Long before blowing up of white ambassador cars became just another day on the sets of a Telugu movie shoot, and Mirchis and Thupakis inundated our cinema viewing experiences, there were some movies that genuinely acknowledged the intelligence of the viewer. Actresses or female actors rather, were not merely props or aims for some delusional hero’s fruit throwing( yes, I am talking about you Mr. Raghavendra Rao). I do not know when and how nonsensical bloodshed and violence became such an integral part of the fabric of storytelling in Telugu cinema. Normal people or at least most of the people I know do not pick up a sickle, roll up their lungis and set off in their cars to kill people. Agreed that movies can sometimes be not normal and a certain amount of suspension of belief is acceptable, but unfortunately this has become the norm and not an exception. Yet, there is a silver lining. The comedy in Telugu movies is in my humble opinion, the best in Indian cinema at least. I am sure one Brahmanandam can take on anyone and turn them into Jaffas :). Perhaps, the talent of these actors who excel in comedy is what is keeping my faith in Telugu movies alive. And dear Hindi movie viewers whose only knowledge of Telugu cinema is through these intolerable ‘remakes’ and terribly dubbed Set Max movies, please do not blame the ‘south Indian’ film industry for ruining Bollywood. As someone who sees both Telugu and Hindi movies, I can vouch for the fact that these remakes do not do justice to the originals. Hindi cinema does not have the actors who can pull of comedy of that caliber. The reason why a Ready or a Kick were so successful in Telugu was because the sense of humor and sensibilities are very different for a regional audience vis-a-vis a multiplex audience. Unfortunately, these differences are not being thought through well enough when remakes are being doled out by the dozen.
There used to be so much more to Telugu cinema in the 80s and to some extent the 90s. Even well established commercial superstars like Nagarjuna, Venkatesh, Chiranjeevi took risks and made movies that had a purpose and were entertaining. They captured the essence and culture of Andhra Pradesh without unnecessary gimmicks. The movies and characters, irrespective of the story line, were relatable. The music, thanks mostly to Mr. Illayaraja, was exceptional. Do not even get me started on the lyrics. Even as someone who does not understand the vernacular of true Telugu that well, I can still appreciate the thought put into the songs of a Shankarabharnam or Sagara Sangamam. Going by the abysmally low standards of lyrics today, even a 5th grader with a flair for throwing in phrases such as ‘come on baby’ and ‘yeah yeah’ can become a song writer.
There are some directors who are trying to make different cinema even today, but they are a minority whose voices are being crushed by the massive ego tussles of the male stars who want to make a ‘masala’ movie. What the heck is a masala movie? Two chase sequences, one song specially designed to showcase the actor’s dancing skills, a comedy track (even if it does seem relevant to the plot)? I would rather watch one of the movies from the list below than subject myself to these movies. They were masala enough for me!
1. Mayabazar (1957): One of those classics that will remain a perennial household favorite. I actually did not see the complete movie till I was a teenager, but when I did, I thoroughly loved it. This multi-starrer ( NTR, ANR, SV Ranga Rao and Savitri), mythological tale is based on Sasirekha Parinayam – an offshoot story from the Mahabharata. Arjuna’s wife and son – Subhadra and Abhimanyu, go to live in Dwaraka(which happens to be Subhadra’s maternal home) for a while as the Pandavas have been exiled. Balaram’s (Krishna’s brother) daughter Sasirekha, and Abhimanyu are in love with each other and want to get married but, because the Pandava’s do not possess any wealth, Sasirekha’s mother is against the alliance. What follows is a quest by the two lovers to convince everyone and get married. They are helped in this endeavour by Ghatotkacha (played magnificently by SV Ranga Rao), who takes Sasirekha’s form and goes to Dwaraka. There he plays magic tricks on numerous people (creation of a Mayabazar), tries to scare away a potential suitor and eventually helps the young couple to get their happily ever after.
The make up, costumes and visual affects were a massive accomplishment in those days and the movie went on to become a huge success. Ably supported by the stellar cast and a wonderful musical score, I would recommend every Telugu understanding person to watch this movie. Even to this day, I find the innocence and playfulness with which the movie has been directed a breath of fresh air. The song below is a testimony to the late Savitri’s greatness. One of the most beautiful and talented actors to ever grace the screen.
2. Sagara Sangamam (1983) – This one movie never ceases to amaze me. I have seen it dozens of times and I discover something new in every viewing. That is the greatness of its director K. Viswanath and its delightful actors, Kamal Hassan and Jayapradha. Although the broad theme of the movie is based on dance and the way the protagonist reacts whenever life throws him a curve ball, the symbolism used in the movie – especially when Jayapradha realizes that she is falling in love with Kamal Hassan is a testimony to the inimitable vision of the movie’s creator. I cannot imagine anyone else playing the role of Balu. I don’t think this movie can ever be remade simply because no one can match Kamal Hassan in this role. Be it his dancing or his reaction when he loses his mother moments before he is set to travel to Delhi to perform, he captures every emotion beautifully. I literally get goosebumps when I see this movie. Jayapradha epitomizes beauty and grace. She never overacts or underplays her character. She is pitch perfect just like the rest of the movie. Even the light hearted moments in the movie are beautifully woven into the story line without interrupting the proceedings in any way. The ‘bhangima’ joke scene still remains a wonderful piece of comedy. There is no point in giving away the plot of this movie because this movie has to be seen to realize its true impact. Perhaps, one of the greatest movies ever made in any language. The song below will go down in Telugu cinema history as the best ever in terms of composition, choreography and picturization.
3. Chantabbai (1986) – The name Jandhyala is not strange to any Telugu household. Considered a pioneering force in the Telugu movie industry, especially when it came to the way comedy was dealt with, this movie directed by him is in my humble opinion one of Chiranjeevi’s best performances. Playing a character similar in lines to Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series (although perhaps not as exaggerated and dumb), Chiranjeevi helps the movie’s female lead – Jwala, played by Suhasini turn around a wrongful accusation. Subsequently, he is hired to investigate a case of a missing son and this forms the rest of the movie. The movie’s standout – the brilliant Srilakshmi who till date remains one of the best female comedians in Telugu cinema. The brilliant writing by Jandhyala that enhanced the appeal of the situation based comedy is a learning lesson for every budding writer.
4. Swarnakamalam (1988) – Another gem of a movie directed by K. Viswanath, this movie traces the struggles and ambitions of a young Kuchipudi dancer as she first fails to see any possible growth in a career as a classical dancer but later sees the merit in pursuing it and becomes devoted to her art. Played wonderfully by Bhanupriya who dances like a dream, this movie holds a special place in my heart because I myself learnt Kuchipudi dance and always wrestled with the fact that it was not considered popular or cool enough to perform vis-a-vis the usual movie dance numbers. The thinking of a modern day woman who is culturally inclined to learn the dance but yet is unsure about what she wants to do with her life is a theme that is relevant on so many levels even today but has never been captured as beautifully as in this movie. Helping the protagonist out in this journey is a young painter played brilliantly again by Venkatesh who not only supports her dreams but also makes her realize her true potential and the value in being devoted to one’s craft.
5. Siva (1989) – – A movie that several current directors cite as one of their favorites and a trendsetting one when it first released, Siva captured the essence of college politics better than any other movie. A tricky topic, especially in the 80s, the movie directed by Ram Gopal Varma and starring Nagarjuna, Amala and Chakravarthy went on to become a massive hit. But more than the box office numbers, the movie established RGV and Nagarjuna as forces to reckon with in the Telugu film industry. Written by Telugu cinema legend, Tanikella Bharani, the movie is set around Siva, who is shows as reticent and shy in the beginning when he joins college. JD played by Chakravarthy is a student leader in the college who has links with goons on the outside and with their support he practically threatens everyone on campus and gets away with it. On one particular ocassion, Siva happens to retaliate to JD’s behavior, chasing him around the campus with a bicycle chain in what proves to be the defining moment in the movie. This scene is often considered a classic symbolism of the common man finally reacting to injustice. Siva’s friends urge him to stand for student president in the upcoming election but Siva hesitates, instead asking his more upright friend to do so. What follows next is a riveting tale of political maneuvering. The understated performance by Nagarjuna coupled with the brilliant performances from the support cast made this movie a massive success across three languages – Telugu, Hindi and Tamil. Special mention also to the soundtrack by Illayaraja. I love the song below.
6. Aditya 369 (1991) – One of my fondest memories of watching a Telugu movie during my childhood can be credited to this wonderful science fiction movie about time travel(yes, you read it right, we made science fiction films). Although the theme may not sound very innovative, for an Indian audience this movie was a big shift from the usual family dramas. Starring Balakrishna, a young Tarun and Tinu Anand who turns in a delightful performance as the absent minded scientist who designs a machine than can take men back and forth in time, this movie was a huge success when it first released. Accidentally, the male and female protagonists get transported back into the era of Sri Krishna Deva Raya and how they navigate themselves through those times makes for fascinating viewing. Amidst all this is the main story – keeping a precious diamond away from the evil designs of Raja Verma played by Amrish Puri. From the constumes to the sets, everything was ahead of its time and we are talking about 1991 here when computer graphics were in the nascent stages. Directed deftly by Singeetham Srinivas Rao and ably supported by music from Illayaraja, Aditya 369 remains one of my most favorite Telugu movies.
7. Kshana Kshanam (1991) – Long before Ram Gopal Varma turned into a weird camera angle/deafening background music lover, he used to be a brilliant director. Be it Shiva, Gaayam or even Govinda Govinda – he knew how to make off beat films without compromising on the commercial aspects. My favorite of his lot of work from Telugu cinema though is Kshana Kshanam. Starring Venkatesh and then reigning superstar Sridevi, this movie has everything – great performances, music, comedy, action, suspense and none of it is forcibly inserted for the heck of it. The story is one of co-incidences and mistaken identities. Sridevi innocently comes in the possession of some money that has been robbed and belongs to a goon played brilliantly by Paresh Rawal. There is also an accidental murder that takes place in her house that ultimately causes her to panic and run.Caught in the line of fire between the mobs and the police, she is accompanies by a good natured small time crook played by Venkatesh. What follows is a series of adventures between the various stakeholders that has been treated with technical brilliance by the director. The highlight of the movie – Sridevi’s performance and Paresh Rawal’s characterization. Although I am not a Sridevi fan, even I had to give it to her for playing her part so well. It is a timeless movie. The theme and style are unique even 20 years after it was first made – a rare quality for any movie.
8. Nuvvu Naku Nachav (2001) – If I were marooned on an island and had the option to take just one movie with me, it would definitely be Nuvvu Naku Nachav. One of the most funniest movies I have ever seen, this delightful rom-com, if I had to slot it into a genre, does not fail to make me smile even after having seen it tens of time already. The real hero of this movie is the dialogue written by Trivikram Srinivas. The back and forth banter between the characters played by Venkatesh and Prakash Raj and the subtle humor are a refreshing change from the over-the-top/slapstick humor that is shoved down our throats thanks to people like Sajid Khan and Rohit Shetty. The story is quite simple. Venkatesh plays Venky, a slacker from a small town who on his father’s behest ends up in Prakash Raj’s house. There he runs into his two daughters – he falls in love with one and forms a friendship with the younger one. Unfortunately, Aarti Agarwal who plays the female lead is already engaged and Venky feels like it would be unfair on his part to betray the trust shown by Prakash Raj and instead urges his ladylove to forget about him. Nothing path breaking here one might say, but what a difference smart writing can make. The interactions between all the characters play out brilliantly and although the second half of the movie is a tad bit more serious than the first, the breezy tone of the movie is not lost thanks to Brahmanadam and Venkatesh. There are so many epic scenes in this movie but let me be more cliched here and share one of my most favorite scenes EVER.
This list is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. Given the rich heritage of Telugu cinema there surely must be several other gems that I might have missed out on. Especially from the more recent decades. But, these movies to me remain the most definitive ones. They have a unique quality to them that differentiates them from the numerous others. They were original, creative and honest works. Three qualities we desperately need in today’s cinema!