In the first part of this series, we had discussed the unique subjects, gender equality and in-depth characterisation one could find in the path-breaking films of the 80’s. And when one compares those films to the films being made now, we need to also analyse other aspects of filmmaking to understand if films were more progressive then than they are now, with ‘more’ being the keyword.
It is the way of art to push boundaries. As far as avant-garde cinema goes, the Telugu film industry has not had a renaissance to speak of. Even when the films we have so far discussed were being released, there was an equal, if not bigger share of terrible films being made. It’s when we consider this that we truly understand the eminence of directors such as Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Bapu-Ramana, and Vishwanath.
The same applies to Ram Gopal Varma—his debut film started a visual revolution—and Vamsy who came earlier. Even with its many imperfections, EVV’s Jamba Lakidi Pamba (1993) too was revolutionary in the way it tries to deal with gender politics.
Singeetham’s filmography, in particular, has been all about cinema that’s different and exploratory. He managed to successfully do so by keeping things real and relatable. While everything else about his films is edgy and new, his characters stayed human—imperfect, inconsistent and insecure. This is one of the many reasons his Pushpaka Vimanam(1987) was/is a triumph. A silent movie about people with the ability to speak never feels odd or forced because the film creates situations in which words aren’t normally spoken.
The same sentiment extends to his other films like Bhairava Dweepam(1994)—a fantasy that is about love and family, Mayuri(1985)—a biography and an aspirational tale of a dancer, and Madam(1993)—a satirical comedy that compares how different life is for a man and a woman.
It’s impossible not to include the man whose debut film is Siva(1989).
Varma was/is a visionary who made the pursuit of cinema feel excitable and sacred for aspiring artistes. With KshanaKshanam(1991) and Govindha Govindha(1993), he introduced road cinema and noir to Telugu filmgoers. These films have a slice-of-life quality that even films of today are unable to replicate.
He produced the first Telugu trilogy, if not the first Indian, with the Money series. He revamped the horror genre too with films like Ratri (1992) and Deyyam (1996). Superficial details aside, his films were technical masterpieces with superbly written characters—every role Paresh Rawal played for instance—and comedy—mostly situational, but phenomenal. One isn’t sure if Telugu cinema has been able to recreate a similar wave of experimental cinema since 2000, with exceptions being a rare film like Chandra Sekhar Yeleti’s Anukokund Oka Roju (2005), a true blue neo-noir with impeccable screenplay and actors.
We’ve also had Eega (2012) and 1 – Nenokkadine (2014), that are more innovative in its technique as opposed to being novel in the cinematic sense. When I talked to Mohan Krishna Indraganti about this, he said, “Telling interesting stories has fascinated me more than my personal agenda as a filmmaker. I never set out to make Grahanam expecting it to be ‘artistic’. It’s a great story and I wanted to tell it. I don’t believe in ‘art cinema’. Cinema is art, that’s all.”
A film that insists on telling rather than showing is a film that has failed the medium. If one has a visual platform, shouldn’t one be using it? The aforementioned filmmakers have all made technically brilliant films—some of Vishwanath’s frames are paintings in motion. Bapu enriches his frames with symbolism and his narratives with literary allegories—the way he uses mythology to create context for social commentary is a great example of subtext and layering.
The same goes to K. Balachander and his style of sensory cinema. But technical aspects like camera movements, lighting, and sound became visibly pronounced with filmmakers like Vamsy and RGV.
If I am to discuss Vamsy’s divisive career, it has to be through Anveshana(1985), a psychological thriller. I remember watching it as a child (though it released before I was born). The sound of anklets and birds used in the film continue to haunt me even today. What’s equally impressive is its use of camera and sound to create an atmospheric experience. The voyeuristic tracking shots keep you on the edge, while the affecting close-ups and sound design induce anxiety. Even though he made remarkable films in other genres—Maharshi(1988), Sitaara(1984), and Ladies Tailor(1985), his most discussed work was the high-stakes April 1 Vidudala(1990)—a dark comedy/thriller which uses lighting masterfully to flesh out the suspense in the climax chase. Despite the access to state-of-the-art technology and world cinema classics, why don’t our present films reflect such advancements?
No Laughing Matter
While laughter is a big part of entertainment, one doesn’t find many new milestones in the comedy genre either. Among the yesteryear filmmakers, Jandhyala knew how to write comedy that’s intelligent and observant, without actively using a character as the punching bag. His films, Aha Naa Pellanta(1987) and Chantabbai(1986) still manage to make one laugh out loud because they are mostly situational and behavioural, with generous doses of irony and sarcasm.
Compare that to the comedy we see today in the name of entertainment and it often spells trouble. Films today constantly rely on body shaming and sexual innuendos to elicit laughter. Making fun of one’s skin tone or sexual orientation, and at times, physical handicap too, isn’t uncommon.
Mohan Krishna, one among the current filmmakers whose comedy stays above the belt, said, “Ashta Chamma is another Grahanam for me. Just because it’s ‘entertaining’ doesn’t take away the artistic side of it. It’s a different genre. That’s all. The problem is that critics don’t take comedies as serious works of art. They think because it’s funny, it is frivolous. But the most serious social commentary can be comedies.”
Blame The Audience
What we often hear when discussing the state of affairs is directors blaming the audience. Only a particular kind of films work in the market, they say. Yet our industry has repeatedly contradicted this statement. Could anyone have imagined a horror fantasy, that too with a female lead like Arundhathi (2009) would become the blockbuster it did? It’s the same with Sankarabharanam (1980) as well. The film’s critical acclaim and its successful round at international film festivals didn’t stop it from becoming the most popular film of that year.
When I asked Rahul Ramakrishna, the journalist turned actor, if audiences were to be blamed, he said, “The French new wave happened because of Goddard and Truffaut and the invention of the jump cut. They weren’t pandering to the community; rather, they gave the world an entirely new brand of film. So how does an audience determine what kinds of films are being made?”
Even if we’re told that the audiences define the trend, it does not explain the fact that production houses are still the gatekeepers, doing most of the decision-making. If such companies control distribution channels and theatres, with the power to decide what the viewer watches, then isn’t this excuse as illusion?
None of this is to say that there aren’t any good filmmakers out there. With films like Baahubali(2015) and C/o Kancharapalem(2018) winning hearts all over the world, things are looking up. Even escapism needs to be provided with sincerity…if a man watches a film to forget his worries, doesn’t it become the filmmaker’s responsibility to grant him that escape instead of the same film week in and week out? At times, one wishes they’d listened a bit more keenly to the old masters that built Telugu cinema.