Though not all are perfect, these movies have two things in common: intent and integrity.

Chi La Sow to Awe Telugu films that made us sit up and take notice in 2018
Flix Tollywood Tuesday, December 25, 2018 - 15:41

After a regretfully guileless few years, Telugu cinema seems to be coming of age all over again. Thanks to the cinematically eventful 2017, where dissimilar films like Fidaa and Arjun Reddy both made bank, it has become harder for storytellers/producers to defend their mediocrity under the garb of “that’s what sells”. This is probably why we saw big studios backing up and helping independent films reach a wider audience than they would have otherwise. 

But if young adult dramas have taught us anything, it’s that growth is seldom straightforward and simple. With TFI too, it is going to be a gradual transition, one that is filled with apprehension and reluctance to change. As dutiful viewers, all we can hope for is a crossing that’s going to take us someplace meaningful. And if 2018 is any indication, our patience might just pay off. 

Here is a list of 9 movies from 2018 that made a difference. Even though only a few of them are perfect – some might even say mediocre when compared with content from other languages – they all have two things in common: intent and integrity.

C/o Kancharapalem

Written and directed by Venkatesh Maha, C/o Kancharapalem is a genuine little film with a gigantic heart that successfully proves that good writing costs nothing. A film that is primarily about love, but it doesn’t stop there. Social commentary subtly pervades the film throughout its length while presenting us with an intimate portrayal of small-town life and its many facets. Slice-of-life is a genre that is rarely explored in Telugu cinema whose mantra has always been ‘larger than life’. So, to watch it be done with grace and craft was an achievement in itself.

With an ensemble cast that predominantly consists of newcomers and untrained actors, the film manages to capture the essence of the place it’s based in perfectly. In addition to a well-observed story, the film also has great cinematography and sound design – it used sync sound to its advantage – both of which help the film feel charmingly impromptu.

Mahanati 

If a biopic-maker’s primary goal is to make his/her audience feel the admiration that he/she feels for the protagonist, then Nag Ashwin has done a flawless job. While Dulqer Salman’s measured performance helps humanise Gemini Ganesan, Keerthi Suresh shines as Savitri, giving her career-best performance yet. Dani’s cinematography and Mickey J Meyer’s soundtrack adds artistic heft to an already star-heavy production.

Even though there were moments – I’m still mad about the chemistry-less love story between Samantha and Vijay – where the story sacrifices its natural flow to bring us factoids about Savitri in awkward ways, it was an unforgettable experience to watch a film unabashedly celebrate a woman for all that she was. Now, this kind of indulgence might not sit well with everyone, but it did pretty well with me. Thanks to Mahanati’s success, both critical and commercial, Telugu cinema is going to see a myriad of biopics in the coming days.

Chi La Sow

This film singlehandedly wiped misogyny out of the Telugu film industry. No, it didn’t, but it gave us one of the best-written female characters in its history. The thing with so-called feel-good movies is that no one takes them or the craft that goes into making one seriously because they seem effortless. Rahul Ravindran’s Chi La Sow is no different, except the effort shows and rightfully so. 

It isn’t easy for a man to make an authentic film about a woman who is emotionally broken and vulnerable but too busy taking care of others to change this. The film’s perspective surprisingly feels real and relatable. A poignant and sensitive performance by Ruhani Sharma helps immensely as well. Even though it falters at places with unnecessary comic relief, its need to be amicable for everyone is forgivable.

Sammohanam

A romantic comedy about a gorgeous female movie star and a cartoon artist that separates itself from the herd by going places that a normal Telugu film of this genre would not want/have to. We as an industry might be far from making a film like Pink, but the scene where the hero’s mother teaches him about rejection and a woman’s right to say no is rather progressive and refreshingly unlike anything we see in such anti-climactic moments.

Is Sammohanam without flaws? No, but the merits do make up for them. Like Vivek Sagar and his mesmerising music that outshines at places. Or the comedy track that comes in the second-half where the hero, his friends, and his father kidnap the bad guy. I don’t remember the last time I saw someone spill their popcorn laughing. With Sammohanam, Mohan Krishna Indraganti proves that he doesn’t need chaotic loudness to entertain.

Awe

Awe is smart, sensitive, progressive, quirky and, not to forget, hilarious. Every genre is used to tackle a different issue and is smartly separated by changes in tone and camera treatment. It was intricate and impressive. One of the stories features a beautiful woman who speaks Persian enter a café and start working on an instrument that writes in Morse. Another has a lesbian couple meeting with parents to talk about their future together. The parents, even though ignorant, don’t utter a word that’s insulting and unwarranted. Another one talks about gender fluidity and how sexual orientation isn’t set in stone.

It isn’t always graceful with its transitions, and some arcs are more interesting than others, but the effort is laudable. If nothing else Awe made me realise that progress doesn’t have to be a process. That it’s possible to skip a few steps and be the future we are supposedly working towards. This is what Prashanth Varma does with this genre-bender – he shows us how a film would look like if it came out of a progressive society.

U Turn

Telugu cinema is known for horror-comedies – a genre that is perfect for an industry that loves physical comedy and jump-scares more than it should – but Pavan Kumar’s U Turn isn’t that. A remake of the 2016 Kannada film by the same name, U Turn keeps you engaged by not giving you the things you expect out of a supernatural thriller. There are no powdered faces or eerie BGM that forces you to feel something. Instead, the film takes a simple incident and creates a screenplay around it that is designed to reveal details bit-by-bit organically, with a gripping pace.

Samantha gives a striking performance and so does the rest of the cast. Even though the film has a supernatural element to it, its internal logic doesn’t feel far-fetched – an otherworldly power that psychologically, not physically, harms its victims. In addition, the idea of a ghost hijacking a human brain is scarier than any physical damage it can do. Even the way it works its message is subtle and powerful. When you have facts that are problematic enough, why would you need melodrama?

Rangasthalam

A movie about a village whose people live a life of perpetual dread and debt under a bad guy’s thumb. Add to this a carefree hero, his idealistic brother, a village sweetheart, and a good-looking female confidante to complicate things. It is commercial cinema in all its glory and director Sukumar uses all these elements rather well to create an engaging piece of entertainment cinema. The action sequence in the dark uses the light and movement to create an adrenaline rush, so we’d feel that much more broken by the loss that follows. If anyone can make a commercial cinema seem noble and nimble, then it’s a director like Sukumar and he proves that with Rangasthalam.

The happy-go-lucky life in a village and the breezy conversations that might happen there are captured rather well, but the biggest asset and achievement of this film is the technical team and their artistry. Even though the ending feels a bit jarring – by now we would have to assume that Sukumar’s contract came with a ‘compulsory twist’ clause written into it – it’s on you for thinking Prakash Raj is going to play anyone but the bad guy.

Goodachari

An origin story of the Telugu James Bond is just the thing a weary Telugu viewer needed and it’s nice to see that Goodachari successfully rose up to the occasion. With an impressive pace and tight screenplay, the film manages to give its target audience the adrenaline rush one expects from a film like this. What’s not to like about a homegrown spy thriller that somehow manages to look rather stylish and sleek within the limits of a rather skimpy budget?

Adivi Sesh, who wrote and starred in the film, knows what his strengths as an actor are – his good looks and perpetual straight-face made for a great, read hot, spy. The writer in him knows how to twist a simple story into a knot that only he can untie, and in Sashi Kiran Tikka he found the perfect director who would bring what’s on paper to life without tampering with it. Even though it wasn’t my cup of tea, I understand its appeal and I acknowledge its significance.

Manu

Manu is by no means a perfect film. Written, directed and edited by Madhuram fame Phanindra Narsetti, the film has a non-linear screenplay, almost fractured in its presentation, which would’ve been effective if the director knew when to move on. Manu was truly different and tried to play with the genre it presents itself to be. It had great shots and frames. And with impressive performances from the lead pair, it set up the premise and conflict well.

That said, it is at least a half-hour longer than it should be, and the writing gets choppy after a point. But if we are to only talk about the successful attempts, we’d be doing a disservice to cinema that tries to be different. Even though it had ineffective and counterproductive twists, it also had some great moments that would’ve stood out in a better film.

Special mention:

Antariksham: Even though it fails to be an engaging film, the mere fact that director Sankalp tried something as ambitious as this is remarkable and deserves recognition.

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