celebrations Telugu cinema is a prominent part of Indian Cinema’s centenary celebrations. m.l. narasimham analyses where the Telugu cinema stands today

Indian cinema has come of age with a century of history behind it. This most popular entertainment industry in the country crossed the milestone 100 years this month. It was exactly on May 3, 1913 that Dundhiraj Govind Phalke, better known as Dadasaheb Phalke, released India’s first silent movie, ‘ Raja Harischandra ’ which he himself produced and directed, paving the way for indigenous cinema in the country. Following his example, in the south too, enterprising filmmakers such as Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu, his son R. S. Prakash, Y.V. Rao and A. Narayanan led by the pioneer Nataraja Mudaliar, began making silent movies mostly with mythological themes. Today, we talk about technological advancement, but even as early as in 1931 such an advancement had led another pioneer, Ardeshir Irani to experiment with sound and produce the first talking movie in India Alam Ara (Hindi). Interestingly, two of the later day top Telugu film personalities were associated with Irani’s pioneering effort. H.M. Reddy was his assistant director and L.V. Prasad played a cameo role in the movie. Very soon talking movies began to entertain the audience in the South too with H.M. Reddy making the Tamil-Telugu talkie Kalidas (October 31, 1931) and Bhaktha Prahlada (February 6,1932) in Telugu.

A hundred years have thus passed by since the advent of motion picture in the country and over eighty years since the first talkie hit the screens. What has the Telugu cinema achieved in its long career? Not even a single national award for the best picture or the best director since their inception in 1954!

But then, Telugu cinema started off well setting new trends and inspiring the filmmakers from other languages too with wide variety of themes – mythological ( Mayabazaar – 1936 and Venkateswara Mahathyam – 1939), social issues ( Malapilla -1938, Rythubidda -1939), devotionals ( Bhaktha Pothana – 1943) and historical ( Palnati Yuddham -1947). Veteran filmmaker K.S. Sethumadhavan himself has acknowledged that he chose this field inspired by B.N.Reddi’s Swargaseema that was released in Kerala too.

It was a perfect team work with patience and perseverance, coupled with foresight and intelligence which were the hallmark in those days. From tasteful producers, quality conscious filmmakers, committed actors to knowledgeable distributors, every one worked in tandem with total dedication. Shedding their image superstars of the time worked in different genre of movies and even produced offbeat films. N.T. Ramarao’s Thodudongalu and Pichi Pullaiah and A. Nageswara Rao’s (in partnership with Adurthi Subbarao) Sudigundaalu and Maro Prapancham are fine examples. As time changes, somewhere along the line, the Telugu hero became victim of his own image and has not been able to come out of it ever since, even though generations have passed since the advent of the first superstars of Telugu cinema. The committed and knowledgeable distributor has given way to the crass commercial buyer. Today there is a wide global market for Telugu films no doubt, but how many movies are able to cash on this? The reason is lack of quality films. But these filmmakers defend themselves with the common argument that with most family audience preferring to watch television, they (filmmakers) are left with no choice but to dish out ‘love stories’ for college going youngsters. The point is not about making such youthful films, but about how they are being made, and in the process degrading the values and corrupting the young minds. Though such a trend is evident in other language films too, still they are experimenting with new ideas and when such films are dubbed into Telugu ( Pizza and Journey for example) the audience are receiving them well, negating the argument that our audience shun such experiments. The change should come from the filmmakers, the principal actors and of course the media too, with its constructive criticism.

Rich literature in Telugu is waiting to be adapted by the cinema. During the early decades of talkies, classics from Telugu literature – Barrister Parvatheesam , Varavikrayam and Kanyasulkam were made into films. Later such popular works as Kalipatnam Ramarao’s Yagnam , (by G. Ramineedu) Palagummi Padmaraju’s Padava Prayanam (as Stree by K.S. Sethumadhavan) and Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry’s Nijam (by Devadas Kanakala) were also made as movies. Tiladaanam (by K.N.T. Sastry) and Grahanam (by Indraganti Mohanakrishna) both won the respective directors the national award for the debut director also come under this category.

When other language industries are taking such classic works from us, why are we now shying away from them? Sri Ramana’s Mithunam was first made into a film in Malayalam by the renowned writer-director M.T. Vasudevan Nair as Oru cheru punchiri (A slender smile). Recently, Thanikella Bharani brilliantly made a Telugu version of it. It is saddening to note that when such films are on their way to reach a wider section of the audience, they are removed from the theatres to accommodate the big players.

Earlier film societies played a major role in shaping up the viewers’ mind towards good cinema. But today they are on the decline due to various factors. It is high time the industry launched film appreciation courses for its members to raise awareness about good cinema so that without losing on aesthetics, we too can make quality commercial films and win national awards for best picture and best director.

With C. Kalyan, a Telugu film personality at the helm, it is laudable that the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce is planning to hold a three-day mega event in July in Chennai to celebrate the centenary of cinema. There should be one more agenda, each language industry to have a film archive and library of its own. With the National Film Archives, Pune largely serving the interests of Hindi cinema, it is time that the old film prints and whatever material on Telugu cinema lying there should be brought back, digitised and kept in our archive along with other archival material, for posterity.

There is no dearth of talent in our industry. Only it should be harnessed in the right earnest. Long live the entertainer.