Notes on Telugu Cinema

I have been regularly watching Telugu movies for the past couple of years (most of these have been 2 or 3-year old movies on DVDs). With that background, I feel I have developed a sense of what to expect every time I watch a new (in my world, “new” means something that I havent watched before as opposed to a newly released movie…)

The Telugu movie industry revolves mostly around stereotypes and set patterns: the college students always have a violent streak, the boss is always stupid, the housewife is always loyal and the parents are always loving.

The most astounding trend I noticed was the way in which a typical Venkatesh movie is structured. The whole process seems to be: think up a few funny social situations involving a couple of people and then think of a suitable plot to wrap these situations in. Of course, it helps if you can bring the whole shazam to a happy ending — the masses still love happy endings ! Malleswari, Vasu, Nuvvu Naku Nacchavu — all outcomes of this process. Most of these films, I am told, have been successful at the box office. All this only seems to feed the belief of film-makers in “the process”.

To digress, this “process” is very reminiscent of the way Hindi movies were structured: the “angry young man” around the Big B in the 70s, the “prankster with a villainous streak” theme around SRK in the mid 90s, the “young man dealing with an old man with a mental block” theme around Amol Palekar and Utpal Chatterjee.

To get back to our story, there is nothing wrong with set patterns if it brings box office success (isnt that a major reason for making movies ?). The only problem I have with it is that it is starting to come in the way of finding out what more can be achieved. There are some brilliant actors today (Kota Srinivasa Rao and Tanikella Bharani to name two) who really have potential for far better roles. It is almost as if the set patterns have choked the artist out of them and reduced them to mere automatons who perform assigned tasks — nothing more, nothing less.

For instance, in Gharshana we get the opportunity to watch Venkatesh in what you would dare to call an “off-beat Telugu movie” (there was nothing off-beat about the movie— the mere fact that it departed from “the process” made it look different, if you get my drift). His failure to carry what would have been a very straight-forward role in ordinary circumstances, was stunning (His theatrics in the climax almost make you feel sad for him and wish he had never taken up this role in the first place. Dr. Rajasekhar Rao has patented this kind of role and a younger version of him, if available, would have carried it off better). Now, Venkatesh did not start off as such a one-dimensional actor. Some of his performances in his earlier movies (Swarnakamalam, Prema, Shatruvu come to mind) were fair, if not great. Somehow, due to a vane in popularity (or due to advancing age ???), he has chosen to carve a niche for himself and settle down. Needless to say, it disappoints me immensely. I do not know if he would have turned out into a great actor, after all. But it does make you wonder what if…what if he had explored himself a little more.

The advent of RamGopal Verma was a bookmark in Telugu cinema. When he started off, he had this peculiar habit of making very mainstream cinema look offbeat (Shiva and Gaayam are prime examples). He was successful because he had the ability to borrow from real life, to make his audience laugh at everyday situations and to scare them with everyday sights and sounds.

But Telegu cinema cheerfully carried on after Verma stopped making movies here. I wonder if there will be a storm wild enough to shake its roots. Every now and then you do get a strong breeze blowing, but that’s about it. I had hoped that the newer generation of directors and producers would bring in fresh ideas and use the medium for their experiments. Sadly, however, what they have brought in is technical finesse. The tone of the movies is still too loud to make any difference in the scene. Maybe, it is us, the so called “masses” who refuse to approve of change. I still believe that its only a matter of someone taking the mantle and giving it a shot. Change is inevitable. We will have to wait and see who takes that proverbial first step.

I am no expert of cinema…I do not understand half of the so-called “classics”. I do believe, though, that good cinema can attract the masses without being too loud.

Lets wait and watch….

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