Readers Write In #458: Telugu cinema is having a dream run, and Indian cinema needs it now more than ever

Posted on April 14, 2022


By Alex John

Telugu cinema is having a dream run, and Indian cinema needs it now more than ever. Okay, no claims of prophecy here, as I wrote this article in the “Reader’s write in” (link (1) below) about how Telugu cinema is going to spread its wings only after the roaring success of ‘Bahubali: the conclusion’ all over India, and the strange acceptance the extremely ‘south-ish’ ‘KGF’ got in the north. Yet, there was an air of reluctance, an almost snobbish indifference about the overwhelmingly ‘desi’ Telugu cinema invading Indian cinema, among the ‘lovers of good cinema’. I concluded the aforementioned article by saying ‘” maybe Tollywood is destined to carry on with our ‘spice-cinema legacy’. Maybe it’s filmmakers are going to keep our ‘masala cinema’ culture alive, and make the world pay attention to it, again. May be it’s their turn to make us fall in love with the DDLJ-brand of cinema all over again”. The handful of comments under this article expressed concerns over us going back to that ‘artless’ era of songs and dances. Like, is this trend going to hurt our elevated cinematic sensibilities? Will these films impede our progress into being a nation producing great films? 

Well, this is happening. Telugu films are on a roll all over the country. A hitherto unknown director is competing with Hollywood in terms of scale and box office returns. Hitherto unknown actors like Prabhas and Allu Arjun have become overnight stars all over India. Bollywood is rapidly taking the back seat when it comes to the pan Indian appeal of films. Is this because the Telugu industry went back to the era of songs and dances? Not at all, because that era never went anywhere. It was always with us like an “embarrassment in the closet”. Telugu cinema just re-invented it. Or I would say they just…refurbished it. Look at what Allu Arjun has been doing for the last. say, 5 years. He has been doing what Hrithik Roshan has been doing half-heartedly for years. Both are terrific entertainers; both of them dance their hearts out, but it is obvious that Hrithik carefully chooses films that cater to the corners of Western sensibility in India. Allu Arjun, on the other hand, danced his way into being one of the biggest matinee idols of the south. It was just a matter of time before Bollywood realized the difference in the attitudes of these huge stars, and when it did, it resulted in an almost unknown movie star’s film being treated at par with one of the northern superstars’ films (Parallels to this can be drawn with the sudden rise of Kamal Hassan in the north when that one-man industry called Amitabh Bachchan started to dwindle and the other stars were trying too hard to be hip, on and off screen-a trend that continued until Aamir Khan came up with the latest version of Romeo and Juliet at that time). 

Apologies if I am boring you with my previous articles in this section, but in my first write-up posted here (link (2) below) I tried to make a point on how film industries can go down the chute if its directors unyieldingly insist on giving its audience the kind of films they love to make, instead of the kind of films its audience wants. I brought up the rather dispiriting examples of the film industries from Europe to West Bengal to highlight this point. Now, I am not trying to say Bollywood has gone as far as the neonoir era Italy to almost completely alienate its viewers, but its films these days are drifting away from its non-metro filmgoers. Its male and female superstars appeal mostly to the urban viewers and their predilections. What once were considered the quintessence of Indian cinema is now more less embarrasses our filmmakers. Bhojpuri film industry, which was once considered to be an upcoming contender for the dominance in the rural areas of the north didn’t quite stick mainly due to its heavily amateurish approach to filmmaking. Now, what about our regional industries? Tamil cinema once used to lead the southern cinema, but is now stuck in the purgatory between spice-films and its almost sickening political-launch pad movies. There was a time when I was spending more days in cinemas those played Tamil movies than in classrooms, but sadly, but those days of unapologetic mass-masala Tamil movies seem to be long gone. Malayalam cinema churns out average to great films one after another, but its true acceptance in a national level still seems a very remote prospect. Non-KGF Kannada films are still largely unknown to the outside world, and Yash, for some reason, seems far away from the level of stardom his Telugu counterparts attained in North India, despite being “the KGF actor”. 

Telugu cinema, on the other hand, seems gleefully insulated from the maddening outside world of excessive political correctness and movie woke-ism. It relentlessly runs its mass-market move machine that spits out rambunctious action-dramas those seldom care about the new-world sensibilities. Is that a good thing? It can be, when you are constantly served with movies that are so extensively politically conscious that they often forget to entertain you. Movies, mainstream or art, are best enjoyable when they are reflective of the society they come out of, not when they are buoyant about it. Telugu cinema epitomizes this in a hammed up, flamboyant fashion. Its movies maybe hyperbolic, but they are rooted in the real world so that an average movie goer doesn’t feel like Alice in Wonderland in a movie hall, and the added spices and gala paradoxically serves the purpose of escaping the very real world the film is rooted in. This brass-necked escapism is what lacking in the other film industries of India, and it is this void that is being occupied by the Telugu cinema all over the country. 

Now, am I a fan of Telugu masala films? Well, I am not. I love mass cinema for sure, but am more enchanted by the Lijo Jose Pellissery school of cinema, where you should pretend not to be surprised when you see two obscure fellows searching for someone obscurer, and in the end, everyone flies off to the effing moon for no effing reason. Yet, it is not hard to see what is happening in our nation’s cinema, no matter you like It or not. I often fantasize myself sitting along with LJP, quoting his famous lines “no plans to change, no plans to impress”; just that I would add this to it; “no plans to change, no plans to impress, but I wouldn’t want my industry to be full of people like me”. Art-house/woke-ish romanticism might make you feel fulfilled, but time has already proved it could be fatal for the very industry you belong to. I felt really irked when superstar films made a comeback in the Malayalam industry after a 2- year hiatus which had led to a flood of great OTT movies, which I thought was a joy kill, but it remains a fact we can’t turn our backs to the reality that no industry can survive on these films for long. We need the extravaganzas that cater to the much larger section of the audience, or you’ll see the industries that can produce such films invading your movie world. Even if you are a lover of cinematic subtleties, you need RRR’s and Pushpa’s for the parallel cinema you love to survive. I wrote this at the risk of sounding snobbish, but I’m just an off-center movie buff who is also very aware of the real world our film industries are set in. I am going ahead and writing what I wrote again; “it might be the turn of the Telugu filmmakers to take us back to that time of more-hearts-than-brains, when entertaining the audience was considered far more important than edifying it”. 

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