For a brief moment this year, things were sort of looking up for Bollywood. Big ticket films that were stuck last year — Sooryavanshi, 83, Radhe — made grand comeback announcements. And a few films like Saina, Roohi, and Mumbai Saga, got theatrical releases, though none of them made any notable impact. In fact, social media timelines had photos of movie critics sitting alone in empty movie theatres. Cut to last Friday, when the country was well into the grips of the deadly second wave, we saw hordes of fans thronging theatres in Andhra and Telangana to watch Power Star Pawan Kalyan's latest, Vakeel Saab. Videos from inside the theatre showed carefree (and careless) fans dancing on their seats. You'd never guess there's a pandemic raging outside. (Pawan Kalyan announced that he tested positive for Covid-19 yesterday.) When you juxtapose these images, along with the glowing box office reports of Vakeel Saab, with news of theatres and film shoots being shut in other parts of the country, you can't help but wonder, 'What is this alternate universe that the Telugu industry lives in?'
Vakeel Saab is the fourth massive hit to emerge from the Telugu industry since January. What set it off was Ravi Teja-starrer Krack, which was the first big film to brave the theatres after 2020's total shutdown. Even with fifty percent capacity in theatres, the film earned around ₹12.5 crore worldwide on its first day, which signalled to producers that there was a massive audience out there hungry for entertainment. By the time the other hits, Uppena and Jathi Ratnalu, came along, theatres were operating at full capacity.
"There is no doubt that the Telugu industry is number one in the country at the moment. The numbers these films have done are amazing even for non- Covid times," says trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai. He adds that while the Tamil industry too has seen successes in Karnan and Master, those can be attributed to its stars Dhanush and Vijay. None of the other films stuck. Rajkumar Akella, Managing Director, Comscore Theatrical, says that the Telugu industry's spectacular return to form is an anomaly not just in India but even worldwide. Every other week, we hear news of a US theatre chain biting the dust. In Andhra and Telangana, hundreds of single screen theatres have been brought back from the jaws of death thanks to these back-to-back box office hits.
So what's the secret to this success? The truth is, no one knows for sure. Jathi Ratnalu is a mid-sized film, by a relatively new director (Anudeep KV), and fronted by an upcoming talent (Naveen Polishetty). Uppena, too, may have had Vijay Sethupathi as the antagonist, but was led by a newcomer (Panja Vaisshnav Tej). None of these were guaranteed blockbusters. The industry is both reassured and bewildered by their box office collections. "To be honest, I was very skeptical about whether the audience will step out and embrace films because there is always the fear of falling sick. But I was surprised. It could have gone either way. We are very happy to see what is happening, but it's also a little confusing," says Shobu Yarlagadda of Arka Media Works (producers of Baahubali).
Filmmaker Nag Ashwin (Mahanati), who produced Jathi Ratnalu, was warned against opting for a theatrical release, but he was insistent that the comedy film deserved communal viewing, especially now. He desperately wanted to give people a reason to laugh. The film was a staggering success not just in its own state but also collected a million dollars in the overseas market. "I thought that even if only a 100 people came to watch the movie, I wanted them to laugh together. Didn't matter if we lost a little money in the process. To begin with, we just wanted to break even. I took a month off from everything and we were looking at marketing plans, analytics, what demographic to target… I just went all out and I think that really helped," says Ashwin.
It's not just Ashwin, the industry as a whole has been rather faithful to theatrical releases. In every other industry we saw major star-led films go the OTT route (Suriya's Soorarai Pottru, Varun Dhawan's Coolie No 1, Akshay Kumar's Laxmmii, Fahadh Faasil's CU Soon) but no one from Telugu caved in. In fact, films like Uppena and Krack, requested their streaming partners to hold off on the digital release, because they were performing well in the theatres. Pillai notes that the Telugu industry has "a well-entrenched" system where the stars come from powerful families that also control distribution and own theatres, and therefore, will always remain resolute in nurturing the big screen experience.
Around this time, last year when Film Companion spoke to Yarlagadda, he was concerned about having to let people go from his company since there were no certain timelines on when the movie industry would be up and running. Today, his problems are quite the opposite. "Film production is in full swing. There is anything between 80-100 shoots going on. Everyone is busy from the light boy to the writers and directors. In fact, now, we can't find people from production because everyone is so busy. One of our art directors left our show and we couldn't find a replacement for long!," he says.
Film production has picked up pace in all industries. But Bollywood has been constantly hobbled by rising Covid cases in key territories, pushing back releases once again, and lead actors falling prey to the virus, throwing production schedules out of whack. The industry caters to a larger audience, so even if a handful of territories are badly-hit with cases, releases can't happen. On the other hand, the Telugu industry gets almost all their revenue from their own states, and are therefore unaffected by the restrictions in key regions like Maharashtra and Delhi. That said, big ticket releases in April like Sekhar Kammula's Love Story, starring Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi, and Virata Parvam with Rana Daggubati have been called off for now. But this time around, the panic is less. They now know that whenever they're back, there is a loyal and committed audience waiting to welcome them. To have this certainty in the movie business, is nothing short of a superpower.