Just entertainment

It is surprising that not one Telugu film won a National Award this year. Does Telugu cinema reflect reality or is it bogged down by the commercial format? R. UMA MAHESHWARI spoke to a few film-makers who articulated their views.

NOT SO long ago, with the announcement of the National awards for cinema, there was yet another round of complaining and sighing in a few circles as to why no Telugu film won the favour of the jury. Some spoke of the bias of the jury members against Telugu cinema; and some questioned the selection of the panel in the first place. Of course, there were many who chose to be silent over the issue, taking it in their stride. And for some, recognition matters not so much as the sales of tickets. The question that is often asked is whether Telugu cinema indeed stands nowhere when compared with Kannada, Bengali, Tamil or Assamese? Does the nature of change in Telugu cinema reflect the reality at large?

Andhra Pradesh became notorious for the number of suicide deaths of farmers in a single year - yet not one Telugu film made in the recent past chose to represent this grim reality; on the other hand, there was a spate of Seema (factionalism) films in the commercial circuit. How does one explain this selective representation of reality in Telugu films? How representative of reality indeed, is Telugu cinema? Some filmmakers articulated their views. Gollapudi Maruti Rao, well-known character actor, writer, who instituted the Srinivas Memorial Foundation Award which recognises and applauds (annually) young directors who make films of excellence, minces no words when asked this question. He is categorical that "films have become consumer products and all filmmakers are sacrificing reality in the anxiety to reach the audience, presenting it in a saleable wrapper. There is no importance given to characterisation; as it was done in the past. What they show is not life; it is highly unrealistic. Their films are not even about dreams, they are vulgarisation of dreams. But they do not seem to care."

But young, up and coming director Nandini Reddy (who has been assisting Krishnavamsi and is presently busy directing her own film for Suresh Productions) is quite categorical about the fact that "commercial cinema is my forte and my approach is the same as others in this regard - that people come to enjoy and go back. But certainly one can put in a message in the film in an entertaining way. And people are doing that. Shankar does although in a loud manner - he took up corruption, reservations, unemployment as backdrops in his films, but of course made it in the commercial format. Nobody makes films to give messages - at least not so in the commercial arena. If a director spends three crores on a film, s/he wants the producer to get back three-and-a-half crores. But I would also say that the levels of aggression at all levels -love or violence - that have gone up in society are reflected in the films." But what about issues? She says, "filmmakers do take up issues; you can make subtle statements in the way you deal with a situation - as I do in my film in my portrayal of women characters - but at lighter levels. Women have a strong role in all of Krishnavamsi's films. You can make these personal choices in your films."

What about people who chose to tread different paths? Has Telugu film industry been encouraging? B. Narsing Rao (maker of Rangula Kala, Daasi, among other films, whose latest venture, Harivillu did not do too well at box office) says, "Telugu commercial cinema is ruthless. They do not think in terms of responsibility, ideology. It is glassy; taking up political subjects and references from day-to day affairs but even then it is like covering a wound with a beautiful ribbon. But all this talk is Latin to the producers. Filmmakers like me do not even count. Nor do our films. There was an effort to make via-media films in the 70s but those did not click at box office. These days, film music, attitudes and the speed is transported from Hollywood. We have wonderful technicians and artistes, but ruthless commercialism does not let their talent come to the fore. "

Just entertainment

A young documentary filmmaker (who has also been associated with mainstream Telugu cinema) Saraswathi Rao narrates an instance where she approached a producer with a story idea and he wanted to know if the theme was `factionalism', `college romance', `love story' or `police-goonda' formula! "I have been off Telugu films for sometime now. I remember telling my friends in Mumbai that they must learn from Telugu films - there were films, even comedies that had a close connection with reality. I personally believe Telugu film industry does not seem open to new ideas. And it is not true that the audience is not willing to accept them. Look at the success of a film like Aite. Now everyone wants to make a film like Aite - it is all about using tried and tested paths. Nobody has the guts or gumption to work with different themes. They will do so only if it has succeeded. People speak of money. But then every business is a risky affair. It is part of the game." Speaking of real life instances making their way into films, she says, "they started a spate of factionalism films; to tell you the truth, though I am not familiar with Rayalaseema, I have begun to believe that it is only about violence and factionalism. There is no effort to go deeper into these issues. There may be other aspects to it which I will never know. And films like Khadgam only add to the parochialism already prevalent. Some films do deal with real issues but they must show sensitivity and do more research, knowing how the medium can affect the psyche. Filmmakers must have a sense of social responsibility."

Is it difficult for sensitive filmmakers within the so termed commercial circuit? And is it always the audience that forces the film industry to encourage only certain kind of films? When Show won accolades at the national level, it seemed as though its success might leave a positive imprint on the forthcoming directors, and kinds of films churned out by the industry. A film with minimalist settings, and not a single song-and dance sequence, with essentially two characters managed to gain acceptance as an artistic film and did well commercially too. Neelakanta, the director of Show says, "I believe Andhra audiences are intelligent and discerning. Show proved what I was crying hoarse for long - that if you make a film with real emotions, with class, in a new style and genre, it is bound to succeed. But so far as reality is concerned, I don't think we are making films touching reality. People today are afraid to do so - they fear it might harm the commercial prospects. But I believe if reality can be presented to highlight human emotions it can succeed commercially too. Look at the Iranian films - they touch a chord within, and also do good business, and win awards. Moreover, I question the term `entertainment' per se. Who says a good artistic film cannot be entertaining? There is no fixed formula or taste for entertaining." Producer director Thimmareddy Bharadwaja says "we do use real life situations but we are not making realistic films. As for the national awards, I feel we deserved it, but we were denied, due to various reasons." Justifying the commercial aspect, he says, "it is about economics. Unfortunately our people are used to watching a certain type of films. Once their responses change, it would be easier to come out of the system.

At present nobody dares to do things differently. I have also not made `realistic' films, but have dramatised real life situations. However, all films cannot be totally artistic or totally realistic. We need a fair share of both."

Kiranmayi, an independent short filmmaker (who also made a film on Rayalaseema factionalism and is currently busy with a short film, Razai, the Quilt which will compete in the Video Film Festival, Mumbai), says, "lamenting on awards does not make sense. Filmmakers are not willing to engage with aesthetic values or social issues. Only a small percentage of individuals has started questioning. The audience in A.P. is far more accepting than they are perceived to be - so filmmakers should not pass the buck. The same audience accepted Toli Prema and Vasantham and films such as Shankarabharanam. What we need is change within the section of film `moguls' who will look at cinema critically. We need a strong movement demanding better cinema. Shift in perceptions do not occur overnight - it needs an impetus. Despite niches like the film society in Hyderabad, which struggles to bring the best of world cinema to the city, there is only a small pocket of people who watch them and wish to learn. Why don't film-makers wish to make a mark outside their region? Hollywood has become the yardstick."

The point remains however, as to how people, perceive the audio-visual media? More importantly, do they indeed have the choice of rejecting what they do not like? In a country such as ours even a film that flops at the box office allows the producers and distributors to break even, for them to come back with a vengeance, if not with better cinema. How much freedom do filmmakers have to explore when selling is the criterion? At the end of the day, are the days of the genre of Rithwik Ghatak, M.S.Sathyu and Bapu dead and gone? A lot of questions, as they say, have no answers. We just need to wait for a time when the `good' necessarily becomes the rule rather than an exception. Right now, it is difficult to convince them that good art can also sell - the question is whether they wish to make a living out of the art, or out of the selling.

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