Following experts adapted from a recent essay written by the author to Frontline India, a fortnightly English magazine from the stable of The Hindu, has been a distinguished presence in the media world since 1984.
On the face of it, these are the best of times for Telugu cinema. A series of hits showcased the creative talent and economic muscle of the industry. International newspapers, which barely acknowledged the existence of Telugu cinema in the past, carried full-length stories on Telugu films. Videos of kids dancing to Telugu songs have gone viral. Both RRR and the Baahubali franchise had white, Anglo-Saxon fans promoting them. And no less a star than Kangana Ranaut went on record saying that Bollywood had much to learn from Telugu, “the number one film industry in India”. In the words of Ram Gopal Varma: “Telugu is the new Hindi.”
Telugu films, in their Hindi dubbed versions, have been circulating in increasing numbers for well over a decade now. However, for most viewers and commentators of Hindi cinema, they were indistinguishable from other “south films”.
The image makeover of Telugu cinema began with, and was facilitated by, the success of Baahubali: The Conclusion. Complementing the awe-inspiring Telugu blockbuster was a trickle of films made on modest budgets, like C/O Kancharapalem, which had a short theatrical run but a long afterlife on OTT platforms. During the nationwide lockdown, there were notable direct-to-OTT releases produced in Telugu, including the action thriller V. The post-lockdown successes are, of course, the stuff of legend.
Beyond the ballyhoo
Scratch the surface—or scroll down the results thrown up by Google on queries related to Telugu cinema—and a different picture emerges. While it is true that Telugu films, and those made by the three other southern industries, have done remarkably well in comparison with their Hindi counterparts in 2021 and 2022, there have been expensive failures like the Prabhas starrer Radhe Shyam and Acharya, the latter featuring both Chiranjeevi and Ram Charan. That is not all. Telugu and English language media reports indicate that theatrical viewing in the Telugu States too has not reached pre-pandemic levels. In fact, most Telugu films released in the past year have not done well. As one newspaper report put it: “Dwindling theatrical revenues has forced the Telugu film fraternity to rethink its business models.”
These are the very same business models that generated eye-popping revenues for the mega hits: high ticket prices during opening weeks, reduced gap between theatrical and other releases, and, of course, bets on blockbusters. Producers held exhibitors responsible for inflating ticket prices and thereby dampening viewer enthusiasm. They pointed fingers at stars and directors for charging exorbitant fees which, in turn, inflated budgets. They also felt that competition from OTT platforms was a threat to theatrical exhibition. In a rare move, Telugu film producers went on a strike in early August—not something one expects from a model industry.
At the same time, cinema in general is not what it was in the 20th century. Moments of crises threw up new opportunities. For Telugu cinema, this came in the form of dubbing and digital distribution and exhibition which opened new markets. From 2010, starting with the Rajinikanth starrer Enthiran/Robot, Tamil and Telugu blockbusters competed within India and beyond for Hindi cinema’s market. On occasion, dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu productions bettered the collections of their Hindi counterparts.
Battle between ideologies
This business competition has now turned into a battle between ideologies. Sections of the media, celebrities, and social media influencers have made systematic attempts to use Telugu cinema as a resource in the ongoing campaign against Bollywood. It is another matter altogether that key players in the Mumbai film industry—including Karan Johar and distributor Anil Thadani—have partnered with their Telugu counterparts to co-produce, distribute, and publicise Hyderabad productions that went on to become hits in Hindi.
If anything, we are witnessing an unprecedented degree of collaboration between Telugu and Hindi industries, and the consolidation of an entertainment industry that cuts across languages and formats.
None of this has come in the way of building up Telugu films, in particular their Hindi dubbed versions, as socially and politically desirable alternatives to Bollywood’s supposedly anti-Hindu and anti-national products. Among the films released this year, RRR and Karthikeya 2 stand out for the traction they gained on social media owing to the campaigns against Bollywood.