Mediocrity has for long been a synonym for the Telugu Film Industry (TFI) with surprises (pleasant ones) being rare to come by. This year, though, has seen a good display of promising cinema, but isn't it discouraging when a cinephile can count the number of them on one hand (two, if I am being generous)? Again, I am not trying to trash the industry, but to me, the biggest surprise of the year was how a stand-up comedian was harassed out of social media by a fan club, just because he compared their superstar to Katrina Kaif.
Anyway, here is a list of surprises that Telugu cinema served its audience in 2018:
Commercial Cinema Realising the Art of Filmmaking and Storytelling
Commercial cinema is what this industry is known for and there is nothing wrong with that. Even though there is no real necessity for its films to be derivative, regressive, and irresponsible, they almost always tend to be. Things started the same way this year too with films like Agnyaathavaasi and Jai Simha. Then came Rangasthalam in March, a complete commercial endeavour—with an item number and a not-so-well-written female lead— but it somehow managed to keep the cinematic experience intact. It maintained a uniform colour palette—mostly reds, greens, and browns—to stay in sync with the setting. It also gave the camera the space it needs to breathe, as opposed to it being a mere video recorder. It was also surprising to know that all Ram Charan needed to actually act was a beard, covering half of his face, and a director like Sukumar.
After the lull created by Bharat Ane Nenu, and Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India, it was time for another surprise in the form of Mahanati. Ashwin's film wasn't commercial per se, but its success most certainly was. It recovered double its budget at the box office and it brought great acclaim to everyone involved. Even though it was criticised for its lack of drama and insight, it was still a highly satisfying experience. Dan So-Lo's cinematography—some of the greatest frames I've ever seen in Telugu cinema—and impressive production value added technical heft to a film that would otherwise have been an exercise in 'heroine' worship.
First Time's the Charm
Now, it's no surprise that Telugu cinema's best content usually comes from small budgeted, independent productions—it has been that way for a while—but this is still an amusing reassurance. Prashanth Varma's Awe paved the way for a kind of cinema that is far from the norm and better for it. It defied genres and questioned reality by bringing together decent writing and great acting. There is a story arc with a magician being trapped in a restroom with a crocodile: it even dips its toe into the world of surrealism. It was gratifying to see a talking fish and a sarcastic tree bringing comic relief instead of random regressive commentary.
The best surprise for a Telugu-speaking cinephile is being able to watch a film that's perfect; a film that we can proudly talk about with our snooty Tamizh peers. Venkatesh Maha's C/o Kancharapalem was that for me. It was humanising and intimate in a way only great art can be. I was dazed right through the film, watching in disbelief the film's utter lack of clichés and stereotypes. Even Phanindra Narsetti's Manu, with its many imperfections, was well-written and masterfully shot.
It's good to know that mediocre writing and budgetary limitations didn't stop Goodachari from reaching for the stars with its technical prowess and style. More than surprising, it was encouraging to see that almost all the good films of this year have been directed/written by first timers or relatively new filmmakers. Call it beginner's luck but this might mean that our next generation is going to have a great time at the movies. And maybe that'd be reparation enough for my generation whose biggest film is one that normalises, glorifies even, the caste system. It is 2018. Surely, the question isn't 'why/how our-hero-king is better than his evil-depthless-brother?' and rather 'why are they our only two options?' I digress.
One of the story arcs in Awe is that of a lesbian couple that sits across a table at a café trying to explain their lifestyle to one of their parents. This was surprising on two accounts: one, that Telugu cinema finally recognised lesbianism and two, that it can be portrayed as coolly as Nithya Menon's Krishna did. We dole out homophobic slur and shameful stereotypes as if we are born to do it, so pardon me if I was holding my breath waiting for something offensive to be hurled at the screen. Thankfully, it did not and it was heartwarming. Awe does this rather skillfully with tough topics like child abuse and grief, all the while trying to give a much-needed understanding of mental illness, which mostly gets laughed at in our films.
Chi La Sow, directed by Rahul Ravindran, tries to take a realistic but educated look at bipolar disorder and how it affects the people who have it and everyone around them. And C/o Kancharapalem gladly follows suit by having a drinking sex worker as one of the leads. The surprise comes along gradually with the way the film never tries to reprimand or reform her. The best way to break a taboo is to not treat it like one and it was encouraging to see a substantial amount of films that chose empathy over everything else.
Women and Cinema
Good surprises first. There has been a welcoming decline in item numbers this year and that's a great sign. Except for the one in Rangasthalam, there aren't any notable tunes that dance to the beats of misogyny. There was also a steady increase in films with well-written female characters—Chi La Sow, Sammohanam, U-Turn, and Bhaagamathie—where consent, career, and unfair standards of beauty were spoken about, in passing, but still. (I may be repeating the same movies, but it's more a reflection of the industry and not me.) Watching the way Anjali's character in Chi La Sow is given the freedom to be a normal human being, warts and all, was liberating. Even the ones that were mediocre in content—Tholi Prema, Happy Wedding, and Srinivasa Kalyanam—had relatively good writing as far as the lead women were concerned.
And then came Trivikram's Aravinda Sametha, an extremely violent movie that preaches non violence. Its lead heroine might not have been an issue but its other actress got a scene where she does yoga with the hero standing behind her rather suggestively. So, it was surprising to see how this film, which thinks romanticising motherhood and a woman's reproductive abilities is all one needs to be feministic, getting praised by critics as being progressive. I understand why it feels like any kind of respect is good respect when you've been deprived of it for so long time, but placing women on a pedestal isn't the solution. Let's have some standards, shall we?
Sexual Harassment is Still Funny.
This one's more a shock than surprise. While people everywhere were busy mending their ways and learning to be better human beings, TFI decided to have a charming actor play a sexual assaulter in Geetha Govindham. The whole film ignores the woman and her state of mind, while also trying to use her predicament to elicit humour. It isn't enough that this film was allowed to exist but it made record-breaking money at the BO, and that's depressing. Something similar happens in Hello Guru Prema Kosame as well. The hero, in the name of "Kakinada pride", decides to pretend to harass a lone woman in the train.
I am told repeatedly that all this is funny. My stomach hurts when I watch this scene but it's not because I was laughing. There is a very thick line that divides romance and harassment but it's baffling to see Telugu cinema continuously failing to spot the difference. Keep in mind that I haven't watched every single film that's released this year, so I am bound to miss many such gems.
When you wait for a film to release expecting it to be great because of the names associated with it, it breaks your heart to be proven otherwise. Tharun Bhascker's Ee Nagariniki Emaindhi was the biggest one this year. It's too light on content to be an engaging film. The protagonist's character and motives for his behaviour aren't established well enough to not be irritated by his presence. And the Dil Chahta Hai/Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara hangover doesn't seem to have helped either. Maybe it was my fault to expect another Pelli Choopulu, but that stung. Something similar happened with Savyasachi. Now, my expectations for the film were strictly limited to Madhavan and even so, the writing betrays the performer in him. I cannot remember the last time I've seen the actor look this clueless in a role.
That said, I was most disappointed to see talented actors not being challenged enough. Even Vijay Devarakonda is more of a brand than an artiste now. Actors with impeccable timing like Vennela Kishore, Rahul Ramakrishna, and Priyadharshi are repeatedly used as props to serve a lazy script. Telugu-speaking actresses still get the shorter end of the stick when it comes to roles and paychecks. Esha Rebba, who dazzled in Awe with her quirky nose-ring and worried eyes, didn't manage to find a good role for the rest of the year.
Traditionalism is Back and How
We are in 2018 but people are still talking about culture and tradition as if it's all roses. The hero, in Happy Wedding, talks about how it is hard for the groom to bring a stranger into his home, hoping that she'd fit in with his family. Here is a man who is trying to convince the woman, who has to leave her family and live with strangers, that he has it just as tough. I mean, I shouldn't be surprised, but I was.
Do not even get me started on the wedding-video-pretending-to-be-a-film-film Srinivasa Kalyanam. A character actually says, "We can't/shouldn't change traditions according to our comforts." Well, why not? In another instance, the bride's father is asked to leave an important meeting to buy the groom wedding clothes, because tradition says so. The whole conflict of the film is that individuality, a healthy dose of selfishness, and practicality are dangerous traits to have because they won't allow traditions to take over our lives. Again, it's 2018.
I'm going to end this piece by giving a shout-out to the only person who's been on brand: Ravi Teja. There is no hope that he is ever going to be a part of another sensible piece of cinema.
It hasn't been that bad a cinematic year, but we have a really long way to go. Yes, change is in the air, but the air still stinks, and it probably will for a while. So, hold on to your masks. Let's hope that the coming year will bring more cheer on screen.