Telugu cinema in 2021: Several small gems and a few big ones

Here’s a look at everything Telugu cinema had to offer, from star-led vehicles to breakthrough films by newer directors and standout performances

The audience was spoiled for choice in the pandemic-hit year with a deluge of content on streaming platforms and cinema halls. Language divisions continued to blur as viewers pored over series and films that were easily available on streaming platforms. The Telugu film industry, which had realised the increased appetite for home viewers as well as tentpole movies in theatres once normalcy was restored, went into an overdrive and produced a spectrum of series and movies.

An occasional Krack, Uppena, Jathi Ratnalu and Vakeel Saab marked the box office hits prior to the second wave. When business resumed late July after the devastating second wave, it was mostly a no show until Seetimaar and Love Story. Yet, it was a challenge to draw the audiences who were habituated to home viewing during lockdowns.

Footfalls truly looked up only in December, beginning with Akhanda and followed by Pushpa – The Rise and Shyam Singha Roy.

Putting up a digital show

Among the many OTT shows, Unstoppable by Nandamuri Balakrishna on Aha drew attention. The Telugu web series space is yet to present something gritty and cutting edge. Those that stood out with refreshing narratives include Kudi Yedamaithe (Aha), Oka Chinna Family Story (Zee5) and Unheard (Disney+ Hotstar). Early in the year, the Netflix anthology film Pitta Kathalu brought together directors Tharun Bhascker, Nandini Reddy, Nag Ashwin and Sankalp Reddy.

The new tribe

We will talk about the star-led big films in a bit, but first, the most watchable Telugu films that came from new and emerging directors.

Mail: Director Uday Gurrala’s Mail was a throwback to rural Telangana of the mid-2000s when the internet was a luxury. Starring Priyadarshi as a smug internet cafe owner and Harshith Malgireddy as a student eager to get a grasp of the internet and email, this bittersweet story explored internet fraud through a comedy drama.

Cinema Bandi: Set in a less explored rural belt of the Telugu states near the Karnataka border, the indie-spirited Cinema Bandi directed by Praveen Kandregula is the story of people in a nondescript village trying to make a film when one of them chances upon an expensive video camera.

Raja Raja Chora: Debut director Hasith Goli’s film led by Sree Vishnu was a quirky comedy with several laugh aloud segments and an emotional tale of punishment and redemption.

Jathi Ratnalu: First-time director Anudeep KV’s story traces the comic adventures of three Jogipet boys, played by Naveen Polishetty, Priyadarshi Pulikonda and Rahul Ramakrishna. The film lent itself to collective laughter therapy in theatres, but curiously, elicited mixed response when it arrived on a digital platform.

Net: Imagine private spaces being watched 24/7, with the footage beamed to countless voyeuristic subscribers. It doesn’t seem far-fetched in the age of data leaks and breaches of privacy. Bhargav Macherla’s Net, starring Rahul Ramakrishna, Praneeta Patnaik and Avika Gor, is a dystopian story that explores online voyeurism and lays bare the frustrations in relationships.

Skylab: This fictional tale was inspired by the fear of the fall of the space station Skylab in the late 1970s. Set in Bandalingampally in Telangana and presented like a Hollywood musical comedy, Skylab was a sheer delight. Debut director Vishvak Khanderao wove in several stories big and small in this film led by Nithya Menen, Satya Dev, Rahul Ramakrishna and Vishnu Oi.

Aakashavani: Director Ashwin Gangaraju’s fable-like story looks at the changing equation between science, religion and superstition in a tribal village that has never seen a radio and worships it as a talking God.

Gamanam: This anthology of stories by first-time director Sujana Rao unravels during the Hyderabad floods that change the course of things for both the young and the old. Starring Shriya Saran, Shiva Kandukuri, Priyanka Jawalkar and Charuhasan among others.

Uppena: The box office loved director Buchi Babu Sana’s seemingly old-fashioned story of a poor boy meeting a rich girl and the earthy atmosphere of a seaside hamlet. Vijay Sethupathi, Panja Vaisshnav Tej and Krithi Shetty starred in this film that discusses male masculinity.

Redundant remakes

Remakes turned out to be redundant with original films being available to view on digital platforms, sometimes in multiple languages. However earnest the remakes might have been in terms of script and performances, Maestro, Narappa and Drushyam 2 ended up as paler versions of the much-celebrated originals.

Medium and the message

Director Sekhar Kammula’s Love Story discussed caste, class, gender politics and the pertinent issue of child abuse. What better way to do it than through a throbbing musical love story and a family drama? The effective performances of Sai Pallavi, Naga Chaitanya and Easwari Rao shouldered this memorable drama.

Republic directed by Deva Katta was a telling tale of a righteous civil servant’s fight against corrupt political practices. The Sai Dharam Tej starrer drew a tepid response at the box office but earned praise when it was available for digital viewing.

Vakeel Saab, the Telugu remake of Pink, should have been an ideal star-led vehicle to drive home the message against sexual harassment. The ‘no means no’ assertion was there, but inevitably overpowered by the masala segments catering to Pawan Kalyan’s fanbase. The women were also depicted as tamer versions from the Hindi original.

Arriving at the fag end of the year, director Rahul Sankrityan’s reincarnation tale Shyam Singha Roy harked back to Bengal of the late 1960s and 70s before the Devadasi system was abolished. The romance between a fiery writer with leftist leanings (played by Nani) who vouches for the power of the pen and a woman trapped in Devadasi tradition (Sai Pallavi) was the heart of the classy outing, replete with a dash of semi-classical music and dance. The standout performances of Sai Pallavi and Nani in the Bengal segment made several viewers wonder if Shyam and Rosie deserved a film of their own.

Talking of Sai Pallavi, she acts as though unfazed by the constant gaze of the camera and her arresting performances were an asset to both Love Story and Shyam Singha Roy.

To the gallery

Nandamuri Balakrishna and director Boyapati Sreenu’s third outing together starred the actor in a dual role. Packed with dialogues and gravity-defying stunt sequences that fit into the mass movie template, Akhanda did roar at the box office. It reportedly received a U/A certificate after multiple cuts, but it is still not hard to miss the brutal violence on screen.

Director Sukumar’s third film with Allu Arjun brought out the best in the actor, who transformed himself to play a shrewd coolie who rises to power in the red sandalwood smuggling syndicate. Pushpa – The Rise might have had an underwhelming last hour, but there’s hope that Allu Arjun and Fahadh Faasil will lock horns for a more engaging sequel, Pushpa – The Rule.

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