In the early 1990s, the dialect started to be used as a tool for ridicule, often to bring out the crude and villainous nature of a character or for comic relief.

From Fidaa to iSmart Shankar The rise of Telangana dialect in mainstream cinema
Flix Culture Friday, August 16, 2019 - 17:06

When the Telangana agitation was at its peak, apart from the demands for water, funds and jobs, there was a silent element that the protesters brought to the fore: the Telangana dialect. They sang and raised slogans in public, without fear of being mocked, in their mother tongue, which until then was associated with uncouth, uneducated masses in the Telugu states.

Five year later, from Tharun Bhascker to Raj Rachakonda, today we have a host of directors and actors in Tollywood who have brought a sea change in the way the Telangana dialect has been used in Telugu movies. The industry, which once considered the dialect as the “other” in Telugu cinema, has now embraced movies that bring home the ethos of the Telangana dialect and its culture. And with it has grown innumerable talents, be it in cinema or on social media platforms, adding to the coolness quotient of the dialect.

Stereotyped, ridiculed

For a very long time in combined Andhra Pradesh, a lot of Telangana families grew up imitating their Andhra neighbours and completely rejecting their Telangana identity – including the Telangana slang, which was considered to be rude, disrespectful, and seldom used in common parlance. A similar identity crisis gripped the Telugu film industry too, dominated as it was by people from Andhra who migrated to Hyderabad and had their own anxieties about using and preserving their dialect.

The trend of denigrating Telangana culture became distinctly visible after the 1990s with the release of Jayammu Nischayammu Raa (1990) and Mondi Mogudu Penki Pellam (1992), the period coinciding with the complete relocation of the Telugu film industry from Madras to Hyderabad. The dialect started to be used as a tool for ridicule, often to bring out the crude and villainous nature of a character or for comic relief.

Sathya Prakash, Film Studies professor at the University of Hyderabad, in his article titled “Telangana and Language Politics of Telugu Cinema” explains how the Telangana dialect post 1990s was often used as a means for mockery.

“Take for example Mondi Mogudu Penki Pellam, in which Vijayashanti plays wife to a police officer. She is portrayed as a bubbly but ‘ignorant housewife’ who speaks the Telangana dialect and does not know basic social etiquette. Except for her character, no major character speaks the dialect in the film. Her behaviour and language are ridiculed and used to generate comedy. Even though he loves her, he is always ashamed of her language and makes sure that she does not speak in front of his colleagues and friends. When she speaks in front of a colleague in the first scene, he feels embarrassed and covers it up by saying, “She is doing research in Telangana dialect,” Sathya Prakash points out.

The proverbial villains in Telugu cinema for a long time chewed a copious amount of betel leaves, harassed women, managed a gang of criminals and most importantly could speak the Telangana dialect fluently. The representation of culture and language was not politicised until Telugu films started denigrating the Telangana dialect in the 90s, after which it snowballed into a huge issue of self-assertion and identity, Sathya Prakash further notes in his work.

For a long time, Telugu filmmakers stuck to a neutral or Vijayawada-Guntur dialect so their films appeal to viewers across Telangana, Andhra and Rayalaseema. But none of these films had more than one character who spoke the Telangana dialect. This changed with a new crop of directors and actors post-bifurcation who unapologetically used the Telangana slang, people’s habits and their idiosyncrasies, festivals and even the cuss words in their movies.

If super hits such as Tharun Bhascker’s Pelli Choopulu and Sekhar Kammula’s Fidaa brought the Telangana dialect to the mainstream, Puri Jagannadh today has completely commercialised the dialect with his iSmart Shankar. If Dorasani attempted bringing the Telangana culture of the yesteryear on screen, cult hit Arjun Reddy normalised the Hyderabadi-Telugu accent.

New coolness quotient

With the coming of a new set of actors and directors who no longer associated the Telangana dialect with disgrace, came a new generation of social media stars who banked heavily on the swagger with which the Telangana slang started becoming popular. From Sai Pallavi’s ‘Pilla gaada’ and ‘Vachinde’ to Vijay Deverakonda’s cult dialogues from Arjun Reddy, TikTok and Instagram found new stars who now had a lot of refreshing content at hand.

Speaking to TNM, Sumanth Prabhas, popular on TikTok for his imitation of Arjun Reddy and also the director of Pilla Pillagadu, one of the first Telangana-based web series on YouTube, says that it’s not the content, but rather the refreshing change in landscape and language that has made the new crop of movies more acceptable on screen.

“More people from the Telugu states are able to identify with the characters and the language spoken on screen. We now have films that celebrate Bonalu and Bathukamma. For example, Andhra customs do not allow serving non-vegetarian food during weddings while in Telangana wedding guests consider it an insult if mutton and alcohol are not served. Moving away from the age-old traditions being done to death on screen, it’s refreshing to see how directors are giving prominence to traditions that were once considered inferior,” Sumanth says.

Anil, one of the co-founders of My Village Show, a YouTube comedy show that explores life in a small Telangana village, tells TNM that most of their viewers are Telugu people living outside Telangana.

“There is a lot of nostalgia in watching one’s own culture being represented on screen. For example, Gangavva (a popular character on the show) is like any other wise old lady you will find in a typical Telangana village. She has a distinct way of speaking which has, in fact, earned her many fans from around the world. Had it been a couple of years back, her language and mannerisms might have been considered rude, she would have been more of a funny old lady. But today, Gangavva in herself has become a brand,” Anil explains.

However, it’s not just the bifurcation but the emergence of a definite landscape in present day movies that called for better representation of people belonging to Telangana. If older Telugu cinema had a hero and heroine belonging to a civilised district in Andhra Pradesh while their lives revolved around Hyderabad (in Telangana), present day filmmakers have a clear differentiation regarding the identities of their characters.

As Rahul Ramakrishna, one of Telugu cinema’s artistes who popularised the Telangana slang through his movies, puts it: “There is more scope to explore subcultures now. The language, clothing and culture changes every few kilometres, and cinema has to reflect this.”

Just another trend?

While many believe that the dialect and the swagger is here to stay, Vamshi Reddy, Film Studies professor at IIT-Tirupati, says that the trend is only cyclical.

“At one point in time, Rayalaseema faction films (including the local dialect) were extremely popular. People in the Telangana region probably relate more to the current trend of movies, especially the youth. I don’t think there have been great stories with the Telangana cultural backdrop and dialect, barring a few like Mallesham. It’s just that the exotic and unique dialect is juxtaposed with typical Telugu commercial masala film package,” the professor adds.

However, some people in the industry feel that though the change is welcome, filmmakers still have to go a long way to get the language right.

“After watching iSmart Shankar, I feel the Telangana dialect is still stereotyped, it is crude and rough in terms of characterisation. Of course the reason for using it more or having at least a few characters in a movie speak it is to cater to the market demands and there is nothing wrong in that,” opines Raj Rachakonda, director of Mallesham, adding, “But there are only a few like Tharun Bhascker who get it right. In the past too, even for movies based out of Rayalaseema, filmmakers used to rarely get the Kadapa accent right in the lead actors. The current increase of usage of the Telangana dialect is market-driven, but I think we have a long way to go to get it right literally as well as culturally.” 

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