Sankranti: A Look Back At Telugu Cinema's Biggest Film Festival

We look back at why Sankranti is a time every Telugu movie lover eagerly looks forward to and what it means to the industry and its storytelling
Sankranti: A Look Back At Telugu Cinema's Biggest Film Festival

Sankranti, for years, has remained a time Telugu movie lovers eagerly look forward to because it always brings along a handful of big releases, making it a film festival in every sense. Regardless of the macro factors such as the growing trend of multiplex viewing, and rising disposable incomes, and micro factors such as exposure to world cinema in a certain audience demographic, Sankranti has remained an event for decades now. The festive vibe of the Telugu states in the 2nd and 3rd week of January coupled with a week-long holiday is invigorated by multiple movie releases. From a fiscal viewpoint, consumers possess high spending power during Sankranti, attributed to the harvest, thus making it an ideal time for releasing films.

A 2015 survey estimated that 46 lakh families, representing 62% of Andhra Pradesh's population, are reliant on the agriculture and allied sectors. It's a demographic that cannot be overlooked, and naturally, filmmakers chase a Sankranti release to leverage the festive vibe. Sukumar stated in an interview that he had to spend sleepless nights editing his Nannaku Prematho (2016)and asked his associate to shoot a few scenes so that editing isn't disrupted, to ensure the film's Sankranti release. Beyond the financial viability and a minimum guarantee of the footfalls the festival offers, there is an infectious energy and joy in watching a Sankranti release in a packed single-screen auditorium. The collective experience of laughing, cheering, or knowing that a festive film is bombing, is unlike any other theatre experience.

Over the years, DussehraDiwaliEidChristmasand even Independence Day have metamorphosed into lucrative dates for filmmakers, but the year’s first festival remains the favourite in Telugu-speaking states.

Nagarjuna Akkineni in Naa Saami Ranga
Nagarjuna Akkineni in Naa Saami Ranga

Looking back:

Telugu cinema's love affair with Sankranti dates back to the 50s. For instance, Appu Chesi Pappu Koodu by LV Prasad - the forefather of Telugu cinema - starring NTR and Savitri was a Sankranti release in 1959. 60 years later, the biopic of the NTR, named NTR: Kathanayakudu, was released during the same festival. Telugu cinema has come a long way since. The festival documents change - or the lack of it - over the decades. Although every year is special in its own way, here we look back at how the festival fared for the industry:


The 90s and early 2000s belonged to Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna, Venkatesh, and Nagarjuna. Sankranti seldom marked the absence of one of these stars, and 2000 was not the year. Chiranjeevi’s Annayya by Muthyala Subayya was the second release of the year, and the first festival film, hitting screens on 7th January to leverage an additional week of solo run before Balakrishna's Vamsoddharakudu and Venkatesh’s Kalisundam Raa release a week later. I cannot refrain from sharing this but Annayya is the first film I saw in a theatre. Aged 2.5, although I remember nothing, I can certainly understand where my love for the festival emanates from. 

Chiranjeevi in Annayya
Chiranjeevi in Annayya

Annayya, in addition to being a huge success, is known for bringing Ravi Teja to the limelight and making its star synonymous with the title. Annayya and Kalisundam Raa which starred the late Soundarya and Simran as female leads, respectively, fared well at the ticket counters with both the films utilising their stars’ family-friendly image. However, Vamsoddharakudu tanked without a trace and is long-forgotten, while the other two continue to enjoy re-telecasts and a fair share of love on the internet.


The year's festive season had the same trio of actors clashing at the box office; Chiranjeevi with the grand Gunasekhar-directorial Mrugaraju, Balakrishna with crowd-pulling action-drama, Narasimha Naidu directed by B Gopal, and Venkatesh with Kodi Ramakrishna’s ambitious Devi Putrudu. Contrary to the previous year, Balakrishna’s Narasimha Naidu, which stuck to the age-old revenge template, outdid the other two films at the box office. Perhaps it was a hint for the years to come, that the Telugu audience grappled to digest anything beyond their comfort. Although Narasimha Naidu operates well within its masala zone, it didn’t do anything new, unlike Mrugaraju, which added a masala touch to the man versus wild theme, fitting it into a template that appeals to the masses. Likewise, Devi Putrudu, which banks heavily on fantastical elements, remains one of the most ambitious films made in Telugu and gets a fair share of love through TV. But that SankrantiNarasimha Naidu ruled the roost.


For a change, the only star to arrive in 2002 was again Balakrishna with Seema Simham, another futile entry into the star's filmography. On the other hand, there was a rising star in the block, who would go on to become one of the biggest stars in the Telugu film industry. Mahesh Babu made his Sankranti-debut with Jayant C. Paranjee's western, Takkari Donga, a throwback to the genre his father, Krishna is prominent for. Although the film is far from a blockbuster, it strengthened its star as a bankable ‘mass’ hero. Clashing with two masala biggies was a light romantic-comedy, Nuvvu Leka Nenu Lenu, starring Tarun and the late Arti Agarwal, directed by Y Kasi Viswanath. With the former biggies clearly underperforming at the ticket counters, the little, urban love story was a surprise hit that year. With a small film proving a success amid the masala-heavy festival, 2002 was different.


This year was for the younger breed of actors. Ravi Teja, who had appeared in the 2000-release Annayya was the star of Ee Abbai Chala Manchodu. NTR's grandson, Jr. NTR made his Sankranti debut with Naaga. Meka Srikant and Venu starred in Pellam Oorelithe, and most importantly, the new kid in the block, Mahesh Babu, officially became the ‘mass hero’ with his first bonafide blockbuster, Okkadu directed by Gunasekhar making a solid come-back after his Sankranti failure two years ago.


In 2004, Prabhas, another star on the rise made his Sankranti debut with Varsham, scoring a hit, while the fight was back to the big league stars. Balakrishna’s Lakshmi Narasimha, a remake of the Tamil film Saamy (2003), directed by Jayant C. Paranjee (back from his Takkari Donga failure) was a custom-made film of the festival and was a clear winner. On the other hand, Chiranjeevi-starrer Anji, directed by Kodi Ramakrishna, whose previous film Devi Putrudu was also a commercial failurewas the biggest disappointment of the year. In the making for 3 years, Anji’s failure was such that the producer, Shyam Prasad Reddy, didn’t make a film for the next five years. However, the film won the National award for ‘best special effects’, marking the first for a Telugu film. Likewise, with his eventual entry into politics and break from films, Anji was also the last Chiranjeevi film to release on Sankranti for many years. Furthermore, Balakrishna didn't deliver commercial success for 6 consecutive years after Lakshmi Narasimha. 2004's Sankranti was a culmination of sorts.


This year saw the release of four films: Balu starring Pawan Kalayan, which was released a week before Sankranti, Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana by Prabhudheva, which marked the debut of Siddarth in Telugu, the Jr NTR starrer Naa Alludu and Sumanth's Dhana 51. Balu marked the second collaboration between Pawan Kalyan and A Karunakaran post-Tholi Prema, which was a career-defining film for the actor, and as a result, the film fell short of the gigantic expectations running on it. Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana emerged as a clear winner, thanks to its pleasing nature and a fantastic soundtrack by Devi Sri Prasad that remains a favorite to date. Naa Alladu and Dhana 51 directly joined the long list of forgotten Telugu films. 


Devadasu marked the acting debut of Ram Pothineni and Ileana D’Cruz, clashing with Venkatesh’s Lakshmi, which introduced Nayanthara to Telugu cinema. While the former emerged as a surprise hit, the latter has been immortalised in pop culture and memes, thanks to Brahmanandam’s portrayal as Kolkata Bhai. Moreover, Lakshmi brought actor Sharwanand to prominence.


Allu Arjun making his successful Sankranti debut with Desamudhuru by Puri Jagannadh is perhaps the only remarkable aspect of this year's Sankranti, with Prabhas' Yogi failing to make the desired impact at the box office.


Balakrishna teamed with YVS Chowdhary for Okka Magaadu, which might arguably be the worst film in the actor's filmography in the past two decades but is also one of the worst Telugu films to be ever made. On the other hand, VV Vinayak joined forces with Ravi Teja for the first time for Krishna, a jolly-good entertainer that benefitted big time from an in-form Brahmanandam, thanks to whom the film remains relevant in the form of GIFs and clips.


Kodi Ramakrishna made a solid comeback to his forte, fantasy, with Anushka Shetty starring Arundhathi. The year is remarkable for more than one reason. One, Kodi Ramakrishna won after tasting failure with his previous two Sankranti releases,  Devi Putrudu and Anji. Two, the film establishes Anushka Shetty as the first female star after years. Three, Arundathi remains the only film led by a woman to win Sankranti, a festival all about (male) superstars. On the cinematic front, Arundathi married horror with fantasy, while also abiding by and breaking all the pre-set notions set for a mass movie. Arundathi is a mass movie by all means. The mass here, though, is by the lady. 2009 was, indeed, glorious.


Jr NTR's Adhurs, directed by VV Vinayak has two characters - Chaari played by Jr NTR and Battu played by Brahmanandam - which have remained fan-favourites over the years. Likewise, the Sreenu Vaitla directorial Namo Venkatesha, starring Venkatesh was a safe comedy that couldn't go wrong. On the other hand, Sambho Siva Sambho by Samuthrakani, a remake of his Nadodigal (2009)starring an ensemble cast led by Ravi Teja and including the talents of Allari Naresh, Priyamani, and Siva Balaji, couldn’t achieve the same success of the original. Probably it was too heavy for the audience who wanted light entertainment, which the other two films did.


In 2011, actor Balakrishna starred in yet another horrendous film titled Parama Veera Chakra while Ravi Teja ended up as the clear winner with the safe action entertainer, Mirapakay, directed by Harish Kalyan.


I experienced the Sankranti frenzy for the first time, firsthand with Mahesh Babu's Businessman. The star was reunited with the director who made him a star with Pokkiri (2007), Puri Jagannadh. The expectations were skyrocketing. Converging back to the energy in a theatre I mentioned above, this was it. The long lines outside a single screen. The claps and whistles while entering the auditorium. The energy was infectious. As Naseeruddin Shah rightly says in an interview, "The mob infuses energy". The energy multiplied when coupled with festival vibes. The film becomes a festival. An outright silly film that holds itself in high regard, Businessman, was just the celebration that the audience wanted, and it delivered. Venkatesh's Bodyguard directed by Gopichand Malineni locked horns with Businessman and it couldn't keep up with the latter's hype.


Rivals of the preceding year - Mahesh Babu and Venkatesh - came together to what I’d call the biggest experiment in recent times, Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu by Srikant Addala. Picking up two stars who thrive on mass and placing them in a simplistic setting, where the biggest conflict is not saving a village but proving self-worth was an unusual choice but works supremely well. It is the most melodious and simple a film starring Mahesh Babu can ever get! To balance the lack of mass that year, Ram Charan played a double role in Naayak, a by-the-book Telugu Mass Movie, marking his festival debut. Both the films fared well, with SVSC’s Relangi Mavayya played by Prakash Raj having the last laugh.


B Sukumar’s 1: Nenokkadinestarring Mahesh Babu and Kriti Sanon, introduced the word ‘underrated’ to Telugu cinephiles and the word has been associated with this film more times than any other film. A commercial failure, by all means, the smart masala film was overpowered by the dumb masala film, Yevadu, starring Ram Charan, again.


Venkatesh-Pawan Kalyan-Shreya starrer, Gopala Gopala, becomes the only film of the decade to have a solo Sankranti release, making it the second Sankranti release for Pawan Kalyan after 2006's Balu. The movie faced stiff competition in the form of Shankar’s I, but managed to safely sail through the box-office run.


Sukumar managed to score a success during Sankranti while keeping the smartness intact with Nannaku Prematho starring Jr. NTR and Rakul Preet Singh. Remember Sharwanand, Venkatesh’s younger brother in Lakshmi 10 years ago? He made his festival debut with comedy caper, Express Raja. Isn't it awesome?


The most remarkable Sankranti of this decade is attributed to the return of Chiranjeevi to the big screen with VV Vinayak's Khaidi No. 150 with the title alluding to his 150th film. If things weren't spicy enough, Balakrishna's Gautamiputra Satakarni, marking his 100th film, directed by Krish, released the next day. Unlike in 2002, both films achieved critical and commercial success. Furthermore, Sharwanand's family drama Shatamanam Bhavathi achieved similar success, also winning a National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment Along with the filmmakers, it's the audience who wins when a good film succeeds at the box office. Films are mutually rewarding. However, Head Constable Venkataramaiah starred and directed by R. Narayana Murthy - in whose films the message overpowers the craft and entertainment - went unnoticed amid films that flaunted their entertainment tag. Nevertheless, 2017's Sankranti has to be the most glorious of the 21st century.


2018 might be five years ago but the wounds of Agnyathavasi are still fresh, such was the disappointment. January 10th, 2018 remains an unforgettable date for all the wrong reasons and let's let the past stay as it is.


This was yet another relatively dull year, with the releases hardly bestowing anything off the table, and there isn't much to add to the conversation on a positive note - on both financial and creative fronts. Vinaya Vidheya Rama and NTR: Kathanayakudu bombed at the box office while the makers of F2 laughed their way to the bank. 


Both the releasesSari Leru Neekevvaru, starring Mahesh Babu, and Ala Vaikuntapuramuloo, starring Allu Arjun, fared supremely well.

Both 2021 and 2022 have been pandemic years with the business getting severely affected due to restrictions. Ravi Teja's Krack in 2021 and Nagarjuna's Bangarraju in 2022 were the only films that made some impact at the box-office.


The Sankranti of 2023 was a true return to form for the box-office with Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna locking horns once again with their films, Waltair Veerayya and Veera Simha Reddy. Interestingly, both films were produced by the same production house, Mythri Movie Makers, making it the first of its kind phenomenon.

2024 continues the long-lasting tradition and, in fact, brings back the true Sankranti essence of multiple film releases after four years. This year, six films were announced to have a theatrical release, namely Mahesh Babu's Guntur Kaaram, Venkatesh's Saindhav, Nagarjuna's Naa Sami Ranga, Ravi Teja's Eagle, Vijay Deverakonda's Family Star and Prashanth Varma's HanuMan. However, Family Star got pushed to summer while Eagle stepped away from the race at the behest of other producers to accommodate enough screens for the four films.

Sankranti also comes with its share of business-side conflicts, with the fight between distributors of films for grabbing the most number of screens being a source of constant drama leading up to the release. Last year, the theatre count of Vaarasudu (the Telugu version of Varisu) was highly debated considering there were two big Telugu releases already planned. This year has been no different with the disproportion between the screens allocated to Guntur Kaaram and HanuMan being a topic of debate for trade observers and audiences. It only goes on to corroborate the fact that everything surrounding Sankranti is dramatic and the tradition, along with all the potholes, will never fade away anytime soon.

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