revolving around a funeral is interested in the explication of rural Telangana’s culture as much as it is in its characters and plot—and its snowballing success has served to render visible an area and a culture that has often been stereotyped.
Speaking to The News Minute on the success of films like Balagam, the writer-director of Virata Parvam, Venu Udugula said “The formation of Telangana has given confidence to filmmakers that their films rooted in Telangana identity would be well received, but there is also a market for content with subaltern culture. So, calling it merely a post-bifurcation phenomenon is not accurate”. While RRR (2022) and Waltair Veerayya (2023) both feature prominent Telangana speaking characters, it is Srikanth Odela’s Dasara, Telugu cinema’s most recent film to cross a hundred crores, that seems to be the breakthrough mass film set in Telangana —most significantly, it is a mass film that draws from subaltern culture.
Srikanth Odela who worked as an AD on Rangasthalam, situates Dasara in Telangana’s Godavarikhani neighborhood of Ramagundam city, also called “Coal city” or the “City of Black Gold '' during the turbulent 1990s. The primary resource of the land here is coal, and the protagonist makes a living stealing it off of trains transporting it from the famous Singareni opencast mines. Inspired by the realities of the milieu in the 1990s, the male population in the film work in the coal mines, and consume alcohol for recreation and to ease the pain of labor at the end of a hard day. The women complain about the men’s alcoholism. A significant chunk of Dasara revolves around “Silk bar”, whose ownership the people of the area are forced to relinquish to an upper caste family which then monopolizes the politics of the area, with rival siblings competing for power. The "Silk Bar" then becomes economically and politically central to the plot—control over it decides the question of power, even as caste-based restrictions on entry into the bar emerge. There are undeniable signs of the influence of Pa. Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj.
The film opens with a reference to a real-life event: the Chief Minister, NTR’s declaration of Prohibition, following which a song inspired by the tradition of Telangana folk songs, Sinnaboye Silku Baru, takes us through the streets of Godavarikhani, recounting how the men of the area are unhappy with the ruling, and the women relieved. Vicky, who hails from Godavarikhani points me to the language used in the film — Keerthy Suresh’s use of the word “vashapadthaledu (unbearable/suffocating)”, something specific to that part of Telangana, and how it contrasts with other Telugu masala films that have tried to include the Telangana dialect, but have failed to do so authentically.
In an interview on Sakshi TV, Srikanth Odela, the director and one-time assistant to Sukumar, talks about how he relied on other cast and crew members who hail from the area like Gaddam Suresh (who acted in the film, and wrote the lyrics for 'Sinnaboye Silku Baru') for authenticity and pointers to the details of the period the film is set in. Vicky tells me that banners of Suresh have been put up in Godavarikhani, celebrating his contribution in representing the area in a film that has now crossed a hundred crores at the box-office. “Even if the filmmakers are from the place they are making a movie about, it is also good if you hire people from the place for a richer final output”, Vicky opines.
Dasara also contains depictions of local festivals like Bathukamma and Telangana’s syncretic traditions like Peerlu Pandaga, observed by Hindus and Muslims together. ('Chamkeela Angeelesi', the now famous song from the film, which reflects on how alcohol affects the marital life in the area, takes place when the leads attend a Muslim wedding). After a violent massacre, the film intercuts between Hindu and Muslim funerals of the victims: suggesting that the lives of the groups are intertwined, in festivities and in death.
Just like Rangasthalam and Pushpa, Dasara’s successful run is not due to it being a realist period depiction of the area it is set in, but because it uses the cultural specifics of Godavarikhani into large-canvas mythic masala. The song 'Ori Vaari' with a drunk, lamenting Nani belongs to one of the oldest conventions in Telugu cinema dating back to Devadas (1953). But look at how the miners gather around Dharani (Nani) — the shafts of lights from their helmets spraying and shifting as he climbs mining equipment to reach a phantasm of Vennela (Keerthy Suresh) juxtaposed against the moon, whose radiance she’s named after, as he is after the Earth. As with Rangasthalam, there are mass moments infused with politics — for instance, lowered-caste Dharani’s entry into “Silk bar” is staged to induce whistles. Then there is its riveting interval sequence and a dark, ultraviolet climax, ambiguously juxtaposed against mythology.
Though Dasara jettisons much of its political bite in its second half, its success, like that of Balagam’s, seems to signal a decentralization of the Telugu film industry’s aesthetics, along with a push towards including and capitalizing on the substance and political realities of locations that lie outside the big cities. Mass films like Dasara, Pushpa, and Rangasthalam do not push the boundary on gender, however (Pushpa is particularly egregious in its treatment of women); they challenge other social relations, but normalize some of the patriarchal treatment of women seen in mass films.
However, this push, despite its imperfections, seems to have revitalized commercial Telugu cinema from its 2010s slump. It seems a certainty after Dasara’s success that we will get more “rooted” films; what remains to be seen is how many will adopt the surface-level aesthetics to profiteer off this trend, and how many will spring from filmmakers authentically, deriving artistic and political force from the cultural specifics of their locations.