The Telugu film industry resisted change in 2019.
2019 was a little tolerable thanks to Ravi Teja. He did not have a single release this year, making the life of movie-buffs a little easy. Earlier this year, a filmmaker told me that Teja doesn’t like the kind of films that he had been doing, and was contemplating a massive shift in choice of films. 2020 is already beginning to look good.
However, we had to deal with films of Kartikeya Gummakonda, whose sense of good cinema is strongly tied to beefed-up physique, aggressive masculinity and senseless violence. He had three releases this year — Guna 369, Hippi and Gang Leader. And all three had the quality of vanishing from our memories soon after stepping out of theaters.
The steady dose of nonsensical and brain dead films from the Telugu film industry began with two-part NTR biopic, which was an exercise in adulation. As we were recovering from it, we were jolted again by Vinaya Vidheya Rama, and further pushed to the verge of hopelessness by F2 – Fun and Frustration. Things only went downhill from there with Mr. Majnu, 118, Lakshmi’s NTR, and of course, Mahesh Babu’s Maharshi, which was a predictable crowd-pleaser.
As the big star films continued to disappoint, the first half of 2019 was saved by some young minds. Directors Gowtham Tinnanuri’s Jersey, Vivek Athreya’s Brochevarevarura and Swaroop RSJ’s Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya brought in a whiff of fresh air.
The second half, however, was no different. Most-awaited films like Saaho, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Venky Mama disappointed us majorly thanks to the filmmakers’ confidence in formula films. We were also subjected to loud and obnoxious films like iSmart Shankar. Dear Comrade was a pretty decent film. It had an interesting storyline but director Bharath Kamma favoured serving the image of his hero over the solid opportunity the film presented him. So did K. V. R. Mahendra of Dorasani and Sundheer Varam of Ranarangam. These directors squandered good opportunities.
Again, the second half was saved by humble films by young directors, who were not burdened by the responsibility of serving a star image. B. V. Nandini Reddy’s Oh! Baby, Venkat Ramji’s Evaru, Rahul Ravindran’s Manmadhudu 2 and B. Jeevan Reddy’s George Reddy were among the films that managed to entertain us.
Maintaining the status quo
The Telugu film industry resisted change in 2019 as well. It embraced the status quo even strongly this year. Even when its neighbours changed, it decided to hold onto its precious status quo assuming that people would still turn up at theaters and doll out their hard-earned money to see stars do the same thing over and over again. The industry refused to change as it continues to believe in the narrow definition of mainstream entertainment, which invariably involves a star getting on the high horse and infantilizing the audience.
Every filmmaker and actor spoke about how the Telugu film audience has evolved. They said that audience these days expect something “fresh” from the filmmakers. And yet, the filmmakers fell back on the cliches, shrinking the space for innovation and experimentation. They said now the audience appreciates good cinema. But, the same filmmakers assumed that mainstream movies without “commercial elements” were not good cinema. It is so frustrating that our filmmakers continue to assume that they know what the audience wants. And, they seem to not pay attention to the signs that scream “YOU ARE WRONG.” The audience has steadfastly rejected deeply formulaic films of late. And yet, our filmmakers refuse to wake up from deep slumber as they make film after film wrongly assuming that “We know what the audience wants.”
So what do audiences want? Ask Prabhas, he may say “My fans want to see me in a romantic movie.” Reason: His last few films were action-oriented. There is a reason why we use the word “potboiler” while describing most of his movies. Take, for example, Saaho, we see Prabhas wooing his love interest in what is essentially an action film. And we see him send bad guys flying in the air in films that are marketed as “romantic movies.”
And you ask the same question to Ram Charan, he will respond to it with a film like Vinaya Vidheya Rama. Written and directed by Boyapati Srinu, the film was Ram Charan’s unbecoming as an actor. It exhausted all the good karma that he had scored with his performance in Rangasthalam (2018). If you think why he would even consider doing a film like Vinaya Vidheya Rama after a film like Rangasthalam, the answer is simple. He may have assumed that his fans wanted to see him doing his star-thing after enjoying him doing his actor-thing.
Now ask Mahesh Babu why does he think Rangasthalam worked? And he would say “The village backdrop was a big plus for Rangasthalam. So is the political backdrop for Bharat Ane Nenu. It is something new for the audience.” Mahesh seems to believe that one can rehash the same film again and again as long the syntax is different.
So why did Vinaya Vidheya Rama flop? Maybe next time the directors should spend time conceiving solid plot ideas, interesting screenplays, and picking a unique tone, texture and visual style for their films.
Does giving something “fresh” to the audience mean merely changing the setting? Absolutely, not.
Some of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent work lies in mob films. His genius in exploring the world of the mafia was immediately recognized when he made Mean Streets (1973). And 50 years later, we are still celebrating his genius for making a gangster film (The Irishman) with almost the same set of actors he had made his earlier gangster movies. Every time he visits the history of America’s violent streets, he reinvents himself as a director. And by doing so, he raises the bar for the genre. He clearly doesn’t give two hoots about what “audiences want.” He does what he is best at doing. He does what his talent and love for the art of filmmaking inform him to do.
Is it too much to ask our filmmakers to stop assuming what we want and create what they love and enjoy?