Growing up in Hyderabad in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was one of the many lucky kids who witnessed the most bizarre mix of movies in the Telugu film industry. There were the major commercial movies with the navarasas that catered to the family audience, and the occasional Tamil dubbed films featuring stars like Rajinikanth or made by filmmakers such as Mani Ratnam and Shankar. There were also the rare Hindi films dubbed into Telugu that created a little buzz and devotional movies like Annamayya (1997), Sri Manjunatha (2001) and Sri Ramadasu (2006).
In the midst of this crazy mixed palette were little gems that could not fit into what was mainstream at that time. Since there was nothing like a parallel movement or the concept of arthouse films in Telugu cinema, these different films couldn't be slotted into the existing boxes. Although a few of them broke even and were even declared hits, they could not reach the masses the way mainstream films could.
Television gave a life beyond theatres to content that was either underappreciated or couldn't have better reach. And so, many of us discovered a whole new set of films that were different yet so entertaining.
Here's a listing of a few such non-mainstream films that I discovered on television:
Director: S. Gopal Reddy
This film was reminiscent of the stories parents used to tell us about their lives. The rooted manner in which the film depicted various stages of life, from friendship and innocent love to heartbreak, setback and compromise, is beautiful. The television audience loved and owned the movie.
Director: Sekhar Kammula
The best thing about this movie is the refreshing and near-realistic writing of the female protagonist Roopa (Kamalinee Mukherjee). The film has a very non-judgmental gaze on her personality that the youth of the time quickly embraced. The moody, short tempered and impulsive traits of Roopa do not take away from her sweet, sensitive and strong-independent personality. The hero (played by Raja) is also not typical. The movie deals with friendships and relationships, and there's fresh humour and a great soundtrack too.
Director: Chandra Sekhar Yeleti
This is a one-of-its-kind mystery-thriller directed by one of the most underrated filmmakers in the Telugu Film Industry. I first watched it at an age where comprehending it was not very easy, but it still made me wake up every morning to check if I'd missed a day in my life. The film is also a clever commentary about blind belief and drug abuse. The film was helped by the performances of Charmme Kaur, Jagapathi Babu, Shashank Siddamsetty and the rest of the cast. This was a film way ahead of its time.
Director: Sekhar Suri
A mystery thriller that hits all the right notes. The male protagonists are filmmaker Aravind (Rajeev Kanakala) and actor Rishi (Richard Rishi). Incidents from a script that Aravind wants to film come true, there's a psychopath on the loose, and there's a cottage at the edge of the forest. The film's unexpected climax twist is spoken about.
Director: Sekhar Kammula
After watching this film, 'Boat trip to Bhadrachalam amidst the stunning Papikondalu' got added to my bucket list. The film has all the standard Sekhar Kammula movie tropes – an educated and well-behaved male lead (played by Sumanth) and a feisty, short tempered and egoistic yet sweet and fragile female lead (played by Kamalinee Mukherjee). The film takes you along with it on a boat ride. The banks of the Godavari river, the fishing nets, the evening Rama puja, the pullatlu, the dog Koti gaadu, the parrot… you're connected to everything on screen. Music by KM Radha Krishnan finds a place in the all-time favourite lists of many people.
Director: Gangaraju Gunnam
What starts off as a story about the life of a young man Bose (Sharwanand) who is unconditionally loved by his mother (Suhasini Maniratnam) but deemed useless by his father, turns into something more than what anyone could have imagined. The story speaks of innocent love, some anxious moments in the form of a bomb in the rocket centre where Bose's father and brother work, sacrifices made by a mother and her son, and a patriotic episode. Despite the movie covering so many different things, it all seems very organic for the most part. The performances are truly moving. The anti-climax and climax make up for satisfying, yet heartbreaking tearjerkers.
Director: Ravi Babu
Gulabi puvvu Govind (a brilliant Ravi Babu), the eyebrowless, coldblooded murderer obsessed with a girl is a character that has left the audience terrorised since he first appeared on screen. The protagonist of the film is Anasuya, played by an excellent Bhumika Chawla. The gritty ambience of the film, the brutal murders and the creepy backstory makes you squirm. I'm always going to be afraid of the beautiful Ye Theega Puvvuno from the classic Maro Charitra, thanks to this movie.
Director: Krish Jagarlamudi
Very few films have exploited the talent of Allari Naresh as an actor. Gaali Seenu is a character that the actor made his own. He plays a thief who accompanies his rich travel companion, initially with the hope that he can get the latter's bike, but later turns into his friend. Gamyam means destination. Abhiram (Sharwanand) is on a journey to find Janaki (Kamalinee Mukherjee) after the two get separated because of a conflict. This soon becomes a journey of self-discovery. The performances, the nativity, and the naxal episode are convincing. The film showcases different people with different attitudes towards life and compels you to rethink yours.
Director: Mohan Krishna Indraganti
The silly confusions that ensue because of a name and how it affects every relationship of the characters is what makes up Ashta Chamma. This comedy of errors (names) begins with Lavanya (Swathi) wanting to marry a guy named Mahesh because she couldn't marry the star bearing the name, and she finally meets a guy with the same name. But, is he really Mahesh? Each revelation brings up new problems and confusions and makes for a laughter riot. Naani as Mahesh/Rambabu and Srinivas Avasarala as Anand steal the show. This movie has a repeat value quality and is one of the best comedies of that decade.
Director: Anand Ranga
A love story between a spoilt rich brat Uday (Siddharth) and an orphan Sandhya (Shamlee) turns into a story of 'Live your life right now' before tragedy beckons. We invest in these characters most of the time and connect with the mood that the filmmaker creates in every scene. The music and the background score pull you into the film. You laugh, you feel the pain, and you cry with the characters.
Director: Srinivas Raga
This psychological thriller set in Araku gives you the chills and thrills through its unexpected twists and captivating performances. Genelia D'Souza, who usually plays bubbly characters, is believable as the mysterious teacher Chitra with psychological problems due to her past. The location in which the film is set adds to the mood that the movie creates. The romantic track between Chitra and Krishna (Arun Adith) doesn't take away from the main plot. The climax twist is one to remember and the performance of Prakash Raj is captivating as always.
Director: Krish Jagarlamudi
Vedam is an anthology that has five tracks, all of which merge into the final hospital episode (inspired by the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai). Each character's personality is established and developed organically. Each track teaches you a life lesson. The journey of each character who is fighting a battle for his/her own life culminates into a tale of rising above for the greater good. The film is visually stunning, the screenplay is gripping and the background score and the songs by MM Keeravani are effective. The performances of Allu Arjun, Anushka Shetty, Manoj Bajpayee, Manchu Manoj, Nagayya and Saranya look effortless.