28 May 2022

Sizzling South: What Is Driving Telugu Cinema

One reason behind the soaring box office success of the Telugu film industry is its fiery female star cast

Sizzling South: What Is Driving Telugu Cinema
Dance of ecstasy Samantha Ruth Prabhu in the song Oo Antava from Pushpa (2021)

Collaboration and exchange between the so-called North and South Indian film industries is not new. Both share an intertwined history dating back to the silent and early sound era. Of course, neither industry is monolithic. Each is rooted in a distinct set of languages, cultural practices and modes of production. My focus here is on the Telugu film industry. The most notable Telugu films with successful Hindi versions have been mainstream. They are adept at heightening familiar emotions and are able to present them anew.

Take L.V. Prasad, who started his career as an actor with a small part in Alam Ara (1931) after serving as an assistant director on the Arabian nights fantasy Kamar-Al-Zaman (1931), both made by the Imperial Film Company. Unable to establish himself in Bombay, Prasad turned to the Telugu film industry where he went on to direct hits like Shavukaru (1950) and Pelli Chesi Choodu (1952) that firmly established his reputation in directing social dramas in an industry otherwise dominated by mythologicals. Tamil-language filmmakers like S.S. Vasan introduced a spectacular style in Chandralekha (1948), featuring dance numbers on a scale hitherto unseen in Hindi cinema. Flush with the success of his social dramas, Prasad came back to Hindi cinema with remakes of family melodramas like Miss Mary (1952), Sharada (1957) and Milan (as producer, 1967). Prasad’s success paved the way for filmmakers like D. Rama Naidu and K. Balachander, who reinvented the sensational and the topical through box office successes like Tohfa (1984) and Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981).

During the 1990s and the new millennium, male action stars like Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh and Nagarjuna acquired an enormous fan following unique to Telugu cinema that filmmakers like Ram Gopal Varma successfully remodulated. If Jeetendra was the ideal dancing hero in D. Rama Naidu’s extravagant Hindi remakes, Salman Khan became the perfect comic action-hero in remakes like Wanted (2009), Ready (2011) and Kick (2014). What makes Baahubali I&II (2015, 2017), Pushpa (2021) and RRR (2022) unique is their seamless address to Telugu, Hindi and all-India audiences alike. Notably, NTR Jr. and Ram Charan Teja dubbed their own voices to magnify their star presence across Indian and global screens. The rise of streaming platforms saw an unprecedented decline in cinema going across the world, a phenomenon radically compounded by the stay-at-home restrictions of the pandemic. While Hollywood has been struggling to address this
decline, films like Pushpa and RRR re-focus attention on Indian cinema as an exemplar that continues to command large audiences, despite the challenges of exhibition space and technology. Box-office  figures running into Rs 1,000 crore signal not only profits, but the sheer number of its moviegoers. The massive scale of the Baahubali franchise, repeated for effect in RRR, reinforces the cultural might of India’s masses through its visually intoxicating style.

Burning ambitions  Sai Pallavi in Shyam Singha Roy (2021)
Burning ambitions Sai Pallavi in Shyam Singha Roy (2021)

Language barrier or not, locally, S.S. Rajamouli’s cinema arguably harnesses single-screen audiences at a time when existing multiplex and OTT platforms have priced out those with little or no access to the internet. In this decidedly post-multiplex scenario, the sensational, edge-of-the-seat, one-explosion-a-minute style of blockbuster Telugu cinema addresses itself to a wider déclassé audience, supplying elements that have fallen out of favour with the urbane forms of contemporary Hindi cinema. These films are also unmistakably masculine in their address, seen especially in the bromantic intensity, which undergirds many of the set pieces that depict extraordinary derring-do in RRR.

By contrast, traditionally, South Indian female stars in Bollywood have been privileged for their dancing skills, be it Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, Sridevi, Rekha, Aishwarya Rai or Deepika Padukone. It is through dance that audiences not familiar with Telugu cinema immediately took notice of South Indian actress Samantha Ruth Prabhu in Pushpa. Her raunchy dance number in the song Oo Antava achieved instant popularity, inspiring countless TikTok and YouTube videos. An unabashed resuscitation of the suggestive sexual address of Bollywood item numbers, the song relies on costume, male patrons, alcohol, words and movements to suggest the erotic, in ways that are implicit and coy.

In this post multiplex scenario, the sensational style of blockbuster Telugu cinema addresses itself to a déclassé audience, supplying elements that have gone out of favour with contemporary Hindi cinema.

At once a solicitation and a lament about the female condition, the song builds sexual tension by refusing to depict overt intimacy. The contrast hinges upon Samantha’s wide-eyed innocence, physical petiteness, diminutive presence and the dark questions she asks, amplified by shadowy lighting, the electric blue of her costume and atmospheric night-time setting. Oo Antava does all this while creating a recognisably feminine space of performance that simultaneously foregrounds Samantha’s stardom across a broad age, class, gender, and language spectrum, reminding audiences of its status as a one-time number that hovers on the edge of respectability.

Sensational success Jeetandra and Sri Devi in Tohfa (1984)
Sensational success Jeetandra and Sri Devi in Tohfa (1984)

Fan videos that mimic the star’s gestures focus on their enjoyment of Samantha’s physical movements above the song’s sexual content, extending its meaning through a gamut of repeat perform­ances, including dance-offs that far exceed its specific meaning in Pushpa. If song and dance are key elements of Samantha’s star-appeal in Pus­hpa, in an expanded mediaverse where discrete modes like the blockbuster and web series can happily co-exist, then her role as Raji, a Tamil Liberation Fighter in Family Man 2 (2021), inaugurates a fresh chapter in representing North-South encounters. If Pushpa channels a tradi­­­­tionally feminine persona through mainstream film, then her character Raji showcases a polyglot viewing arenaspace where Samantha gets to speak in her own “native” voice that can be marked specifically as Tamil, female and different. Difference permits her to be an agile, fit, visibly dark action heroine, even the central focus through which other male characters can also be distinguished as well as localised. That is no small moment.

It is hard to imagine anyone like Sai Pallavi at the moment in Hindi cinema, a performer who holds a candle to the quietly transgressive aspects of Telugu cinema, even as its mainstream scales unmatched heights.

Ironically, it is traditional gendering practices that have allowed female stars to move easily between various industries. Stars like Samantha, Sai Pallavi Senthamarai, Aditi Rao Hydari, Keerthi Suresh, and Pooja Hegde have been able to work across the major South Indian industries. Aishwarya Rai and Taapsee Pannu continue to work across North and South. One of the most sought-after act­resses in the Telugu film industry, Sai Pallavi’s métier is her natural acting style and defiance of sexual objectification. Her long, wavy hair is never straightened. Nor does she hide the acne on her face. Her M.B.B.S. degree and informal experience as a dancer are essential elements of her star persona. These are evident in Love Story (2021), where she plays a working professional who agrees to set up a salsa centre at the request of her Christian low-caste neighbour, who she falls in love with. While the lines of most Telugu actresses are dubbed by voice
artistes, she speaks in her own voice, across Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada language films, adding yet another layer of authenticity to her performance. She is middle-class and down-to-earth in ways that are reminiscent of early Mani Ratnam actresses.

In Shyam Singha Roy (2021), Sai Pallavi plays a devadasi. A reincarnation drama, the film enacts a different history of cultural exchange and collaboration: recall Bengali auteur Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oori Katha, made in Telugu in 1977 and  based on Munshi Premchand’s 1936 Hindi short story Kafan. We encounter an ambitious arc of time and performance in Shyam Singha Roy, matched by an artistic canvas that promiscuously brings the mainstream into conversation with agitprop and art cinema. The two Tollywoods—one Telugu, the other Bengali—collide: Sai Pallavi brings gender into sharp focus, literally playing director’s muse as she moulds her star persona to fit the 1970s, switching between Telugu and Bengali registers as art rubs against commerce, word against gesture, and tradition against politics. It is hard to imagine anyone quite like Sai Pallavi at the moment in Hindi cinema, a performer who holds a candle to the quietly transgressive aspects of Telugu cinema that continue to surprise us.

(This appeared in the print edition as "When It All Goes South")

(Views expressed are personal)

Anupama Prabhala is the Associate Professor of School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles