Telugu cinema in 2023: ‘Balagam’ to ‘Hi Nanna’ and ‘Salaar’, taking stock of notable films and trends this year

It was a subdued year for Telugu cinema. While a few ambitious films bit the dust, there were several smaller surprises as well

Updated - December 27, 2023 02:23 pm IST

Published - December 27, 2023 01:33 pm IST

(Clockwise from top left) Telugu films ‘Salaar’, ‘Keedaa Cola’, ‘Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty’, ‘Hi Nanna’, ‘Dasara’, ‘MAD’, ‘Samajavaragamana’, ‘Month of Madhu’, ‘Balagam’ and ‘Virupaksha’

(Clockwise from top left) Telugu films ‘Salaar’, ‘Keedaa Cola’, ‘Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty’, ‘Hi Nanna’, ‘Dasara’, ‘MAD’, ‘Samajavaragamana’, ‘Month of Madhu’, ‘Balagam’ and ‘Virupaksha’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At the time of publishing this feature, director Prashanth Neel’s Salaar, headlined by Prabhas,had opened to an overwhelming response at the ticket windows. The celebratory atmosphere is a good way to sign off an otherwise underwhelming 2023 for Telugu cinema. This late December cheer is reminiscent of the excitement that director Sukumar and Allu Arjun’s Pushpa - the Risegenerated towards the end of 2021, a year when theatres were closed for months during the pandemic.

The mammoth success of Pushpa followed by SS Rajamouli’s RRRin early 2022 put the Telugu film industry in an enviable position. While other industries struggled, it looked like Telugu cinema knew a thing or two about getting the audience, who were homebound during lockdowns, back to the theatres. 2023, however, has been a reality check. Barring Salaar, several ambitious Telugu films that hoped to cut across language barriers bit the dust.

Emerging directors made qualitative films that broke away from the clutter but these were few and far between. For every Balagam, Month of Madhu, MAD, Hi Nanna and Miss Shetty, Mr Polishetty, there were periods of prolonged lull. The summer of 2023 was the most lukewarm in the industry’s recent history, except for the pandemic years when the virus played spoilsport. 

Data from the Telugu Film Producers’ Council reveals that approximately 300 films were released in theatres until December 22, of which 230 were direct Telugu films and 70 were dubbed in Telugu.

An overview of the year, before we discuss films that stood out. 

Pan-India bubble

It was a matter of time before this bubble burst. The blurring of language boundaries, for the current generation of filmmakers, began with SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali -the Beginning in 2015, further bolstered by Prashanth Neel’s KGF series, Pushpa, Kantara and RRR. The digital boom during lockdowns further whetted the appetite of the audience to watch series and films in different languages. 

However, did every ambitious Telugu film stand a chance at the national box office? Films such as Skanda - the attacker, Agent, Ravanasura, Spy, Shaakuntalam and Tiger Nageswara Raofailed on homeground and in other languages. Director Shiva Nirvana’s romance drama Kushi, starring Vijay Deverakonda and Samantha Ruth Prabhu, opened well in Telugu thanks to its feel-good vibes, but struggled to hold attention beyond the opening weekend.

Big players and small wonders

The year began with the 1990s and 2000s hangover in the form of Sankranti hits Veera Simha Reddy, starring Balakrishna,and Waltair Veerayya, starring Chiranjeevi,before giving way to smaller surprises, some of which came from first-time directors. Actor-turned-director Venu Yeldandi’s Balagam, Srikanth Odela’s Dasara, Shanmukha Prasanth’s Writer Padmabhushan, Sumanth Prabhas’s Mem Famous and Shouryuv’s Hi Nanna and Puja Aparna Kolluru’s Martin Luther King are a few cases in point. Telangana-centric narratives took centre stage in Balagam, Dasara, Mem Famous and Rupak Ronaldson’s Pareshan. Horror and supernatural themes witnessed a resurgence in films such as Virupaksha and Maa Oori Polimera 2. Director Ajay Bhupathi’s Mangalavaaram also caught attention.

Anand Deverakonda and Vaishnavi Chaitanya in director Sai Rajesh’s ‘Baby’

Anand Deverakonda and Vaishnavi Chaitanya in director Sai Rajesh’s ‘Baby’

Director Sai Rajesh’s romance drama Baby became a talking point for its portrayal of three immature and flawed characters — played to the hilt by Anand Deverakonda, newcomer Vaishnavi Chaitanya and Viraj Ashwin. Debates raged on whether the film, deliberately or inadvertently, portrayed Vaishnavi’s character in a poor light, as the film became a smashing hit. Vijay Bulganin’s music was one of the biggest strengths of the film.

Chiranjeevi starrer Bhola Shankar directed by Meher Ramesh, showed that star power isn’t enough to salvage an outdated remake. On the other hand, director Anil Ravipudi’s Bhagavanth Kesari had Balakrishna espousing women empowerment. The film gets message-heavy and preachy but Balakrishna’s ‘woke’ turn came in for appreciation.

2023 Watchlist

Here are some of the worthwhile films, in the order of their release. This list was collated prior to the arrival of Bubblegum and Devil, scheduled to release on December 29.

Balagam

Priyadarshi, Sudhakar Reddy and Kavya Kalyanram in director Venu Yeldandi’s ‘Balagam’

Priyadarshi, Sudhakar Reddy and Kavya Kalyanram in director Venu Yeldandi’s ‘Balagam’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Venu Yeldandi, a comic actor for more than two decades, surprised everyone with his debut directorial film Balagam. This indie-style drama is rooted in rural Telangana subculture while narrating a universal story of human relationships. It explored fractured family ties and human behaviour, with an ensemble cast that included Priyadarshi, Kavya Kalyanram, Roopa, Sudhakar Reddy and Muralidhar Goud. An elderly man’s passing and the villagers paying their obeisance with high drama set the stage for laughter and slowly lay bare how bloated egos can divide families over simple issues. Venu, who grew up in a joint family in Sircilla, Telangana, explores the intersection of family politics, food and culture in the region. Hindi films Ramprasad ki Tehrvi and Pagglait, the Kannada film Thithi and the Tamil film Sethum Aayiram Pon have explored death and family politics, but it is a less explored territory in Telugu.  

Dasara

Nani and Keerthy Suresh in ‘Dasara’, directed by debutant Srikanth Odela

Nani and Keerthy Suresh in ‘Dasara’, directed by debutant Srikanth Odela

Srikanth Odela, who had earlier assisted director Sukumar, debuted as writer-director with Dasara, set in the vicinity of coal mines in Godavarikhani, Telangana. A story of friendship, romance and revenge that explores class and caste politics is narrated in a ‘massy’ action drama style and helped by Nani and Keerthy Suresh’s rugged, winsome performances. A fictitious Silk Bar becomes the bone of contention; caste restrictions dictate who gets to step into the bar. Alcohol is a way of life in this coal mine town and Srikanth, along with his direction team that comes from the region, mirrors local dialects and festivals such as Bathukamma, Peerla Panduga and the Ravana dahanam. 

Virupaksha

Sai Dharam Tej in ‘Virupaksha’

Sai Dharam Tej in ‘Virupaksha’

Director Karthik Varma Dandu’s thriller refrains from overtly relying on jumpscares and manipulative sound design to evoke the fear factor. Set in the 1990s prior to the arrival of mobile phones and social media, the narrative has its required eeriness since help is never a call or a click away. Karthik’s story, with screenplay by Sukumar, probes the mysterious happenings in a jungle village named Rudravanam, where old practices that border on superstition hold sway. In this Sai Dharam Tej and Samyukta Menon starrer, the narrative spills clues all through the initial portions and has intriguing supporting characters that eventually become suspects. Do they all hold the key to the darker secrets of Rudhravanam? Despite underwhelming visual effects in the final minutes, the film manages to be an immersive atmospheric thriller.

Newsmakers
S S Rajamouli’s RRR became the first Telugu and Indian feature film to win an Academy Award for the Best Original Song, Naatu Naatu, composed by M M Keeravani and written by Chandrabose.
Allu Arjun became the first Telugu actor to win the National Award for Best Actor for his performance in director Sukumar’s Pushpa -The Rise.
Streaming space: Venkatesh and Rana Daggubati made their digital debut with the Hindi-Telugu series Rana Naidu, an adaptation of the American series Ray Donovan. Venkatesh deviating from his family-friendly image and mouthing expletives, however, did not go down well with a section of the audience.
Naga Chaitanya Akkineni also made his digital debut in director Vikram Kumar’s crime thriller series Dhootha, which earned appreciation. 
Some of the other notable Telugu digital series were Dayaa, Anger Tales, Save the Tigers and Kumari Srimathi.

Samajavaragamana

‘Samajavaragamana’ turned the tables on the father-son equation

‘Samajavaragamana’ turned the tables on the father-son equation

A man has been struggling to pass his exams and the entire family is waiting to see if he will, someday, come out with flying colours. One family member keeps chiding him for being careless and lacking a sense of purpose. So what’s new? Director Ram Abbaraju, who has written the screenplay for the story by Bhanu Bogavarapu, cleverly turns the tables on who the wastrel in the family is. It makes all the difference and ensures a lot of laughter. Sree Vishnu and Naresh stand out in this comedy family drama.

Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty

Naveen Polishetty and Anushka Shetty in ‘Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty’

Naveen Polishetty and Anushka Shetty in ‘Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty’

She is a chef who moves to India from the UK, shies away from the idea of marriage but looks for a sperm donor to fill her void of motherhood. He, growing up in a middle class household, is a standup comic who wears his heart on his sleeve and looks for love and romance in the conventional sense. Director P Mahesh Babu narrates a story that can get predictable. We know how such stories usually end, but the lead characters keep us invested. Naveen Polishetty is in great form in the comic and emotional segments. A restrained, classy Anushka Shetty contrasts him. The narrative plays safe but ensures it treats its subject and characters with the required sensitivity.

MAD

Director Kalyan Shankar’s ‘MAD’ was all about campus fun

Director Kalyan Shankar’s ‘MAD’ was all about campus fun

Can an egg puff become the reason for the long-standing war between two campuses? Director Kalyan Shankar’s MAD speaks to the late teens and early 20s by presenting everyday situations on an engineering campus. The film gets its name from its three main characters — Manoj (Ram Nithin), Ashok (Nithin Narne) and Damodar (Sangeeth Shobhan) — and delivers a madcap entertainer. There is a sliver of a story, if you go looking for it, but it doesn’t matter since there is a lot of fun both in the classrooms and hostels. MAD does not take itself seriously and hopes its viewers will not either. If Jathi Ratnalu signified absurd comedy in 2021, this year it had to be MAD. The takeaway was the pitch-perfect performance by Sangeeth Sobhan and Vishnu Oi.

Month of Madhu

Naveen Chandra and Swathi Reddy in ‘Month of Madhu’

Naveen Chandra and Swathi Reddy in ‘Month of Madhu’

In Month of Madhu, director Srikanth Nagothi uses a narrative structure that moves back and forth to present the romance between Madhusudhan (Naveen Chandra) and Lekha (Swathi Reddy) who are now facing each other in court. The film also derives its title from another character named Madhu (Shreya Navile), a restless 19-year-old yearning for love and acceptance. A connecting thread between the principal characters in the film is their individual battle with loneliness, each in their own way. Month of Madhu is about love, introspection and letting go of a loved one, brought to life with moving performances by Swathi Reddy and Naveen Chandra, with Achu Rajamani’s music acting as the perfect foil.

Keedaa Cola

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s crime comedy ‘Keedaa Cola’

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s crime comedy ‘Keedaa Cola’

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s film is a wacky crime comedy on the surface with philosophical ideas about money, power and greed woven in. A cockroach in a cola bottle becomes the ticket for oddball characters to make big money but the company’s CEO will not take it lying down. Keedaa Cola has Brahmanandam, Chaitanya Rao Madadi, Rag Mayur, Jeevan Kumar and others in its cast. The portions between Tharun Bhascker as gangster Naidu and Vishnu Oi as his sidekick Sikander are terrific. The lone female presence — a doll named Barbee — is cleverly used to take a dig at the film industry. Keedaa Cola may not live up to Tharun’s earlier films Pelli Choopulu and Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi, but still has enough to root for.

Hi Nanna

Nani, child actor Kiara Khanna and Mrunal Thakur in ‘Hi Nanna’

Nani, child actor Kiara Khanna and Mrunal Thakur in ‘Hi Nanna’

Debut director Shouryuv’s film is chicken soup for the soul, a comforting and reassuring old-fashioned tale of love that conquers everything. The relationship drama involving three characters, played by Nani, Mrunal Thakur and Kiara Khanna uses familiar tropes such as a pet dog playing a catalyst, doing the right thing at the right time. It was like a throwback to Tuffy in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. There are other old-world tropes such as the medical condition of certain characters, accidents and the play of destiny. While some of these tropes can seem cliched, Shouryuv uses them to discuss relationship dynamics and contrast the optimistic and romantic nature of the male protagonist as opposed to the female character who has to battle anxiety and inner demons, caused by the scars of growing up in a broken family.  Hesham Abdul Wahab’s soulful score makes it one of the best Telugu albums this year. Nani, Mrunal Thakur and Kiara Khanna’s performances were the icing on the cake. Who said there is no space for feel-good romance dramas in these times of larger-than-life action extravaganzas?

Salaar: Part 1 - Ceasefire

Prabhas in ‘Salaar’, directed by Prashanth Neel

Prabhas in ‘Salaar’, directed by Prashanth Neel

Director Prashanth Neel’s action drama is an indulgent fan service to Prabhas, who returns to form long after Baahubali. After a Baashha-like first hour in which the title character lives in exile and refrains from displaying his aggression, Neel ushers us into the dystopian land of Khansaar and its murky politics. Somewhere off the map of India, the kingdom lives by its own rules, and its mere logo sends shivers down the spine of outsiders. Neel repackages his earlier tale of friendship and brotherhood from the Kannada film Ugramm and kicks off a game of thrones with a whole lot of characters. Prabhas’s persona and Prithviraj Sukumaran’s performance are the highlights of the actioner presented in soot-hues reminiscent of KGF. Some segments demand a lot of patient viewing, but one can also marvel at the meticulous world-building of Khansaar. It isn’t a rousing action drama and the story has just begun, setting the stage for part two.

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