Devotional films are fast losing their relevance and prominence in Telugu cinema. And it's ironic that the genre has taken a beating, especially in the wake of a phenomenal increase in spiritualism in society over the past few years.
Here's a lowdown on how the once-popular genre is dying a slow death.
On February 6, 2017, cinephiles celebrated the 85th anniversary of HM Reddy's Bhakta Prahalada, the first Telugu talkie film, and it marked the beginning of what would become a popular genre over a span of the next few decades - devotional cinema.
The genre was also instrumental in turning the image of stars like NTR, ANR, SV Ranga Rao and others into demi-gods on the silver screen. So much so that NTR became synonymous with gods like Krishna and Sri Rama; ANR was revered for his performances in films based on lives of saints like Kalidasa, Vipra Narayana, Bhakta Tukaram, Amarashilpi Jakanna. And SV Ranga Rao was the other legend who completed this holy trinity.
85 years after Bhakta Prahalada released, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to claim that devotional films could soon become extinct. The sharp drop in the number of films produced in the past couple of decades is proof enough.
Except for a rare film or two, featuring Nagarjuna in K Raghavendra Rao's direction, there's barely been a renewed interest in the genre and it's fast losing its relevance in the era of smartphones and abundance of spiritual discourse on the small screen and internet.
In a recent interview, when Nagarjuna was asked if the younger audiences are still in the mood to embrace devotional films, he opined, "It's very difficult to make such films these days, especially when you know that the younger audiences are looking for more stimuli. They don't like preachy stuff."
He went on to say, "If it had been any other filmmaker other than K Raghavendra Rao, I'm certain that we would have had to face more criticism in terms of how we tell a story. People could question why did we have to put a song here, a comedy track there. But it's essential to do all that to narrate a story - otherwise it becomes a documentary and its reach will be minimal. I remember reading Amar Chitra Katha comics when I was a kid and they had an interesting way to drive their point across. There were other comic books too, but Amar Chitra Katha was more entertaining."
For that matter, even veteran filmmaker K Raghavendra Rao, who has made films like Annamayya, Sri Ramadasu and Shirdi Sai in the past, confessed that youngsters these days are more inclined to watching action dramas or action comedies than devotional films; however, he stated that he's keen on making more devotional films in future.
"There are so many stories about saints, gods and temples that we can narrate and it's possible to make all of them visually appealing with the latest technology we have today. But at the end of the day, the story has to be entertaining as well to sugar-coat the intrinsic message of a film that talks about spirituality," he said, adding, "I don't know if Om Namo Venkatesaya is going to be my last film. I know that a lot of people seem to think so. But I've left the decision to God and I'm sure He will continue to guide me and decide my future course of action."
With youngsters, especially in the age group of 18-30, becoming the main target audience for Telugu cinema, devotional films are losing ground to other larger-than-life commercial entertainers, where the heroes have taken up the roles of demi-Gods and saints to preach relevant messages.
A poster for Bhakta Prahalada
For instance, if a film has a message in the end that "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind", Prabhas does all that and more in Mirchi, although there's ample bloodshed to justify his action. You don't need the story of saint or a god to learn a moral science lesson anymore through cinema.
On top of that, if we consider the amount of spiritual discourse that's available on the internet and slew of TV channels, like Bhakti TV, the prospect of needing to watch a devotional film on the silver screen to learn the same lessons is wishful thinking, to say the least. Compared to the plethora of devotional films made until the late 90s, today there are hardly 3-4 films in a year that fall under this genre.
Putting it in perspective, Nandi award winning historian & Director of Culture in the Telangana Government, Harikrishna Mamidi says, "In the 70s, the top stars of the day took over the roles that were once meant for gods. So, theoretically speaking, actors didn't have to play gods to win over evil - they could do all that by being human. And this transition led to the biggest turning point which occurred in the early 2000s with the arrival of internet and smartphones. All of a sudden, there was so much awareness about spirituality that people didn't have to rely on cinema anymore to learn all that. And if you look closely, this is a paradox because youngsters are thronging to temples like never before and a big chunk of the smartphone users have devotional songs as ringtones, but the same people wouldn't go to watch a devotional film in theatres."
The surge in religious and spiritual discourses on TV channels and internet, spearheaded by people like Chaganti Koteswara Rao, has been crucial in this whole trend of people turning more and more “spiritual” as days go by.
"In the past, life was much simpler and so was the understanding of things around you. If you had to tell the audience - "You should only speak the truth", you had to tell them a tale of Satya Harishchandra. Today, that's no longer the case. Everyone understands what you mean when you say - "You should only speak the truth." There's been a tremendous increase in emotional intelligence, people beginning to differentiate between spirituality and divinity are much more than what's shown in films. It's especially true for youngsters these days," Harikrishna Mamidi adds.
Incidentally, Nagarjuna is among the very few actors in contemporary Telugu cinema who have explored this space of devotional cinema. A few years ago, Venkatesh had expressed his desire to collaborate with K Raghavendra Rao for a series on Swami Vivekananda; however, it never took off.
K Raghavendra Rao's other film Intinta Annamayya, which was completed in 2013, hasn't released yet. Similarly, Pawan Kalyan was supposed to star in a film - Prince of Peace - based on the life of Jesus Christ. After working on the story for a couple of years, Singeetham Sreenivasa Rao, who was going to direct the film, dropped the idea due to budget constraints.
Pawan Kalyan's most recent 'godly' avatar, literally, was in Gopala Gopala in which he played Lord Krishna, although, to be fair, his fans treat him like a god in almost every film.
At the moment, the younger lot in Tollywood doesn't seem to be inclined in this direction in the near future. After all, when you get treated like a demi-god without having to play the role of a god onscreen, who needs stories of gods and saints! A punch dialogue would do the honours.
Over the past 85 years, Telugu film audiences have revered actors (and their films) for playing divine roles, but, perhaps, the audiences have grown up to differentiate between what's real and what's divine. And in the process, devotional films have taken a solid beating. For all you know, Om Namo Venkatesaya could be the last major devotional film to hit the screens in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, unless of course, someone comes forth to carry forward the baton from Nagarjuna and K Raghavendra Rao. The question is who will do it?