The Masters of Craft
Tucked away in the corners of YouTube are lessons on Telugu cinema by its greatest churner of Heroes. Giving lessons on how to write perfect Telugu cinema to his ‘students’ — everyone watching the video and his real-life students — is the YouTube channel of one half of Paruchuri Brothers, Paruchuri Gopalakrishna. Titled Paruchuri Palukulu, the set of videos are part lectures on Telugu cinema, part reflections and confessions from his days as a prolific writer. In a few segments he tries to give narrative solutions to latest Telugu releases – both hits and flops.
He’s generous enough to reinforce the idea that he’s not trying to better the screenplay of the film but rather narrate his own version of the same story. His changes. There’s humility and reverence for every hero he speaks of. From NTR, Chiranjeevi, Vijayashanthi, to the younger stars Mahesh Babu, NTR Jr, to even the youngest actors on their path to stardom, such as Nani and Vijay Deverakonda. He usually responds to comments in videos that suggest films that deserve his scrutiny. But in one such instance, he got a crude reminder of the nature of YouTube. Someone commented on the wig he wears for his videos. By YouTube standards the comment was like a refreshing orange juice but to a man of his stature, it was disrespectful. Gopalakrishna is not angry, just disappointed. Like a teacher chiding an errant but brilliant student mingling with the wrong friends, he asks the students to focus more on his lessons than his teacher’s hair and wig.
In almost every video, he proudly displays his “Silver Play Button” memento that YouTube gives to every channel that has over a hundred thousand subscribers, like a master trying to prove that he can fight the battle of a generation that seems to have forgotten his contribution.
I use the phrase unfairly but ‘back in their day’, Paruchuri Brothers (Gopalakrishna and his elder brother Venkateshwara Rao) changed the way cinema was experienced in smaller single screen auditoriums in the Telugu states. Like a snake, Telugu cinema shed many of its skins under their guidance.
Their beginnings in the late 70s and early 80s marked two important shifts in Telugu cinema. Firstly, the black-and-white films which had been boxed and shot mostly in film sets were truly done away with. The new colour films moved into ‘real’ sets: real villages, real homes, real forests, real gardens, landscapes that gave the film world a more relatable character. The move of the sets from the unreal to the real had an impact in the way actors were perceived too. They were no longer magical creatures existing in a black-and-white world with the texture of a proscenium stage but people who with the advent of colour became more real. The greys of the black-and-white cinema became blue skies, red blood, and sapodilla skin of the actors.
Secondly, the older stars such as NTR and ANR were aged and a new wave of stars had come. Actors such as Krishna and Shobhan Babu and Krishnam Raju were ruling the box office. A new generation of younger actors, such as Chiranjeevi, had made their way into the consciousness of the audience. And the first set of second-generation actors, such as NTR’s son Balakrishna had made their way as stars onto the screen.
They wouldn’t know then, but Paruchuri Brothers would be the bridge that connected two generations of actors and more importantly writers who write hero-centric films for these stars and heroes. During the late 80s and 90s, Paruchuri Brothers wrote successful films for the biggest Heroes of Telugu cinema. Directors, producers and actors loved them because there was something different about the scripts and dialogue they wrote. Their protagonists, extraordinary. Their circumstances, extraordinary. And therefore, their dialogues were over the top.
Take this. In a film titled Narasimha Naidu released in 2001, starring Balakrishna, where he plays a political leader forced to go into hiding to protect his people, the most popular dialogue goes like this:
‘Katthulatho Kaadhura, Kantichooputho Champestha.’
(I don’t need knives to kill, the anger in my eyes is enough to do that.)
It’s cheesy. It’s over the top. It’s like biting into a chilli while chewing food. The nose sweats. The tongue cries. But after a few minutes you want more. Watching in a theatre, audience possessed, it is easier to digest this dialogue knowing that on the receiving end, it’s Mukesh Rishi. The movie was a smash hit and made Balakrishna the biggest Hero after Chiranjeevi through the first decade of the twenty-first century.
It wasn’t just the dialogues the Paruchuri Brothers wrote. Admitted by Paruchuri Gopalakrishna himself, it began with something as simple as names of characters. Protagonists’ names changed from meek Venu, Gopis, Radha, Ramu to Banerjee, Suryam, Bharath, Kalidasu, Balagangadhar Tilak and Chakravarthi. Even supporting characters got names such as Shaukhat Ali Khan, Bhuvaneshwari Devi and Dunnapothula Dharma Rao. It’s not a lot to name a character something outrageous. But the names already evoke something different, some unknown that makes the characters unique.
Paruchuri Gopalakrishna constantly emphasises ‘the mood of the auditorium’ or how audience members express the emotions they are supposed to feel. Their protagonists were often angry with a system, particularly the political system, and when the protagonist on screen clashes with a villain, maybe an educated lower-caste student against a cruel upper-caste zamindar, or a helpless police officer against a corrupt politician, the audience isn’t just angry. They want to grind their teeth, clench their fist, tear the silver screen and enter the world that’s been created and beat the villain to pulp. Audience needs to be possessed by emotion. Those are the highs that Paruchuri Brothers wanted to achieve through their writing.
The audience isn’t just supposed to laugh at the plight of a comedian. Whether a young man gets rejected or the comic sidekick of a corrupt politician lands in trouble — you’re not just supposed to laugh but supposed to take home the dialogues they utter. The names and catchphrases of these comedic characters should become part of the lexicon in everyday life. Even the comedy should haunt you, lingering around in conversations.
Like an Andhra meal, through their screenplays, an audience member is not just supposed to taste all the flavours but come out of the experience exhausted from all the extreme flavours. Spice. Sweet. Sour. Savoury. Salty. Pungency. It’s not a good Telugu meal otherwise. And because of Paruchuri Brothers, it’s not a proper Telugu movie otherwise.
The Devotees Who Worship
But Paruchuri Brothers aren’t just ‘film writers’. They’ve written ‘serious’ work. The brothers are playwrights, novel writers, they used to write serialised detective thrillers in magazines. Gopalakrishna also has a PhD on writing in cinema, and yet their best work is in cinema. In his videos Gopalakrishna insists that he and his brother tried to write progressive stories and they got stars and heroes to mouth their leftist ideas — in one film NTR says, ‘Communism is the way forward.’
But to understand Paruchuri Brothers, one has to understand the stars and heroes they helped create. Paruchuri Gopalakrishna speaks about NTR often in his videos and it isn’t just because NTR is his favourite actor. He’s thankful to NTR for launching his career. It’s awe. It’s adoration. It’s devotion.
In a video he calls NTR deivaswaropam – the embodiment of the divine. NTR took the brothers — who were struggling writers in the late 70s — and christened them Paruchuri Brothers, the name that is their identity till date now. The brothers wanted their screen name to be ‘Paruchuri and Paruchuri’ but NTR rejected that and called them Paruchuri Brothers. When the brothers were uneasy with the name, NTR added saying that like the brothers Rama and Lakshmana from the epic Ramayana, their names shall forever be uttered in the same breath. And with that, the name stuck. To Telugu audiences, they could be twins because the brothers are indistinguishable. They enjoy the confusion. Like the squirrel supposedly stroked by Rama, NTR, the man known for playing Rama, marked them forever. They enjoy that anecdote.
This worship is no more apparent when Paruchuri Gopalakrishna talks about the film Naa Desam (My Country). Released in early 1982, it could have been NTR’s last film before his plunge into politics. That was the magnitude of the film. After entertaining Telugu audiences for nearly three decades, NTR was ready for the next phase. Paruchuri Brothers wrote the dialogues for the film and were entrusted with the responsibility of NTR’s apparent farewell to the screen. It wasn’t. He would later act in many films, few while being the Chief Minister but at that moment, it felt like his last. Even the title of the film — Naa Desam — was a hat tip to the political party set up by NTR, Telugu Desam Party, popularly known as TDP. NTR even apparently credited Gopalakrishna by saying that the first few letters in whatever political history he writes were possible because of the young struggling writers who delivered big hits and guided him towards progressive thoughts.
It isn’t just NTR whose career was built on the words of the Paruchuri Brothers. Balakrishna depended on the brothers for two of the biggest hits of his career, Samarasimha Reddy and Narasimha Naidu that would make him popular among young men who would later go on to become his fan and voter base. The Reddy and Naidu surnames in the characters he played would placate the upper castes making him popular with them too.
In his videos, Gopalakrishna speaks about advising NTR Jr too. When he talks about them, they aren’t just ‘other’ heroes or actors, his voice becomes soft like the wet skin inside a tender coconut. They are family. They could be young princes and Gopalakrishna the wise minister who reminds them of their legacy. That’s the way he conducts himself and positions himself.
Even Chiranjeevi, nearly missing nine years of box office action following his political debacle, turned to Paruchuri Brothers. They gave Chiranjeevi the first blockbuster of his career in 1983 with the film Khaidi a Rambo-esque film where an educated lower-caste man takes on the zamindar in his village. In the 2002 film Indra, they bailed him out again after he faced dull hits for a few years.
Sample this dialogue that the protagonist Indra utters after coming back home having lived a saintly life undercover in Kashi.
“Kaashiki Poyadu, Kaashayam manishi aiyipoyadu anukunnara? Varanasilo brathukuthunnadu thana varasa maarchuuntaadu anukunnara? Adhe Raktham. Adhe Pourusham.”
(Did you really think he went to Kashi and became an ascetic? You thought he went to Varanasi and forgot his style? It’s the same blood. It’s the same courage.)
It’s cheesy again. It’s over the top. But it’s something that changed the mood of the auditorium so many years ago. There was also an element of breaking the fourth wall, just like NTR had done in Naa Desam. It was Chiranjeevi telling the audience that they shouldn’t be writing him off because of a few mediocre hits. The audience hadn’t. The film was the kind of hit film that Chiranjeevi needed. The rumours of his political entry began to be heard again. Paruchuri Brothers had saved the ‘box-office king’. Eventually Chiranjeevi would launch his own political party.
And in 2017 when Chiranjeevi made a comeback, to star in the film Khaidi No. 150 (Prisoner No. 150) for his 150th film, it was Paruchuri Brothers who wrote the film. It was a blockbuster. They had saved him. Again.
Even in his next film Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy in 2019, Chiranjeevi’s dream project — to play a freedom fighter along the likes of Bhagat Singh — Paruchuri Brothers offered him the biopic of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, a local chieftain who led a revolt against the British before the First War of Independence. In a post Baahubali Telugu box office world, it didn’t do the numbers as expected, but for now the Hero was back.
The Masons Who Built Heroes
This is the legacy of Paruchuri Brothers. As film writers, they have converted actors into stars, stars into Heroes, and failed politicians into Heroes again. They ensure that second- and third-generation actors protect the legacy of their ancestors. They sneaked in their progressive attitudes when they could. They are trying to survive and reinvent themselves to newer actors who probably find their writing style outdated. But unknown to the new breed, that which needs reinvention is the very framework the brothers set when they entered the industry nearly four decades ago.
And yet they are an aberration purely because of their devotion. How can people so qualified, who revolutionised writing within the film industry, be so devoted to the point where to some it feels like a sacrifice of dignity? Gopalakrishna seems to be bowled over by simple writing suggestions from NTR and Chiranjeevi. Paruchuri Brothers have collectively written over 300 films across decades, the collections of their films probably exceed what most stars have achieved across the country. They’ve written books, fiction and nonfiction; Gopalakrishna has a PhD on cinema, and yet when NTR suggests character consistency or Chiranjeevi asks for brevity in dialogue, their words seem to be the divine mandate for the brothers.
The answer, at least the beginning of one, lay hidden in one of the early videos on Gopalakrishna’s YouTube channel. He tells the story of a mason who is staring at a luxurious and lavish mansion. It’s easily worth around fifteen to twenty crores. The mason with folded arms continues to stare at the mansion until others begin to notice. A passer-by asks the mason why he stares at a mansion he can never think of enjoying. The mason smirks and replies, ‘I built this. It’s mine.’
Gopalakrishna says that there is no otherworldly happiness that matches the satisfaction of that ownership. That’s who Paruchuri Brothers are. They are devotees. They are the masons who built Heroes.