On the face of it, these are the best of times for Telugu cinema. A series of hits showcased the creative talent and economic muscle of the industry. International newspapers, which barely acknowledged the existence of Telugu cinema in the past, carried full-length stories on Telugu films. Videos of kids dancing to Telugu songs have gone viral. Both RRR and the Baahubali franchise had white, Anglo-Saxon fans promoting them. And no less a star than Kangana Ranaut went on record saying that Bollywood had much to learn from Telugu, “the number one film industry in India”. In the words of Ram Gopal Varma: “Telugu is the new Hindi.”
Telugu films, in their Hindi dubbed versions, have been circulating in increasing numbers for well over a decade now. However, for most viewers and commentators of Hindi cinema, they were indistinguishable from other “south films”.
The image makeover of Telugu cinema began with, and was facilitated by, the success of Baahubali: The Conclusion. Complementing the awe-inspiring Telugu blockbuster was a trickle of films made on modest budgets, like C/O Kancharapalem, which had a short theatrical run but a long afterlife on OTT platforms. During the nationwide lockdown, there were notable direct-to-OTT releases produced in Telugu, including the action thriller V. The post-lockdown successes are, of course, the stuff of legend.
Beyond the ballyhoo
Scratch the surface—or scroll down the results thrown up by Google on queries related to Telugu cinema—and a different picture emerges. While it is true that Telugu films, and those made by the three other southern industries, have done remarkably well in comparison with their Hindi counterparts in 2021 and 2022, there have been expensive failures like the Prabhas starrer Radhe Shyam and Acharya, the latter featuring both Chiranjeevi and Ram Charan. That is not all. Telugu and English language media reports indicate that theatrical viewing in the Telugu States too has not reached pre-pandemic levels. In fact, most Telugu films released in the past year have not done well. As one newspaper report put it: “Dwindling theatrical revenues has forced the Telugu film fraternity to rethink its business models.”
These are the very same business models that generated eye-popping revenues for the mega hits: high ticket prices during opening weeks, reduced gap between theatrical and other releases, and, of course, bets on blockbusters. Producers held exhibitors responsible for inflating ticket prices and thereby dampening viewer enthusiasm. They pointed fingers at stars and directors for charging exorbitant fees which, in turn, inflated budgets. They also felt that competition from OTT platforms was a threat to theatrical exhibition. In a rare move, Telugu film producers went on a strike in early August—not something one expects from a model industry.
At the same time, cinema in general is not what it was in the 20th century. Moments of crises threw up new opportunities. For Telugu cinema, this came in the form of dubbing and digital distribution and exhibition which opened new markets. From 2010, starting with the Rajinikanth starrer Enthiran/Robot, Tamil and Telugu blockbusters competed within India and beyond for Hindi cinema’s market. On occasion, dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu productions bettered the collections of their Hindi counterparts.
Battle between ideologies
This business competition has now turned into a battle between ideologies. Sections of the media, celebrities, and social media influencers have made systematic attempts to use Telugu cinema as a resource in the ongoing campaign against Bollywood. It is another matter altogether that key players in the Mumbai film industry—including Karan Johar and distributor Anil Thadani—have partnered with their Telugu counterparts to co-produce, distribute, and publicise Hyderabad productions that went on to become hits in Hindi.
If anything, we are witnessing an unprecedented degree of collaboration between Telugu and Hindi industries, and the consolidation of an entertainment industry that cuts across languages and formats.
None of this has come in the way of building up Telugu films, in particular their Hindi dubbed versions, as socially and politically desirable alternatives to Bollywood’s supposedly anti-Hindu and anti-national products. Among the films released this year, RRR and Karthikeya 2 stand out for the traction they gained on social media owing to the campaigns against Bollywood.
The promotion of RRR as a pro-Hindu film is a pointer to the malleable nature of these campaigns. In November 2020, when a teaser of the film was released, a prominent Telangana BJP leader condemned the film for “distorting historical facts” and even warned that theatres screening RRR would be set on fire. A good two months before this, Tupaki.com, a website that covers politics and entertainment in the Telugu States, wondered if the anti-Bollywood campaign that followed in the wake of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death would affect RRR because it featured Alia Bhatt.
There have also been speculations on whether the omission of Gandhi and Nehru in the film’s tribute to freedom fighters was a compromise to present-day politics. Whatever be the real story, the fact remains that RRR was promoted as a sterling example of pro-Hindu, nationalist cinema.
Cinema and politics have a long history of cohabitation in India. Telugu cinema is no stranger to the benefits and perils of embroilment in politics. It has spawned star politicians and highly organised fans who are deeply entrenched in caste and party politics, and are capable of actions that damage their idols’ reputations. Like other film industries, it is familiar with campaigns against individual films, and even attacks on property by offended caste groups and political formations.
On occasion, rivalries between film stars’ fans have resulted in violence and damage to cinema halls.
The unfolding story in which Telugu cinema finds itself today is not about individual films like RRR, Karthikeya 2, Samrat Prithviraj and Shamshera or genres like the fantasy film. It is not just about the acts of commission and omission of celebrities or their fans.
Online boycott and promotion campaigns are, firstly, clear pointers to the strengthening linkages between politics and entertainment in our time. Our politicians regale us with their wit and move us to tears, bettering the best of professional actors. Secondly, emerging modes of mobilisation, as well as issues, events and objects around which mobilisations occur, are determined by the media ecosystem: films as well as consumers are dispersed across media forms and platforms.
The “crisis” that sections of the Telugu film industry have been warning us about is partly a result of the shift away from older media forms and modes of consumption.
Most of us watch films on small screens and in small groups or all by ourselves, not in cinema halls with hundreds of others. There are fans among us who have not been to a movie theatre in years. Film stars are present everywhere: on television shows, in advertisements, and in cricket stadiums. Everyone can, in theory, communicate directly with stars on their social media accounts.
In a study of Bollywood stars, Sreya Mitra, a media studies researcher, draws attention to context in which stars, and their films, become the target of Internet trolls. She says: “With the increasing synergy between film, television, and digital media, the Bollywood star is no longer perceived as merely a cinematic idol but rather as a transmedia celebrity, effortlessly straddling multiple media platforms and domains.”
When Bollywood became cool
This is a consequence of what film theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha termed the Bollywoodisation of Hindi cinema. Bollywoodisation, for Rajadhyaksha, is the process by which Hindi films—low-value commodities which often did not even recover the cost of production—became a part of a much larger culture industry that includes tourism, fashion, advertising, live shows, and much more.
The film star was at the heart of the makeover of Hindi films from once being sources of embarrassment to the middle class to symbols of cultural nationalism, and cool ones at that.
Sreya Mitra notes that social media enables stars-turned- transmedia celebrities to monetise their popularity through brand endorsements. At the same time, social media also allows virtually anyone with an account to launch direct attacks on a star and amplify others’ attacks. As a result, the “disrespectful troll” is as much as a part of a celebrity’s public life as the adoring fan.
If campaigns on social media have impacted Hindi film stars’ earnings it is not only because of Internet cultures of adulation and abuse but also because online interactions were engineered or amplified by political movements and organisations. Telugu cinema’s arrival on what was until then the problem of Bollywood’s transmedia stardom dates back to the release of Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and its attempt to enter the lucrative Hindi market.
The larger media ecosystem provided its creators as an opportunity to launch not just a two-part film but an entire franchise.
The Baahubali franchise
According to the film’s co-producer Shobu Yarlagadda (interviewed by the author in February 2018), the franchise aimed at creating a new kind of fan who would be a fan of the franchise. This included not just films but animation series, live action series, novels, comic books, toys, and games.
The social, and political, significance of this attempt is not lost on anyone familiar with Telugu and Tamil film industries. Film star fandom in the Telugu States is at once hypervisible and has complex linkages with both caste and political mobilisations. Despite the commercial success of the Baahubali project, however, franchise fandom was not in evidence, at least not in the form envisaged by its producers. Even as Baahubali: The Beginning was making waves in multiple languages, fights broke out in an Andhra town between fans of Prabhas and Pawan Kalyan. To say the least, the caste and political affiliations of fans of both stars came into play in the incident.
On social media, Baahubali: The Beginning marked the beginning of Telugu cinema’s deployment as a resource in ongoing campaigns by handles identifying with the Hindu right. Journalist Anna Vetticad, among others, was attacked on Twitter for her critical review of the film. While some Twitter users objected to her reading of the film, others flung sexual and communal expletives at her. Responses to her review of Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017) were even more vicious. Anna Vetticad herself interpreted this as the sign of “Telugu fandom meeting Sangh Parivar strategy”.
For Telugu cinema, the economic benefits of promotion by right-wing handles are difficult to quantify. Serial campaigns for Telugu cinema against Bollywood have reinforced the view that the Telugu industry is now producing Hindutva propaganda films. It is too early to say if Telugu films are repositioning themselves to benefit from these campaigns, and thus becoming the labels that are tagged to them.
Several major Telugu film stars have adopted the Bollywood model. They now have a transmedia presence that is augmented by professionally managed social media accounts. Even a decade ago, the best paid male stars used to limit themselves to films, and appeared on television only occasionally. They were immobile in another sense of the term too: they limited themselves to predictable and formulaic films. The latter continues to be the case with the biggest stars of the industry, but the mass Telugu film itself has metamorphosised into the blockbuster position of a countrywide release in multiple languages.
Parallelly, Telugu cinema has begun to address questions of caste and socio-economic oppression more directly than in the past decades. There is also a new crop of creative talent, on-screen and behind the screen, engaged in formal and thematic experimentation. And full-length spoofs of over-the-top star vehicles.
Commentary on Telugu cinema and industry has moved well beyond reviews, nostalgic recollections, and periodic lamentations on the inferior quality of recent films. These resonate with developments in other Indian cinemas, most notably Tamil and Malayalam. However, all this, and more, is drowned by the noise on whether the latest Telugu film is better, or worse, than its Bollywood counterpart.
A positive media buzz is not the only consequence when Telugu becomes the new Hindi. The campaign against Liger, a film directed and produced by well-known Telugu film industry figures and starring a rising Telugu star, is an early indication that the stage is now set for attacks on Telugu films and personalities. Even if the immediate target is the Hindi dubbed version.
S.V. Srinivas teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He is the author of two books on the social and political history of Telugu cinema: Megastar (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Politics of Performance (Permanent Black, 2013).
- Many vested interests have tried to use Telugu cinema in the campaign against Bollywood.
- For Telugu cinema, the economic benefits of promotion by right-wing handles are difficult to quantify.
- The stage is also now set for attacks on Telugu films and personalities.
- Theatrical viewing in the Telugu States has not reached pre-pandemic levels.
- For Telugu cinema, dubbing and digital distribution and exhibition have opened new markets.
- The film star was at the heart of the makeover of Hindi movies into cool symbols of cultural nationalism.
- Several major Telugu film stars have a transmedia presence augmented by professionally managed social media accounts.