Where are the Telugu girls?’ is a question everyone’s been asking for years now. Since the early years of this millennium, the Telugu film industry has been constantly complaining about the dearth of Telugu speaking, homebred actresses to cast as female leads. Filmmakers have said it is not only hard but also impossible to find them. In 2015, director Teja told the Hyderabad-based English daily The Hans India, “Whenever, I give a casting call, out of 1,000 aspirants, only four to five Telugu girls turn up. Getting a Telugu girl for the project is a pipe dream. Tamil and Kerala girls love to act in films.”
Local girls have been relegated to character roles and often only work with small production houses who find it economically more feasible to hire them
From time immemorial, Telugu speaking actresses have ruled the roost. Think Kanchana Mala (who is hailed as the first lady superstar of cinema), Bhanumathi, Savitri, Shaukar Janaki, Krishna Kumari, Jamuna, Vanisri, Jayasudha, Jayaprada, Jayachitra, Vijayashanti, Jeevitha, Bhanupriya, Rambha, Aamani, Roja, Raasi, Laya and many more. Today our lead actresses are from Mumbai, Chennai, and as is the latest trend, Kerala. Despite giving space to around 25 debutantes every year, very few are Telugu ammayilu.
Local girls have been relegated to character roles and often only work with small production houses who find it economically more feasible to hire them. Take the recent release Tholi Prema where Delhi girl Raashi Khanna plays the lead while local girl Apoorva Srinivasan is seen in a supporting role. In Manasuku Nachindi, Punarnavi Bhupalam has a key role but Mumbai girl Amyra Dastur is the lead.
This is how G. Sriniwas Kumar, a well-known PR professional and co-producer of Taxiwala explains the trend. “Girls from elsewhere generally come in with a great deal of grooming and that’s probably a reason why they are preferred. We just choose to save the time and effort that would be spent on training them,” he says.
Having said that, there have been exceptions. Sriniwas’ film Taxiwala has Priyanka Jawalkar, a girl from Anantapur, in the lead. She will star opposite Vijay Deverakonda. “What can be better than having a Telugu girl saying dialogues in Telugu and acing it?” says Kumar. Recently actresses like Ritu Varma, Anisha Ambrose, Eesha Rebba, Niharika Konidela, Sobhita Dhulipala, Shivani Rajasekhar and Pujita Ponnada have been offered interesting characters too.
The credit goes to major production houses like Geetha Arts, Suresh Productions and Sukumar Writings. “It seemed strange that we rarely see Telugu girls on the big screen and I am glad the trend is picking up again. It can be attributed to the change in mindsets of people, wherein cinema isn’t being seen as a taboo anymore,” says actress Jeevitha, whose daughter Shivani Rajasekhar will debut with the Telugu remake of 2 States, in which she stars opposite Adivi Sesh.
Rahul Sankrityan, the director of Taxiwala, says working with local talent guarantees a better performance
Filmmaker Indraganti Mohana Krishna whose last release Ami Thumihad has Eesha Rebba in the lead, says the change is appreciable, but there’s a long way to go. “Yes, leading production houses are casting them but are the girls being roped in to work with the coveted A-list stars? When that happens, we can celebrate,” he says. “I have worked with girls from both here and outside and I know for a fact that there’s no difference in the talent. If we talk about looks, they are no less beautiful too. I haven’t quite been able to figure why Telugu girls have always been discounted. I am not criticising girls from elsewhere because they are equally talented but I just think more needs to be done for the girls here,” he adds.
Rahul Sankrityan, the director of Taxiwala, says working with local talent guarantees a better performance. “I don’t think no person who has learnt a language can bring to the table what a native speaker can. From understanding nuances of the language to being able to improvise on the spot, there are a lot of advantages of having a Telugu girl in the team. Acting is key but the voice adds to the acting. I feel that when we have a non-Telugu speaking girl, her entire mind is occupied with remembering her dialogues and that can be a limitation when it comes to emoting,” he explains.
Hiring local talent also makes for a smarter business choice. “It’s economical for a medium/low budget film team. We don’t have to spend money on the actress and her entourage’s accommodation.”Priyanka says being Telugu speaking has only worked to her advantage. “When I meet new filmmakers, they tell me that it is very refreshing for them to meet Telugu-speaking girls. And I should confess, though it took me a while to land my debut film, it hasn’t really been a struggle. Everyone kept telling me how being a Telugu-speaking girl could be a disadvantage for me. But I have realised most people appreciate that,” she says.
Actress Eesha Rebba, who’s been part of several successful films like Awe, has a different story to tell. “Everyone seems happy that I am a Telugu girl but that excitement never translates into roles. I’m not being flooded with offers despite all the critical acclaim. But I’d say over the last two years, things have taken a better turn. However, Telugu girls still aren’t the choice for commercial cinema even today,” she says. Pujita Ponnada echoes the sentiment. “The opportunities aren’t unlimited but the situation has definitely become better. But somewhere there still is a sense of hesitation.”
Noted film historian Mamidi Harikrishna, Director of Culture, Government of Telangana, says this problem didn’t occur overnight. “When stories with family subjects were the order of the day in yesteryears, it automatically gave ample scope of performances to the actresses. By the early 80s, around the time Chiranjeevi was slowly rising as a star, it became a trend to see the hero dance and fight like never before. More hero-centric films came in and that’s when the importance of the female lead was reduced to just the damsel in distress or to dance around trees with her hero.”
He elaborates, “As much as I wouldn’t like to generalise, Telugu families are unabashedly conservative. Seeing their own daughters as objects of sex wasn’t something they could appreciate and that’s when you saw the reduction in local talent. That led to the rise of girls from other progressive cities where there was nothing vulgar about skin show.”
Then what does he attribute the reversal to? “All the girls who are in the industry now are 90s kids. Post the modern economic reforms, there has been more exposure and understanding of things for people. Also, as a society, Telugu people have become modern in recent times. This is a result of that,” he adds.
Every other film industry in the south has female stars, who can be called “pakka local”. If Trisha and Samantha have achieved stardom in Tamil, Parvathy and Bhavana have done the same in Malayalam cinema. In Kannada cinema, there are Pranitha Subhash and Rachita Ram. But the Telugu audiences have had quite a long wait to get one of their own. That said, with Shivani Rajasekhar and Priyanka Jawalkar set to make debuts in major films, Anisha Ambrose playing the lead in Tharun Bhascker’s next and Pujita Ponnada bagging a prime role in Sukumar’s Rangasthalam, it looks like change is around the corner.