Maybe I’m biased, but Telugu films never get the recognition they deserve. Only recently have Telugu films become more readily available in their original language via streaming platforms and screened in theaters worldwide, increasing accessibility. Out of the top 87 highest grossing Indian films to date, the Telugu films that are ranked are “Rangasthalam” (2018) at number 74, “Sarileru Neekevvaru” (2020) at number 60, “Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy” (2019) at number 55, “Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo” (2020) at number 49, “Pushpa: The Rise – Part 1” (2021) at number 23, “Baahubali: The Beginning” (2015) at number 10, “RRR” (2022) at number four and “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” (2017) sits at number two.
Although Telugu films are slowly starting to make their marks on the charts, the Hindi film industry has always dominated popular notions of Indian cinema. Hindi actors and directors are the ones that have wax figures made of them at Madame Tussauds. They’re the ones that get to walk the red carpets, represent film festival panels and strike Hollywood deals.
Time after time we’ve witnessed the Hindi film industry take screenplays from the Telugu industry and other South Indian industries, and while the original Telugu screenplays have higher ratings, they’re still not as popular as their Hindi remakes. For example, many Hindi-film fans will know the iconic film “Rowdy Rathore” (2012) and its soundtrack, but many of those same fans would be shocked to find out that it is a remake of the Telugu movie “Vikramarkudu” (2006). The film even uses some of the same songs, just translated into Hindi! While “Vikramarkdu” has a 3.4 out of 5.0 rating on Letterboxd, “Rowdy Rathore” has a 2.3 rating. If you take a peek at that same list of the top 87 highest-grossing Indian movies, you’ll see “Rowdy Rathore” at 87, while the original “Vikramarkudu” is nowhere to be found.
Not only are some of the highest-grossing Indian films just Hindi remakes of Telugu screenplays, some of these films go as far as to make fun of South Indian culture altogether. Films like “Ra.One” (2011) and “Chennai Express” (2013) are prime examples of films that stereotype South Indian culture, yet they’re some of the highest-grossing Indian films to date, ranking at number 80 and 19 respectively.
So how can I convince you to pay more attention to the Telugu film industry? It’s not a task I can do alone, so I decided to sit down with the hosts of ThyGap Telugu Podcast. The hosts, using the pseudonyms BeingBrut and BogusNoog, review popular Telugu films, using sarcastic and witty humor to make anyone that can understand Telugu laugh until they have tears streaming down their faces. And luckily for you, if you don’t understand Telugu or have Telugu friends willing to translate, they also have an English podcast under the same name, ThyGap, which is just as entertaining.
Brut, Bogus and I all feel that the Telugu film industry has the potential of showcasing stories on the same caliber as the Western and Hindi film industries.
“Today, the fourth wall of movie-making has been broken,” Brut explained. “You are no (longer) bound by your regional concepts, you’re no (longer) bound by the regional talent. We have the potential of being as good storytellers as the Western (and/or Hindi) movie industry, but we somehow don’t seem to be going in that direction. And the reason that was told before was that the audiences don’t want it.”
But did audiences truly not want it? Before streaming services became mainstream, that may have been the case. “There’s a lot more exposure of the Hindi-speaking audience to the Tamil content and Kannada content and Telugu content,” Brut said. Before streaming platforms, it was difficult to find films with subtitles, so unless you understood Telugu, you wouldn’t be able to watch a Telugu movie. But now that subtitles and closed captions are the default on streaming platforms and in theaters, that’s no longer a concern. “We feel like the audiences are ready,” Brut said.
We’ve seen Telugu screenwriters reuse Hindi scripts in the past. However, Brut, Bogus and I don’t think that will continue to be the case. We feel that Telugu storytellers are pioneering original content, especially with recent films like “RRR,” sparking conversation about whether this could be a potential Oscar submission from India for “Best Foreign Language Film.”
“(The Telugu film industry) just started off, but the road map looks really exciting, is what we can say,” Brut said. “Storytelling is obviously the core of any content making, so a better question to ask is: are there good storytellers now?”
Storytelling is an art and a skill in and of itself. We are all storytellers, or at least consume stories via one medium or another. Storytelling allows the Telugu film industry to share cultural experiences, and through those experiences we’re able to learn from and teach each other more about ourselves and the world. Because of this, it’s also important to tell new stories so that new experiences can be shared and more can be learned from others.
To answer Brut’s question regarding storytellers, I wholeheartedly think there are (and have been) good Telugu storytellers and Telugu content to pave the path to recognition.
Personally speaking, Telugu comedy films have been able to make me laugh the most. Telugu horror films are some of the only horror movies that still scare me to this day (which is saying a lot considering I’m an avid horror movie fan and proudly claim that I can count on one hand how many horror movies have actually scared me). And although I hate romance movies, Telugu romance movies and their soundtracks are the sole reason my standards for love are set so unrealistically high. You may catch me taking a break from the dance floor when a Hindi item song plays, but you can bet to see me bouncing off the walls the second a Telugu item song plays. Even watching a Telugu movie in theaters is an experience in and of itself. Those of you who have seen a Telugu movie in a theater in India know how hype the crowds get. Everyone starts to cheer and whistle so loudly that you can’t even hear the movie anymore when the main protagonist makes his dramatic reveal on the screen. They sing along to the songs and get up out of their seats to start dancing. Even here in the U.S., depending on the movie and the crowd, you could have the same experience in your local theater. My older brother watched director S.S. Rajamouli’s latest film, “RRR,” in theaters. Part of his Letterboxd review reads: “Watching a Telugu movie in theaters with a hyped crowd just hits different.”
Not only do they allow me to feel such a wide array of emotions, Telugu movies mostly provide me a sense of comfort, mainly due to the cultural factors showcased in these films. There’s an immense sense of solace I feel when I see the characters celebrating Telugu holidays, eating Telugu food and wearing Telugu clothes. Seeing my culture on screen reminds me that I’m not alone in my experiences growing up as a Telugu girl and helps make the world feel a lot smaller. Not to say that film is the best way to learn more about another culture, but for viewers who may not identify with the Telugu community, Brut believes that Telugu films are a great starting point.
“Any culture has art as its core of its value system,” Brut said. “It can be classical music, it can be dance forms, it can be simple movie franchises — that forms our culture. Movies definitely add a hook to identify what culture you belong to, per se, but our culture is probably about (10,000) to 15,000 years older than what the movie industry is. So, it’s more of a contemporary ‘color code’ in which we can be identified.”
Reflecting on all of these emotions that the Telugu film industry can make people like me feel and given the collective love of storytelling, it’s evident why people like me are pushing for the Telugu industry to gain the attention it deserves. Watching Telugu movies and speaking about them, either via a podcast like ThyGap’s Telugu Podcast or just leaving reviews on Letterboxd, not only awards creativity and originality, but also pushes the medium forward. Telugu movies can provide a sense of cultural comfort and introduce new aspects of culture to other communities who aren’t familiar.
If you want to learn more about Telugu films, you can always head over and listen to the ThyGap Telugu Podcast (if you understand Telugu or have a Telugu friend willing to translate) or stream ThyGap’s English podcast afterward (my recommendation: their episode on storytelling!).
MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.