Even as Baahubali broke records and became wildly popular, several Telugu films released in the past few years have become quietly popular. But unlike the biggest hits of Telugu cinema, they were produced by little known banners which often struggled to find funding for their projects.
Could these films break the reputation of stereotypical mould that mainstream cinema has sometimes been lambasted for?
The recent genre of romcoms that have become popular this year, might suggest so. And then there‚Äôs Naa Bangaru Talli, which although has had a limited release, has wowed audiences at the film festivals it has been screened in.
So far 2016 has seen the release of two romcoms, Pellichooplu produced by Bigben Cinemas Ltd and Meeku Meere Maaku Meme by Nakama Planet Green Studios Production. Two years before that, came Run Raja Run by UV Creations were well received by audiences. However, it was a struggle for these fledgling production houses to get their films distributed because they lacked the clout of studio giants such as Ramanaidu Studios and AVM Productions.
Directed by debutante Tharun Bhascker, Pellichoopulu was produced by Raj Kandukuri on the Dharmapath Creations banner in association with Yashodhar Rao Rangineni on Big Cinemas.
The film ‚Äď the title literally means match-making, is precisely about that. Meeting during the pelli choopulu, Chitra (played by Ritu Varma) and Prasanth (played by Vijay Deverakonda) exchange stories about their lives. After a series of developments, the pair realise that they could set up a food truck together and fall in love without realising it. In all, it is a good story that leaves you with a pleasant happily-ever-after feeling.
To make this film, Tharun had approached UK- based Yashodhar for the financing, and managed to make the on a shoe-string budget of Rs. 1.35 crores but went on to make Rs. 37 crores (both India and overseas) at the box office.
According to Tharun, one of the reasons the film did so well was the distributors of the film ‚Äď one of the Goliath‚Äôs of Tollywood, Suresh Productions and Freeze Frame Productions (overseas) agreed to come on board.
Speaking to TNM, Tharun said, ‚ÄúAt the end of the day, it is always about bringing the audience to the theatre. There is no denying the fact that when a big studio‚Äôs name is associated with your film, the possibility of people noticing it and watching it in the theatre is more. So even in the case of independent films, backing from a big distributor can do wonders to your film in terms for blocking theatre screens and promotions‚ÄĚ.
Without the backing of a big studio, all that most independent films get, is a limited release. Financial assistance from independent producers can help reach audiences, but uncertainty over whether the film will breakeven still remains. That, is where the distributors come in.
Another independent filmmaker, Hussain Sha Kiran, agrees with Tharun‚Äôs views. Hussain had made many short films under the Nakama Planet banner before becoming the script writer for ‚ÄúNannaku Prematho‚ÄĚ, his big break.
But it was Geetha Film Distributors (a subsidiary of Allu Aravind‚Äôs Geetha Arts), that brought his first feature length venture Meeku Meere Maaku Meme into spotlight.
‚ÄúThere is a ‚Äėbrand name‚Äô that is created for your film when a big distributor decides to associate with it. More theatres are willing to showcase it, making sure the release is wider. It is very difficult in for smaller budget films to advertise- which is an important aspect of marketing. This is where big distributors come in,‚ÄĚ Hussain says.
Naturally, nothing can save a film that has a terrible plot. Both Pellichoopulu and Meeku Meere.. have been praised for their novel narrative style. But, even as independent films are usually made with the vision of their directors, both Tharun and Hussain admit that they have to keep in mind what the producer or the distributor thinks will attract the Telugu cinema-going audience while writing the script.
Tharun says that it making the content engaging enough to please both the producers and the audience is a like walking a tightrope.
But as director Rajesh Touchriver showed, there could perhaps be a way to avoid this sticky situation. His realistic story of a young woman who was trafficked and forced into sex work, won much praise, even though it had a limited release.
To finance his film, Rajesh chose seek public help, and through a crowd-funding campaign, he raised the funds.
While this does allow for the director to have more liberty to realize his vision, Hussain points to an inherent risk that the filmmaker will have to take. ‚ÄúThe script has to be put out on the internet to sell your film. Hence the content is not safe. Moreover, the film‚Äôs release is limited as the money is used in production and marketing is sidelined.‚ÄĚ
Although Tollywood has churned out the same old story in film after film, sticking to big actors and going heavy on the macho factor, these new age films show that there is a segment of the audience willing to experiment, and accept newer stories that reflect the changing times. Perhaps, newer plot lines and exhilarating movies could be on the rise, slowly, but steadily.