It seems like India has woken up to Telugu cinema after the Baahubali phenomenon. Being Telugu, raised in multi-cultural pockets of Secunderabad and Hyderabad, one was all too aware and ready to swoon over Hindi movies. I vividly remember the opening Hrithik Roshan's debut movie Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai got in local theatres. I still believe 'pyaar dosti hai', don't dispute me on this. As a child, I assumed everyone watches movies of 'all languages'. 'All languages' for my 8-year-old self comprised: Hindi, Telugu and English.
However, upon growing up I realised national media doesn't care much for regional cinema or stars. Every time Hyderabad was mentioned in the national dailies, it would be called 'The Laidback City' or 'The City of Nawabs'. The buck stopped there. There was no mention of Telugu cinema or our actors. It seemed like there was an entire world I was witnessing that just wasn't acknowledged up north of the state like the way we celebrate Hindi cinema down south. When Telugu actresses were mentioned they'd always be labelled 'The Sexy Siren' or the 'Dusky Beauty' or whatever alternate euphemism the writers could come up with. If Telugu in general was not being acknowledged, it was a far cry to expect the Telangana dialect to be recognised. Especially when our own cinema did such grave injustice to the dialect.
A majority of Telugu cinema is produced and made by filmmakers hailing from Andhra Pradesh. While the industry itself is situated in Hyderabad (now in Telangana), films rarely showcased characters hailing from the region. If they did, they were limited to stereotypical loud-mouthed women, the villain's henchmen, or a poor person whose caste and class was made extremely clear. These people often surrounded the fairer, Andhra-speaking 'hero' and expected him to be their saviour.
I remember character artistes like the late 'Telangana' Shakuntala and Venu Madhav frequently cast in roles that were clearly from the Telangana region, but were of either too little significance in the movie or negative.
After the two Telugu states were bifurcated, one did see main characters speak the dialect but it felt like it was put in only for those 'whistle moments' in the theatres. It felt engineered and fake. In some other instances, actors who spoke the Andhra dialect were cast in Telangana-centric roles, where cringe would be an understatement to describe their performances.
You may ask, why is a simple dialect such a fuss? Isn't it just a local dialect? How does it matter in the larger scheme of things? One word: representation.
Growing up, I would always be around friends who spoke the Telangana dialect fluently but would switch to an Andhra dialect when the situation demanded. This was because the Andhra dialect was often propagated as the more polished, formal way of speaking. One time in class, my Telugu teacher mocked me for speaking in the Telangana dialect. Nothing particularly demeaning, but as a young impressionable child, you don't want to be mocked. And so I switched. I switched to speaking, thinking and writing in English to express myself. The alienation happened so rapidly that, after a point, I couldn't speak a full sentence in Telugu without stammering or searching for words.
I have seen my mom, family members and friends switch to the Andhra dialect while speaking with officials or anybody outside of our family. I have seen celebrities with roots in the region switch to the Andhra dialect while on camera and switching back when they're off camera. I've also been corrected on multiple occasions for the way I speak in the dialect, a way that sounds 'wrong' or 'crass' in the Andhra version. It is widely considered that our dialect is the lesser one. This could also be because of the influence of caste and class (Telangana farmers are traditionally poorer as compared to their Andhra counterparts on the lush coastline).
When you grow up in an environment that ostracises the very language you speak, watching movies like Pellichoopulu (2016), Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018), Fidaa (2017), 'Ramula' from Pitta Kathalu (2020) or, the latest, Jathi Ratnalu (2021) feels like a breath of fresh air. The writing and treatment of the characters feels pleasantly authentic: we're not a trope or a comedy track anymore. The women in the movies, just like women I've grown up around, are strong, level-headed and unafraid to tell someone off when annoyed.
To that degree, film makers like Sekhar Kammula, Tharun Bhascker and KV Anudeep have done such a beautiful job in portraying the Telangana culture the way it is. Witnessing the leads in a movie representing your language, culture and milieu helps kids like me appreciate my culture. Especially when people of my generation and the next are on the brink of side-lining or, worse, forgetting our language entirely, movies representing us brings us back to celebrating our roots. What's more, it makes for raw, authentic and truly good cinema that's representative of an entire state.