2019 is a big-budget year for the Telugu film industry. From Saaho to Sye Raa, the audience is in for a slew of massive films. If one is to look at the list of the most expensive movies made in Tollywood over the last 10 years, there isn't much variation when it comes to genres. If Baahubali, Sye Raa, Magadheera can be put into the historical or fantasy section, Spyder and Saaho defi
However, Tollywood hasn't always been partial to these genres. From NTR’s Mayabazar to Vijay Deverakonda’s Arjun Reddy, the kind of films that have helped shaped the careers of stars vary. But is the change in preference of genres linear or is it a cyclical process? Do genres really dictate the growth of a superstar and if they do, how do they adapt to these changes? TNM spoke to film studies professors and experts on how the industry's preferences have changed in the past five decades.
The fear of discontinuity
The first superstars of the Telugu industry were carved out of mythological fiction, with people giving demi-god status to actors on screen, who charismatically wore the attire of their favourite gods. And the love for the genre continued for a long time, beginning from the 1960s, mainly because filmmakers and the audience did not wish to break the ‘continuity’ that these movies provided.
“The continuity in these movies basically meant the patriarchy that the mythological subjects managed to keep alive among the audience through their content,” says Raghurama Raju, film studies professor at IIT, Tirupati. Elaborating on this, he says, “Mythological fiction has always been patriarchal in nature. Gods have always been males, who have multiple wives and save humanity, just like the heroes of present day films who are shown to have supernatural powers of heroism. This kind of male supremacy satisfied the conscience of the male audience, who formed a large part of the audience back in the '70s."
Around the same time, social films that typically focused on oppression and injustice, and showed difficult circumstances from which the hero emerged, gained momentum in the industry.
“After the '70s in Tollywood, films that took up the cause of the common public hit a chord with viewers. The hero (the most popular being Akinenni Nageshwara Rao) always represented the 'underdog', 'subaltern' and 'helpless' and took on the mighty. With this, actors eventually turned into stars, when they went beyond the cinematic text. Social film as a genre has consistently helped actors to become stars,” says Vamshi Reddy, a film expert.
The masculinity portrayed in social films was just as toxic as the mythological ones. The hero on screen was always associated with a God-like aura, and was worshipped by his confidantes. If mythological movies showed gods having multiple wives, in social films, the hero was always desired by multiple women.
According to Raghurama Raju, heroes from NTR to Chiranjeevi, over decades, have thrived on genres that glorified masculinity on screen, which eventually instilled a fear among filmmakers to experiment with movies outside the box. Or in simpler words, these kinds of movies instilled the ‘fear of discontinuity’.
“Indian imagination has fallen back on heroes for continuity and suffered and tolerated monotony. This may be the reason that filmmakers have continued with old stars as heroes. In contrast, heroines who seem to have been used for novelty suffered and continuously got replaced,” the professor opines.
The cycle of genres
In the '70s, NTR revived his career by remaking angry young man films that originally starred Amitabh Bachchan. In the '80s Chiranjeevi established himself as a dancing star. Around 2000, gangster films became a new genre in Telugu and revived the waning careers of actors like N Balakrishna.
“Apart from this, Tollywood experimented in a limited sense and emulated whatever clicked in the box-office. They tried humour with Brahmanandam and others; then the polygamous movies that had two heroines who usurped the place of a vamp. Both the genres worked great but slowly dwindled in popularity. Post the '90s, you see the adaptation of Hollywood genres including the road movie, gangster, horror, romcom etc. People like Ram Gopal Verma are associated with this trend,” Raghurama says.
According to experts, genres are cyclical, but each time a genre comes back into fashion, something new is added so that it doesn't necessarily look repetitive. For example, audiences may not prefer watching a Bhakta Prahalada movie now, but filmmakers have effectively disguised the genre by adding a new set of elements to the existing formula.
“The success of a repeating genre rests on how the director is able to hide from the viewer what is repeated and highlight that which is novel. For instance, in Baahubali, which has Mahabharata as a background theme, Karna is played in disguise by Kattappa. Karna in the Mahabarata is with the Kauravas, and is moved to the side of Pandavas in Baahubali; Bijjaladeva's handicap similar to that of Panduraju, who is on the side of the Pandavas and is moved to the side of the Kauravas (in the film)," points out the professor.
Most viewers don't analyse the similarities when they're watching the film, and believe it to be a new story, with new characters.
On the other hand, social films continue to be one of the most sought after genres that elevate an actor to a superstar. If ANR in Batasari played a character who was humane, sensitive and real, Mahesh Babu applied the same formula in 2018 in Bharat Ane Nenu, where he waged a war against the prevailing conditions of the educational system in our country.
“Social films are adopted differently in different times. Say, the way 'superstar' Krishna emerged as star through social films (or 'mass' film) is different from that of Chiranjeevi. The content and the narrative may be different but 'mass' films or 'action' films have been the favourite recipe to make a star,” Vamshi Reddy adds.
The outsider and insider
Stardom definitely comes with talent. But Tollywood, known for the multiple families that run the industry, has thrived on nepotism which has largely decided the fate of films in the industry. But according to experts, the families who now rule the industry have themselves created genres, with years of hard work and success.
“NTR, ANR and Chiranjeevi are examples of this phenomenon. When NTR entered the industry in the late '40s, he did not have any contacts but today, his family has half a dozen actors, film studios etc. ANR's family has half a dozen actors besides film studios. Similarly Chiranjeevi, when he entered the industry in the late '70s, started with negative roles and established himself as a hero in the early '80s. Actors from film families seem to be constantly looking for either reviving or launching their careers with new genres and remakes from hit films in other languages. Each one of them has defined genres in the industry,” says Sathya Prakash, a film studies professor at the University of Hyderabad.
While many of these family superstars have been able to retain their stardom despite poor choices of films, heroes who grew purely out of their talent, have not had it easy.
“The stars, who shoot to fame suddenly, fail very often since they can’t sustain the momentum. For instance, actor Uday Kiran, who quickly rose to stardom with back to back three films succeeding at the box-office, suddenly lost out with a couple of failures. Since he did not have any background in the industry and didn't have any backing, he couldn't handle failure and faltered further in choosing films. Unfortunately, losing stardom suddenly proved to be fatal and he killed himself,” Vamshi points out.
“There are many like Suman, Jagapati Babu, Ramya Krishna who have been fortunate to find a different niche for themselves. But it is the viewers who are both generous and tolerant in adapting to these changes. It is a collaboration between the makers and the audience that has decided genres over time, and it is necessary to decode the nature of this collaboration,” Raghurama adds.