Back to the roots for Telugu cinema
Alongside star-studded spectacle films, Telugu cinema is seeing charming small indies winning hearts
Cinema Bandi, streaming on Netflix, is the new Telugu film to have endeared movie buffs. With a tinge of surprise, debut director Praveen Kandregula acknowledges the appreciation the film has been getting from viewers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, apart from Telangana (TS) and Andhra Pradesh (AP).
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In this indie film produced by Raj and DK, villagers in Gollapally village try to make a feature film when one of them chances upon a high-end camera. The village folks become the cast and crew and use indigenous props for filmmaking. Imagine a pushcart in place of a crane, and you get the drift. Their motive — to make a film that will fetch them enough money to solve power, water and infrastructure issues in the hamlet. The cheery film is as local as it can get and has a nearly unknown set of actors speaking Telugu laced with Kannada.
There has been a spurt in Telugu films set in semi-urban or rural backgrounds, written and directed by new storytellers and starring actors who represent native cultures and dialects. Colour Photo (Machilipatnam and nearby villages of Krishna district, AP), Middle Class Melodies (Tenali and Guntur, AP), Mail (Kambalapally, Warangal district, TS), Jathi Ratnalu (Jogipet Sangareddy district, TS), Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya (Araku valley, AP), Raja Vaaru Rani Gaaru (Kapileswarapuram, East Godavari, AP), Palasa 1978 (Palasa, Srikakulam district, AP) and the much-appreciated Care of Kancharapalem (Kancharapalem, Vizag, AP).
These films have been made by emerging writers and directors who either grew up in the regions where the stories are set, or have been acquainted with the regions through close friends. For many of these projects, theatre actors and locals from the respective regions have been roped in to play significant parts.
Telugu cinema is considered larger than life, more so in the post-Baahubali era, but alongside, there is a steadily-growing audience for indie-spirited projects. Pan-Indian projects are on the anvil starring Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Allu Arjun and Vijay Deverakonda. Director Rajamouli’s RRR starring Ram Charan, NTR, Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn is the most anticipated of them all.
Alongside, there’s a growing audience for indie-spirited projects. Uday, whose Mail has been selected for the New York Indian Film Festival, attributes this change to Internet penetration and blurring of language barriers: “Until there are a couple of hits, producers hesitate to back offbeat projects. Initially, when I pitched Mail to a few producers, there were suggestions to include an item number. Later, I got lucky to find Swapna Dutt, who understood what this story needed.”
Mail is the story of Kambalapally in Telangana warming up to email in the mid-2000s, and Uday says the narrative style was inspired by Iranian cinema he watched during college days: “I liked how Iranian films with simple storylines were narrated in a realistic manner.”
Contemporary Malayalam cinema often hogs the limelight for its hard-hitting storylines representing different regions, cultures and social strata, followed by Tamil cinema. Emerging Telugu filmmakers have taken a cue from this. In addition to this unmistakable inspiration, there is also a throwback to fuss-free and endearing Telugu cinema of the 1980s — films of Bapu, Jandhyala and those starring Rajendra Prasad, for example.
“We have always had good small films in Telugu. Even a decade ago, films like Anand and Aithe fared well in theatres. What’s happening now is a resurgence and the quick appreciation is thanks to digital platforms,” says Praveen. He points out that Hyderabad hasn’t had a consistent, annual film festival that introduces viewers to new genres and perspectives, and to an extent, digital platforms have helped filled that void.
Venkatesh Maha, whose Care of Kancharapalem (2018) was a trendsetter for the hyper-local setting of a story, points out that the diversity in these semi-urban/ rural stories makes them appealing to viewers: “I was overwhelmed with the response to CoK and felt confident that it would encourage more directors to put forth realistic stories.Mail, Middle Class Melodies, UMUR and Cinema Bandi are different from each other in the stories and cultural milieu. Filmmakers with new voices have so far evaded the trap of predictability.”
These emerging filmmakers emphasise that they are also keen to explore urban stories, so as to not get monotonous.
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