A year of controversy and new trends: Telugu film industry in 2019

With seven wins at the National Film Awards, the Telugu industry had plenty of reasons to celebrate but there were rough patches, too.
A year of controversy and new trends: Telugu film industry in 2019
A year of controversy and new trends: Telugu film industry in 2019

A year which saw as many as 190 straight Telugu films and scores of other dubbed films vying for the attention of the audience, 2019 has been quite dramatic for the Telugu film industry.

While the bountiful National Awards came as a pleasant surprise to the industry and Telugu moviegoers alike, it also became increasingly clear that filmmakers will have to rise up to the challenge of bringing the audience back to theatres, given the rise of OTT platforms. There was no dearth of controversies either, with the likes of Ram Gopal Varma and Pawan Kalyan in the spotlight, and ongoing debates about how sensitive issues are portrayed in cinema.

But, if there was one recurring theme that defined Telugu cinema in 2019, it’s the proliferation of low budget films dealing with newer themes, stories, and landscapes.

Here’s what happened in Telugu cinema in 2019:

From real to reel

The success of Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati set the ball rolling for biopics in a big way, and in 2019, Telugu cinema had a slew of biopics starting from NTR Kathanayakudu to George Reddy. Since it was also an election year in Andhra Pradesh, filmmakers like Krish, Mahi V Raghav, and RGV threw their hat in the ring to tell stories of political leaders of the yore.

First on the list was the two-part biopic of NTR - NTR Kathanayakudu and NTR Mahanayakudu; however, neither of the films got enough footfalls or stirred major interest among moviegoers. Both the films were headlined by Balakrishna, who played the role of NT Rama Rao, and had some of the biggest names in the industry including Vidya Balan, Rana Daggubati, and Sumanth to name a few.

Then, Mahi V Raghav’s Yatra, starring Mammootty, focused on former CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s Padayatra, a major turning point in his political career, and how it helped him win the elections. However, the most controversial of all the biopics to have released in 2019 was Lakshmi’s NTR, directed by RGV, which told the story of how NTR’s life changed, both personally and politically, when Lakshmi Parvathi entered his life.

Then, there were inspirational dramas like Mallesham, a biopic of Chintakindi Mallesham, and Jeevan Reddy’s George Reddy, a biopic of slain OU student leader of the same name. Megastar Chiranjeevi too appeared in Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, a period drama which was inspired from the life of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, a freedom fighter who led an uprising against the British East Indian company in mid-19th century.

Small is the new big

The trend of content-rich films became even more dominant in 2019 with the success of films like Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya and Brochevarevarura. The box-office result of these films proved that the audiences are more than ready to embrace good cinema, irrespective of the cast and budget of the film. All that mattered was a unique story and an engaging screenplay.

There were also a few other films like Mallesham and Dorasaani, which underperformed at box-office despite critical acclaim, but it was evident that the time is right to tell stories which are original and unique in their own ways. This phenomenon wasn’t just restricted to low budget films considering that some of the finest films of the year had Samantha in Nandini Reddy’s Oh! Baby, which focused on the travails of an old woman and how life gives her a second chance to fulfil her dreams, and the Taapsee starrer Game Over, where she played a wheelchair-bound game developer who survives a home invasion.

Bulls and bears

The market for Telugu films had its share of ups and downs this year; however, with dwindling footfalls, largely due to the rise of OTTs, becoming the new normal, Telugu film producers and distributors have an uphill task ahead of them.

On one hand, the market for Telugu films in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh continued to surprise trade pundits, with some of the most anticipated films like NTR Kathanayakudu/Mahanayakudu, Vinaya Vidheya Rama turning into box-office turkeys while films like F2 and iSmart Shankar met with a resounding success beating initial estimates.

On the other hand, the stagnation of the market for Telugu films in the USA has raised a lot of red flags. With a bunch of big ticket films lined up for release in 2020, including Sarileru Neekevvaru, Ala Vaikuntapuramulo, RRR among others, it’ll be interesting to see if the market improves dramatically for Telugu cinema in overseas markets.

A political charade

RGV’s controversial biopic Lakshmi’s NTR hogged the limelight in the first quarter of 2019. The filmmaker ensured that the film grabbed eyeballs, politically, and the slugfest reached an extent that the AP Government banned the film until the elections were held in the state. RGV even went to Election Commission and Supreme Court to get the film released in AP; however, it was deemed to be too controversial to release during the election season.

Towards the end of the year, he made another film, Kamma Rajyam Lo Kadapa Biddalu, which was another direct reference to how YS Jagan’s rise to power as CM had taken a toll on Chandrababu Naidu and TDP; however, after a lot of hue and cry, the film’s title was changed to Amma Rajyam Lo Kadapa Biddalu.

Protests at the doorstep

2019 also saw numerous protests against films and celebrities for a wide range of reasons. First it was against Bigg Boss Season 3, which was to be hosted by Nagarjuna, after a woman appeared on TV alleging that a member from the reality show’s team made sexual remarks under the guise of auditioning her for the show. Several petitions were filed against the show to stop it from airing on TV, and police security was beefed up at Nagarjuna’s house owing to these controversies. 

After Sri Reddy set the ball rolling last year about allegations of sexual harassment in the Telugu film industry with her strip protest, several production houses this year have set up ICs (Internal Committee) to address the issue, as mandated by law. 

In another incident, members of the Boya Valmiki community threatened to disrupt the screening of Varun Tej-Harish Shankar’s Valmiki, the Telugu remake of Jigarthanda, if the makers didn't change the title. While the movie team was adamant about retaining the title, the issue escalated a day before the film’s release when the SP of Kurnool district told the district collector that there could be a law and order issue, and the latter even issued orders to stop the film’s screening. Finally, just a few hours before the film’s release, the title was changed to Gaddalakonda Ganesh.

Another major protest which rocked the industry was from the descendants of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, who alleged that Ram Charan’s team hadn’t kept their promise of paying a royalty to them for using material and information to make the big budget film, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. After a stage, they even told the media that Ram Charan and Chiranjeevi had refused to meet them to sort out the issue, and that they weren’t allowed to share their concerns about how their illustrious ancestor was going to be portrayed in the film. Finally, Chiranjeevi himself invited the descendants of Narasimha Reddy and the two parties settled the issue amicably.

The big rumours

RGV’s controversial streak aside, the year also saw a big debate over Pawan Kalyan’s return to films. The actor-turned-politician had vowed to dedicate his life to politics and social service; however, towards the end of the year, the news about his return to films stirred a debate both in political and film circles. The actor himself stated that he has no other option, to earn money, other than acting in films or producing them. Apart from producing a big budget film, Pawan Kalyan will also star in the Telugu remake of Pink, which will be produced by Dil Raju and Boney Kapoor. However, the news soon turned into a political controversy with many of his opponents questioning his commitment to his political career. 

The biggest rumour of the year was, however, had to do with Rana Daggubati’s health. First, the actor lost oodles of weight for his role in NTR Mahanayakudu in which he played Chandrababu Naidu, and later, he signed Venu Udugula’s Virata Parvam; however, there was a lot of uncertainty over when the latter film was going to take off owing to Rana’s health. The actor was on a low sodium diet to control his blood pressure and rumours were abuzz that his constant body transformation for his roles had taken a huge toll on his health. Another rumour which kept haunting Rana was that he was going to undergo a kidney transplant in the US; however, there has been no official statement from either him or his family. The actor did spend quite a lot of time in the US earlier this year, and he eventually returned to India, to kickstart his next slate of films much to everyone’s relief.

A pleasant surprise

In a remarkable turn of events, Telugu cinema got plenty of awards at the 66th National Film Awards. While Keerthy Suresh was given the Best Actress award for her performance in Mahanati, Prashant Varma’s Awe! won two awards for Best Make-up and Best VFX. On the whole, Telugu cinema won seven awards in multiple categories, which is its best tally ever since the National Awards were established.

Sunshine at the box-office

Unlike previous years, the summer box-office for Telugu films was anything but ordinary. Except for Mahesh Babu’s Maharshi, Nani’s Jersey, and Naga Chaitanya, Samantha starrer Majili , there were no other major releases of A-list actors in summer this year. Maharshi went on to become a blockbuster, and both Majili and Jersey opened to rave reviews and solid response at the box-office.

In the absence of big-budget films, it was an open turf for small and medium budget films to prove their mettle, and films like Brochevarevarura and Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya made the most of the opportunity. Among other films, Game Over earned critical acclaim for its complex narrative, while Raghava Lawrence managed to find a huge audience, yet again, for his horror drama, Kanchana 3.

Mega budgets and bigger dreams

In the post-Baahubali era, there’s no denying that Telugu filmmakers and producers have set their eyes on expanding the market for Telugu films. And the year’s two big tentpole films - Saaho and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy - did precisely that; however, the results were quite mixed, to say the least. While Prabhas’ Saaho collected close to Rs 150 crores in Hindi (nett), thereby cementing Prabhas’ pan-Indian star status, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy couldn’t weave its magic around in any language other than Telugu.

However, these mixed results haven’t stopped filmmakers from dreaming big. It was also the year when more doors opened for a few Telugu filmmakers in Bollywood. Sandeep Vanga helmed the remake of Arjun Reddy in Hindi, Kabir Singh. The film, starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani, went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year. Now, Gowtam Tinnanuri and Ashok G too are gearing up to remake their respective Telugu films, Jersey and Bhagamathie, in Hindi next year.

OTTs - a boon and bane

The popularity of Netflix, Amazon Prime and their ilk turned into one of the biggest boons and also a major bane for Telugu film industry this year. The streaming giants have shown their willingness to pay a premium to buy the digital rights of Telugu films, which added a major revenue stream for the producers; however, it’s taken a toll on the industry in terms of dwindling footfalls in theatres, considering that most films are being legally streamed online within two months of their theatrical release. The popularity of OTT platforms is reshaping the dynamics of the industry and it’s pushing everyone to either embrace the demands of the digital age or risk being left behind from the digital boom.

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