Tollywood
If there is anything we have learnt from Telugu cinema in 2017, it’s that change is slow but it does come.

At a time when more and more people are consuming entertainment on mobile phones and subscription channels, the Telugu movie industry seems to have not only withstood the onslaught but also surprisingly thrived in 2017.

From Baahubali 2 that went on to become the highest grossing Indian movie of all time at one point to Ghazi, an unconventional story set completely inside a submarine, this year marked a remarkable shift in Tollywood storytelling, techniques and audience tastes.

Telugu cinema has developed a somewhat bad reputation over the years for focusing on star-driven, formulaic movies with few exceptions along the way. However, with more A-list actors now throwing their weight behind unique stories - for example Jr. NTR in Nanaku Prematho, Jai Lava Kusa and Mahesh Babu in Spyder - irrespective of the box-office performance, and an influx of fresh talent in the fields of direction - Sandeep Reddy Vanga, Shiva Nirvana, Tharun Bhascker, Krish to name a few, the industry seems to be inching towards striking the balance between economics and creativity.

The year started on a good note with both Sathamanam Bhavathi and Gautamiputra Satakarni releasing to good reviews and box-office performance.

 The former went on to win the National Award for Best Popular Film providing Wholesome Entertainment. From a family entertainer like Sathamanam to Arjun Reddy that took the industry by storm with its bold approach, 2017 rewarded movies that dared to be different and respected the audience’s intelligence. Another smash hit this year was Fidaa, a movie that respected its Telangana setting and steered away from stereotypes often associated with romantic movies.

We also had Nenu Local, a box office hit but one that left me underwhelmed. One has come to expect novel stories from Nani who is quickly becoming the industry’s golden child and Nenu Local rehashes several old stories without offering much new. Another interesting release this year was Nene Raju Nene Mantri starring Kajal Aggarwal and Rana Daggubati. The first 30-45 minutes of the movie was riveting. I was so engrossed in the movie and amazed at the shock value that director Teja was able to produce. However, the movie derailed shortly after and you can sense that while the idea was great, the execution was flawed.

Then there was Ami Tumi, a comedy starring Srinivasa Avasarala, Adivi Sesh and Vennela Kishore that had a promising cast and setup but was let down by a half-baked storyline and loud comedy style. However, Vennela Kishore was the star of the show and elevated the movie with his dialogues and performance.

Towards the end of the year we had Raju Gari Gadhi 2, a horror comedy, that just did not work for me. Despite having Nagarjuna and Samantha, the movie missed the mark on originality and the screenplay was haphazard and slow. The comedy was not funny, and the horror wasn’t scary.

Which brings me to one of the best horror movies I have seen in recent times – Gruham. Starring Siddharth and Andreah Jeramaih in pivotal roles, the movie was a commendable effort in bringing the pure horror genre to the forefront in an industry where it is often diluted. The atmosphere and color palette used in the movie worked wonders to set the mood and the interval scene is one of the best I have seen this year.

It is not all rainbows and butterflies though. There are still a huge number of bad films that should not be getting bankrolled and a shortage of female acting talent that is disheartening. In fact, acting talent in general in the industry seems to have lots of gaps – negative characters (or villains as we love to call them) are often imported from other industries and native talent seems limited to a small pool. However, with people demanding more quality content and performances, my hope is that these issues will be ironed out as the industry gains more pan-India appeal.

So, without further ado, here’s my take on the best of Telugu Cinema 2017. Like most lists, my choices here are entirely personal and of course subjective but with commercial and critical reception aligning for most of the movies this year, I have a feeling my choices will reflect majority consensus!

Best Movie: Arjun Reddy

There were lots of good Telugu movies this year – Fidaa, Mahanubhavudu, Baahubali 2, Ninnu Kori, Mental Madhilo - however the one movie that stayed with me long after the end credits rolled was Arjun Reddy. It is not a perfect film by any yardstick – the second half could have been tighter, the female protagonist did not have a strong enough voice (and the movie could have benefitted from that) – but it had originality, depth and impact.

 Angst is often depicted in over-dramatic ways in our movies, so to see a character deal with his emotions in a real, more relatable fashion was refreshing. The humour was not forced and the love story despite its shortcomings was beautiful to watch.

Buoyed by fantastic performances from the entire cast, especially Vijay Devarakonda and Rahul Ramakrishna, and with one of the most original soundtracks composed by Radhan, Arjun Reddy is my best Telugu movie for 2017.

Best Actor (male): Vijay Devarakonda for Arjun Reddy

Again, this year saw a wide variety of performances from Telugu cinema’s male actors.

Sharwanand was brilliant in Mahanubhavudu, combining elements of comedy and charm into a character that suffers from OCD.

Prabhas was the embodiment of strength and vulnerability in Baahubali 2 (not to forget the amount of time he devoted to the franchise) and Nani was convincing in Ninnu Kori as a jilted lover coming to terms with the fact that the love of his life has moved on.

However, Vijay Devarakonda portrayed all of the above qualities and more in Arjun Reddy. He is a lover unlike any we have seen in a while; wearing his ego and machoism on his sleeve like a badge of honour but combatting it with personality and screen presence, thereby making the audience root for him instead of hating him. His entire character arc is a window into self-destruction and self-realisation and Mr. Devarakonda nails every emotion.

Best Actor (female): Sai Pallavi for Fidaa, Anushka Shetty for Baahubali 2

I have often struggled with the way women are depicted in Telugu cinema. They are often an object of someone’s affection or lust and seldom seem to serve any purpose in driving the plot forward.

The oft mentioned slight ‘5 dialogues, 3 songs’ truly did apply to most female actors. There have been some great roles over the years but the sheer disparity and lack of developed female characters has always been Telugu cinema’s Achilles’ heel.

When I saw Bhanumati, played without artifice, by a stellar Sai Pallavi in Fidaa I was thrilled. Here was a woman who talked, looked and dressed like most women do. She had ambitions, a mind of her own but wasn’t perfect. And yet, she was loved by audiences because guess what – she was real. The credit of course also goes to Shekar Kammula the director and writer of the movie for infusing Bhanumati with charm and femininity that did not seem contrived.

I also loved Anushka Shetty’s performance in Baahubali 2. In this installment, she gets to do more with her character and in some scenes, she steals the show. Her performance grounds the movie and portrays both strength and compassion in equal measure. By acting as Baahubali’s moral compass she drives the story forward.

Best Director: S S Rajamouli for Baahubali 2

For sheer grit, determination and courage for dreaming at a scale never seen in Indian cinema let alone Telugu cinema, S S Rajamouli is my pick for the best Director of 2017.

Mr. Rajamouli’s track record is unquestionable and he has always had a great eye for dramatic storytelling but with the Baahubali franchise he did more than just tell a fantastic story. He rewrote rules – the movie was loved across India despite none of the lead actors being popular beyond their respective reginal cinemas, the director and his vision were the USP as opposed to ‘stars’ and the texture of the movie itself is very Indian, rooted in the culture and mythology of India.

Best Music:

It was hard for me to choose one album in this category. Baahubali had a great chartbuster in “Saahore Baahubali” and a couple of lovely melodies in the form of “Hamsa Nava” and “Oka Pranam”. Ninnu Kori (‘Adiga Adiga’ and ‘Unnatundi Gundey’) and Fidaa (‘Hey Pillagaada’, ‘Oosupodu’, ‘Vachinde’) both had wonderful music that complemented the movies and their settings.

Arjun Reddy (‘Madhurame’, ‘The Breakup Song’) also had a memorable soundtrack that had everything from classical to modern influences. As you can see there was a ton of variety and every album had something to offer to the listeners, so in the interest of fairness I am leaving this field open.

Best Supporting Actor performance: Rahul Ramakrishna for Arjun Reddy

The hero’s best friend is a role that is often used for comic effect in Telugu cinema. And Rahul who plays Arjun Reddy’s best friend in the movie is funny. Unbelievably funny. But even in that humour there is a depth that I have seldom seen.

Rahul is uncharacteristically natural and loyal to a fault. He values his friendship like you would expect him to and you wonder if not for him what would happen to Arjun. A supporting actor in the truest sense of the word, Mr. Ramakrishna was brilliant in so many scenes but watch out for the one he has with his father, explaining his friend’s struggles and behaviour, and you will realise why he was so important to the movie.

As an avid Telugu cinema viewer, looking back at all these wonderful movies gives me reason to be optimistic for 2018. Innovative stories, tighter screenplays and an emphasis on bringing a unique voice to one’s craft will help Telugu cinema grow and evolve to greater heights whilst keeping the same sense of business will ensure indulgences do not take precedence over intelligence.

I hope more new and diverse talent finds a way of breaking through in what often feels like a ‘family run business’ industry. Here's also hoping that more minority voices – women, people from various socio-economic strata, LGBTQ are represented fairly in our movies. Perhaps I am asking for too much but then if there is anything we have learnt from Telugu cinema in 2017, it’s that sometimes change is slow but it does come.