Is Telugu cinema set for a change of scene?

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy wants the Telugu film industry to relocate to Visakhapatnam from Hyderabad. While the sops he has offered are attractive, there is reluctance in the industry to move. Appaji Reddem reports on a dilemma that the industry has faced once before 

Updated - March 05, 2022 05:35 pm IST

Published - March 05, 2022 02:30 am IST

An aerial view of Ramanaidu Studios, located on the outskirts of  Visakhapatnam.

An aerial view of Ramanaidu Studios, located on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. | Photo Credit: DEEPAK K.R.

The Telugu film industry is caught in a dilemma and struck by a sense of déjà vu. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy harbours a 70 mm-sized dream that he is keen to fulfil, which is to see the industry move base to the scenic and populous city of Visakhapatnam. This, he hopes, will help the port city grow into “a mega city like Hyderabad or Chennai”. Reddy has been assiduously persuading the industry, popularly known as Tollywood, to shift from Hyderabad, which is located in Telangana and has been home for the industry for decades.

For the industry, this is a case of history repeating itself. About 50 years ago, established as well as upcoming directors, producers and actors were hesitant to move from Madras, where the industry was born and nurtured, to Hyderabad in united Andhra Pradesh. Back then, it was actor-producer Akkineni Nageswara Rao who was trying to convince reluctant producers and directors to shoot their movies in Andhra Pradesh, where he founded the Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad. The move, slow and steady, proved to do wonders for Telugu cinema.

Discussions today over the second move have reached a fever pitch. On February 10, the State seemed star-struck. Television channels and social media were awash with photos and videos as the Chief Minister met Chiranjeevi, Prabhas, Mahesh Babu, S.S. Rajamouli and Koratala Siva, among others. Apart from listening to their concerns, Reddy offered them sops such as land for studios and residential townships in Visakhapatnam. He reminded them that the industry earns more revenue (60%) from Andhra Pradesh than Telangana. He promised to construct a locality similar to Jubilee Hills, the affluent suburban neighbourhood in Hyderabad where many actors live. The Chief Minister left no stone unturned in his pursuit of getting the show on the road.

Chiranjeevi told the press after the meeting that the industry too wants to develop equally in the two Telugu-speaking States. But whether the industry wants to shift lock, stock and barrel to Visakhapatnam is still unclear.

Baby steps

The journey of the Telugu film industry began in the Madras Presidency. In the early 1900s, Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu, known as the father of the Telugu film industry and a pioneer of Indian cinema, started a south Indian cinematograph company called Star of East Films. He also set up a film studio named Glass Studio, which had a roof made of glass to allow the sun to shine through in the days of no electricity. Naidu, a native of Machilipatnam in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, had moved to Madras at the age of 18 and had managed to make it big in the film industry. His audacious ideas soon turned into reality. He and his London-educated son, Raghupathi Surya Prakash Naidu, produced several films over the years, including Bhishma Pratigna (a silent film), Gajendra Moksham, Mathsyavatharam and Nandanaar.

But the going was tough. The company was expected to import technology and compete with European firms in the Indian market. A resolute Naidu swam against the tide. He made short films. He established Esplanade Ten House to exhibit his films, Gaiety Talkies on Mount Road, Crown Theatre on Mint Street, and Globe Theatre in Parasuwakka, all over a span of a few years. These theatres exhibited Indian, American and British films. But in the following years, Naidu faced severe financial issues due to intense competition from the East India Film Company.

Over the next decade, other Telugu-speaking filmmakers also pushed the envelope. The first Telugu talkie, Bhakta Prahlada, was made by H.M. Reddi on the sets of Alam Ara, in 1932. Many Telugu films were shot in Calcutta and Bombay. The previous year, Reddi made the first Indian multilingual (Telugu and Tamil) sound film, Kalidas. The commercially successful film, Lavakusa, was directed by C. Pullaiah, in 1934. Socially aware films such as Vande Mataram (1939), which presented the problems of uneven development, and Mala Pilla (1938), on the issue of untouchability and produced by Sri Sarathi Studios, ruled the roost till India achieved Independence in 1947.

From then on, there was no going back for the industry. Chitoor V. Nagaiah, the director, producer and writer, produced several classic movies including Thyagaiah (1946). Telugu production houses such as Vijaya Productions of B. Nagi Reddy and A. Chakrapani, Vijaya Vauhini Studios of B.N. Reddy, Bharani Pictures of Bhanumati Ramakrishna, Prasad Art Pictures of A.V. Subbarao, Annapurna Pictures of D. Madhusudhana Rao, and Prasad Labs of L.V. Prasad were set up. The industry mostly made bilingual movies that catered to the Telugu and Tamil markets. Over 300 films were released between 1950 and 1960.

The big move to Hyderabad

The industry’s perception began to change when the Madras Legislative Assembly passed the Andhra State Act in 1953, to provide for the formation of the State of Andhra Pradesh with Kurnool as its capital. On November 1, 1956, Andhra State and the Telangana region of Hyderabad State were merged to form the united Telugu-speaking State of Andhra Pradesh. Yet, the industry, which had built studios and firmly established itself in Madras, did not show a keen interest in shifting to Hyderabad. But the new State of Andhra Pradesh opened up new markets for Telugu films and the industry soon saw a reason to expand. Soon after the first Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, called for relocation of the industry, Sarathi Studios was set up in Hyderabad in 1959. Soon, more directors and producers followed suit. Prominent among them was Akkineni Nageswara Rao, who built Annapurna Studios in 1976, in an almost barren stretch of land on the outskirts of Hyderabad. By the 1970s and 1980s, except for Bharani Pictures, all the production houses had either moved to Andhra Pradesh or expanded. Hyderabad steadily evolved as a hub for Telugu films.

A film set being erected at Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad.

A film set being erected at Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: Mohammed Yousuf

Creative director, producer and writer Pavani Prasad Sivalenka, 63, recalled that period. While the industry produced movies in Madras, business happened in Andhra Pradesh, he said. Film personalities preferred to stay in Chennai but took lands offered by the Andhra Pradesh government. “Some of them shifted, but many of them secured land in Hyderabad for future expansion. There were others who got a second address in Hyderabad but continued to work in Madras. These include S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, K. Viswanath and Sobhan Babu,” Prasad said. Some of the younger actors preferred Hyderabad and left Madras, he said.

The industry expanded its roots in Hyderabad under the leadership of Chief Ministers Marri Chenna Reddy, N.T. Rama Rao, N. Chandrababu Naidu and Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. Many production houses came up after the creation of the new State of Andhra Pradesh, including Ramanaidu Studios, Padmalaya Studios, Prasad Labs, and Geeta Arts.

A game-changing addition to this was the 2,000-acre Ramoji Film City, which was built in Hyderabad in 1996. It entered the Guinness World Records as the world’s biggest such facility. The integrated film city and thematic holiday destination enabled small and big movies to be shot there. Hundreds of movies in Telugu, Hindi, Tamil and English were made in Ramoji Film City. With sets such as forests, gardens, hotels, a railway station, an airport, apartment blocks, mansions and workshops, the film city emerged as a unique destination for film production houses from across the world.

The film city has about 1,200 employees, including 8,000 agents. The non-production revenues too are huge considering the entry ticket price, which is ₹1,150 per head. Over 15 lakh people visit Ramoji Film City every year. The film city also handles about 400-500 movies per annum in various Indian languages. On any given day, it has the capacity to facilitate 15 shoots. Besides serious production activity throughout the year, the thematic holiday destination is filled with people visiting the sets of films like Baahubali and Wild Wild West.

A film set being erected at the shooting floor of Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad.

A film set being erected at the shooting floor of Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: Mohammed Yousuf

It was in the 1990s that the Telugu film industry finally called Hyderabad its permanent home. Today, the industry is estimated to be making over 300 films annually. The approximate revenue from both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana amounts to over ₹9,000 crore per annum. Considering the pan-India appeal of movies such as Rajamouli’s Baahubali, the industry is estimated to grow multifold in the coming years. It took Tollywood more than half a century to make the transition from Madras/Chennai to Hyderabad.

A divided Andhra Pradesh

In 2014, Parliament passed the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, creating the new State of Telangana. In the process of bifurcation, Andhra Pradesh lost its capital city Hyderabad and along with it, the film industry. Hyderabad was where prime businesses and investments took place. The film fraternity, who are predominantly from Andhra Pradesh, were comfortably settled in Hyderabad.

As the first Chief Minister of bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu appealed to the film industry to relocate slowly to Visakhapatnam, the next best destination for filmmaking. However, the proposal did not garner much interest.

Former Andhra Pradesh Film Development Corporation (APFDC) chairman Ambica Krishna said Visakhapatnam has great potential to be a destination for filmmaking given its beauty, topography and history. “Visakhapatnam is a better place for filmmaking than Hyderabad. It has a long association with the film industry. Hundreds of films have been made in the city over the past seven decades. We have identified a 100-acre land around the city where the film industry can develop. Some senior actors had applied for land here, but the efforts did not fructify during the previous government’s rule,” she said. In fact, when the industry moved from Madras, Visakhapatnam was the location it initially considered.

Like Naidu, Reddy is now batting for Visakhapatnam as a filmmaking hub. Visakhapatnam, said many, has sufficient infrastructure to house the industry. Film shoots take place regularly. Ramanaidu Studios is a fully equipped studio on a hill top facing the sea coast on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. Over 100 film shoots each year, small and big, take place at the 33-acre studio-cum-film city, according to its manager Avinash. “Most production houses come here for indoor and outdoor shoots. Most movies made here are in the Telugu language. We also have several filmmakers from Odisha and West Bengal coming here as these States are nearby,” he said. The facility is reportedly attractive for low-budget filmmakers as it is 50% less expensive compared to facilities in Hyderabad.

There is also a fully developed film club, Vizag Film Nagar Cultural Center, which has stayed active over the past few years. The club intends to develop a residential colony for the film fraternity in Visakhapatnam. The General Manager of the club, T.D.S. Hari, said, “We have over 1,200 members in our club. We are waiting for the government to give us more details about its offer of land for the industry. If the decision is delayed, we are prepared to buy land to develop a Film Nagar here.”

But is there equal enthusiasm among the well-known film directors and producers and actors? Director Geeta Krishna, who has shot several films, including the award-winning Sankeertana, in and around Visakhapatnam, said the offer of land is definitely attractive and will trigger a shift from Hyderabad. “This was what happened when the industry moved from Madras. Many in the industry took land and expanded their facilities in Hyderabad. Eventually the ecosystem was built over a period of time. The same is likely to happen in Visakhapatnam. It took a long time to shift to Hyderabad. The shift to Visakhapatnam may also take time,” he said.

Telangana won’t give up

What then of Hyderabad film city? The Telangana government looks like it will do everything necessary to keep the industry in good humour. At a time when the Andhra Pradesh government has reduced movie ticket prices as well as the number of shows, moves which will negatively impact the industry, the Telangana government has allowed an increase in the price of tickets and in the number of shows.

During the film release function of the Pawan Kalyan-starrer Bheemla Naik, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s son K.T. Rama Rao, who is Information Technology Minister, stated that the State government will do everything it can to promote the film industry. “We will see to it that Hyderabad becomes the national hub of the film industry. We are committed to extending our full support to the industry,” he said.

The film industry is feeling the pinch in Andhra Pradesh. Upset over the decision regarding the pricing of tickets, many in the industry wanted the government to revoke the Government Order put out in this regard. In December 2021, the Andhra Pradesh government had brought out the Order to restrict the price of movie tickets and number of shows, arguing that movie makers and theatres have been exploiting the common man with high ticket rates and more shows.

Minister for Information and Broadcasting and Cinematography Minister Perni Venkatramaiah (Nani) said that the government would bring in changes in the Cinematography Act to introduce online movie ticketing, restrictions on the number of shows, and caps on the ticket price to control the exploitation. The State government had announced that it will initiate the process through the Film Development Corporation.

In response to the industry’s concerns, articulated during the February 10 meeting, Reddy proposed to offer a few concessions to films with big budgets of ₹100 crore or more with regard to ticket pricing in the first week of release. He also favoured a proposal to have five screenings per day.

The movie ticket pricing episode sits rather uncomfortably with the sops announced by the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister. While the government says its decision was taken keeping in mind the issue of affordability of entertainment for the common man, some in the industry see it differently. Director Ram Gopal Varma said that “the government, while settling scores with its political rivals, is punishing the entire industry with new ticket prices and restrictions on shows.” Such restrictions, he said, will definitely “impact creative zeal and discourage distributors from investing in quality films that would need big budgets.”

Branding it as “vendetta politics”, director Geeta Krishna said, “I like the Chief Minister’s policies in the manifesto but in my opinion, the government’s decision on ticket pricing is a big blunder.” Such a decision will definitely impact the industry post-COVID-19, he added. There are movies whose total worth would amount to over ₹5,000 crore waiting to be released any time now. “The recent pan-India movie Pushpa collected over ₹100 crore. The Telugu industry is very important now and is making a big impact across markets in India. Considering the ground situation and potential, it’s important for the Andhra Pradesh government to incentivise the film industry,” he added.

The film industry wants to see the Andhra government walk the talk on its promises. To add to Reddy’s woes, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has ordered the government not to move the capital from Amaravati. This will likely cast a shadow over his Visakhapatnam dream city project for now.

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