An Essay on Telugu film industry by Ramakanth Josyula
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27 June 2015

Stars and their indifference towards the Acting

In 1932, the Telugu language had its first full length feature film. Over the years, Tollywood, as referred to in India has seen many actors playing the lead role with fine talents. Unfortunately, over the past decade the act part in actor has become a lost talent. This from the same industry which had an actor who was given the title “Viswa Vikhyatha Nata Sarvabhouma”. That person will shift uncomfortably in his grave if he were to watch the acting talents of this generations actors.

Two recently released movies starred two actors who fell into the commercial stardom pothole after giving first impressions that was otherwise. Both these actors share one common thing. They both belonged to a family (Extended in this case) that has its links to Telugu Movies.

The number of actors who are heirs of yesteryear actors/producers/directors is at an all-time high. This could be a record for any film industry in the world. Putting things into perspective, below is a list of actors linked to the person (most famous) they are related to.

Chiranjeevi – Pawan Kalyan (Brother), Ram Charan Tej (Son), Allu Arjun (Nephew), Varun Tej (Nephew), Sai Dharam Tej (Nephew), Allu Sirish (Nephew)

Mohan Babu – Vishnu (Son), Manoj (Son), Lakshmi (Daughter)

Nandamuri Taraka RamaRao Snr – Tarak (Grandson), Kalyan Ram (Grandson), Taraka Ratna (Grandson)

Krishna – Mahesh Babu (Son), Sudheer Babu (nephew)

Akkineni Nageswara Rao – Naga Chaitanya (Grandson), Sumanth (Grandson), Sushanth (Grandson)

Krishnam Raju – Prabhas (nephew)

Sravanthi Ravi Kishore (Producer) – Ram (Nephew)

Venkatesh – Rana (Nephew)

Sudhakar Reddy (Distributor) - Nithin

E V V Satyanarayana (Director): Naresh

T Krishna (Director) – Gopichand (Son)

Chandrababu Naidu (Chief Minister) – Nara Rohit (Nephew)

Sai Kumar – Aadi (Son)

Bellamkonda Suresh (Producer) – Srinivas (Son)

Chota K Naidu (Cinematographer) – Sudeep Kishan (Nephew)

Puri Jaganadh(Director) – Aakash Puri (Son), Sairam Shankar (Brother)

Yes, that is one long list of current actors not including anyone who made their debuts before 1995. Neither is it an exhaustive list as there were many more debutants who were ignored in the above list. Ex: M S Narayana’s son, Brahmanandam’s son (both comedians) and Music Director Koti’s son. Quite a few names in that list can draw relations from multiple famous people belonging to the industry ex: Allu Arjun, Rana
It is natural for a son to follow in his father’s footsteps. It could be cricket, business or acting. In the first two cases, while the son’s talents are crucial to his success, the same cannot be said of the third example as seen from the above list. This is where the problem lies in the Telugu Film Industry.

Sons, nephews, grandsons have been making their debuts undergoing no training or doing any hard work. The sad part though is that they continue to get offers and act in movies directed by popular directors. This is based on the popularity of their ancestors and the fan base that sees them as demigods and will ensure their success at any cost. This brings up the question of what drives these youngsters to act in movies? Is it an undying passion for cinema with a wish to perform and win accolades? Because if that was the case, they will do their homework before making their debuts and be ready for what is desired in them and sharpen their skills. Except a selective few from the above list, most actors have not done any of that. So, the guess then is that stardom has captured their imagination and not movies themselves. These youngsters are in love with the concept of a star with huge fan following and over the top theatrics. In their heads, this is cinema. If it was that simple! So this is what they pursue because this does not need acting abilities or the talent to say a dialogue with emotion. All this requires is a famous lineage, the ability to have a screen presence and a fan base willing to push them and take them to heights their acting cannot.

Once again, not every actor in the above list falls into the said category but a vast majority of them do. The adage of “A famous father can get you to the stage. What happens after that is based on your talent” does not apply anymore. One wishes this to be true but reality shows it is not. The number of actors (or stars as they should be referred to as), who are still acting in movies when they have negligible talents is far too high to ignore it as an exception. Self-productions, a fan base that ensures opening weekend collections make them a safe bet for directors compared to people who don’t have the same advantages.

Nearly every actor wants to bash up goons, swoon the heroine, and dance away to glory irrespective of his acting abilities or even the story on hand. Any actor can be replaced by any of his counterparts and it will not make much difference to the outcome. What makes it worse is their reluctance to accept their mediocre talents and make improvements. They have a bullish attitude that refuses to learn the art of acting and prides itself in an illusion that is being created around them. There have been the odd instance of actors taking challenging scripts like Orange, Arya 2 or 1-Nenokkadine but they have been rare. Once these movies did not fare as expected, the actors ran back to the comforts of their formula movies. Why did they not question the failure and work towards improving it in their next attempts?

Ego: In the movie Kushi, Pawan Kalyan tries to explain to a non-English speaker the word Ego. As he struggles to find the right word in the local language, the non-English speaker comes up with the right interpretation – Kovvu pattina gadida(A Donkey whose body is covered in fat). This sums up their attitude. These actors are not bigger than their Hindi counterparts but yet are never seen performing in awards ceremonies or any film event. While not a need, given their excessive talk and love for their beloved fans it is surprising they refuse to perform and make them happy.

Having numerous family representations pursuing lead roles is not a phenomenon unique to Tollywood. Bollywood has had its share of Tushar Kapoors and Fardeen Khans but it also has two of the finest actors Hindi Cinema has seen in Ranbir Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan. It is important to note how the fate of Tushar Kapoor or Fardeen Khan has turned out as compared to their counterparts in the Telugu Film Industry. This is where the directors and audience need to take a share of responsibility and blame for the state of cinema in our states for having encouraged such actors.

Defensive Directors and Lack of Creativity

V V Vinayak, Sreenu Vaitla, Rajamouli, Trivikram and Puri Jaganadh are among the more popular directors that have been around the industry over the past decade. They share one similar style of working. Their preference to working with Stars and debutants coming from film families over new comers or other artists. One can count on hand the number of movies these directors have done with actors not in the earlier list. Unlike actors, these directors are not without talent but have forsaken them as their careers have progressed. Compared to their earlier works, they have gone more defensive in their approach and have concentrated on creating larger than life stories that stick to a formula.

S V Krishna Reddy was the king of the song-fight-comedy formula movies in the nineties. Today, both Sreeny Vaityla and V V Vinayak are giving him a tough run for that spot. They have created their own formula: Intro Scene/Song+Romance+Fight+Slapping Scenes with a comedian. Making movies with stars ensures decent opening collections and often mediocre films end up being much bigger hits than they deserve to be. While it is understandable to see their desire to act with Stars, it still does not exempt them from blame for such mediocre stories.

The reason for opting Stars instead of actors has more reasons than just opening weekends. Having an actor without background but talent will require a better story, screenplay and execution that these directors are reluctant to provide. (Rajamouli is an exception for having tried Eega and now the magnum opus Bahubali). A major chain reaction has been that budding directors are taking the same route of writing these larger than life stories that neither have logic nor a competent screenplay. These directors appear to be hypnotized by the idea of making such larger than life movies that appease the fans and have huge collections. So, are these directors passionate with the art of film making or are they encompassed by the glory surrounding it? The answer is found in the films they make.

Not every director has to make a Lunch Box or Piku. We need commercial larger than life cinema as much as we need artistic cinema that touches hearts but both can be enjoyed with a balance. In the current state, the balance has been missing for over a decade now.

There have been rare glimpses of brilliance in Telugu cinema over the past decade through the works of Sukumar and Chandrasekhar Yeleti. As seen from their recent films even they have succumbed to commercial factors that are messing with their original story lines and presentations. These directors need to be encouraged to diversify their creative talents and push the limits of cinema than be curbed. This is easier said than done. For a director to have the creative freedom, he needs everyone on set to be on board and an audience willing to give them a chance. On both counts, we have fallen short.

One of the prime answers directors come up with when questioned on the dearth of new subjects is the supposed lack of encouragement from audience to watch them. These directors lack the common sense that irrespective of what the story is, a well-executed finished product will find encouragement from the audience. If an out of the box movie fails, than complain against the audience, directors will be well off improving their trade. There were many touch phones before the iPhone but it required the vision of Steve Jobs to make the iPhone have the debut it did.

In 2003, Aithe brought a ray of hope that it will create a new parallel cinema movement which was happening in Bollywood. Twelve years later, that hope has still remained with no progress on any ends. While there have been a slew of films over the past few years that are promoted as “different” cinema, the truth is much different. While these movies contain stories different from the other 90% commercial cinema, it is a relative comparison and not a true testament to the movies themselves. The irony being that directors see the desire to appease commercial audience with unwanted romantic songs and meaningless fight sequences even in these stories. While having them in big budget larger than life movies is no small crime, it is a bigger crime to have them in these “different” movies.

Trivikram, known for his eloquent dialogues and moralistic stories does more harm than good by selecting Stars who bring baggage that are a distraction to a story going on track. Yet, the stubbornness of these directors in continuing to work with these “Stars” is alarming. It either shows a lack of confidence in their own abilities or shows fear for the system that can crush them for rejecting a star. Either way, the director is being a slave to the industry he is in and not being true to his own skill and passion.

The Critical Illusion

While they call themselves critics, it is questionable what they do. They make assessments of movies performances at the box office which is the job of a trade pundit. They give a standard rating that more or less revolves around the number 3 and they hardly mention how bad the artist’s performances are.

One of the biggest drawbacks the Industry has faced over the past decade is the lack of a genuine consistent critic. While a few bloggers are now reviewing movies, it will be of interest to watch their journey as they review big budget movies who have intolerant fans.

One will assume that given the work a critic has to do, their love for cinema is genuine and their passion undying. Yet, their reviews lack a basic understanding of screenplay pitfalls or directorial mistakes. The reviews are written from a success/failure standpoint which is not helpful for a regular reader. The review only helps those involved with the movie and the fan bases of actors who use them to propagate the success of their movie.

Harping on critics for the falls of a film industry though is similar to complaining that sports journalists for the performance of the cricket team. They can ask questions but they can only do so much. Yet, they are required to ask the right questions and expose the limitations.

The Fan-fare Mafia

Telugu Star Actor fans share a special relationship with their actors. They have a blind, passionate and emotional equation with their stars and will die for them if ever the need arises. It is unique to see such a relation. One will imagine that this will do well and both sides will benefit. These fans take the stars social causes as their own, help them during political rallies and ensure the image of these stars are not damaged. It takes dedication and heartfelt hard work to do such things.

Yet, perhaps this relation effects the outcome of the movies of these Stars. These fans are fans of the star and the image that is built around him and not their acting abilities. In cases of actors in the first list discussed, these have arisen with their love for their senior family members of earlier generations. This relation is similar to that of a pampered child in a well knit family. Both make mistakes but are too afraid to speak the truth. Who loses out? The daughter in law who marries into the family. Here it is the common audience who go to watch a movie. Actors push the blame on fans for having expectations of fixed elements in each movie that are required to satisfy their ego. Fans complain having to defend the meaningless trash that is often thrown at them to ensure their image is not tarnished. It’s a problem of chicken and egg. It is a vicious cycle.

The problem though lies at both ends. While stars depend on their fans to ensure a high image and initial success at Box Office, it is fans that are left often disappointed at the results. They are short changed. It is a hole they dig themselves. By making informal threats to ensure fixed elements in each movie, they compromise the story telling process. In the maddening desire to satisfy them, directors and actors take the easy way out which when overdone produces a bad end product.

The biggest blame at the feet of these fans is their illogical and emotional desire to continue their patronage for everyone in the said actor’s family. This creates an undesired burden and free popularity for new actors. Let these actors gain their popularity and fans than giving it to them on a red carpet. While the emotional connection with their families is understandable, logic suggests it is blind emotion with no logic. This has created a platform where a star debutant walks in expecting a fan following. Imagine making your son go to an interview in the company you work in and expect your employer to give him a job with no tests. They may grant him the interview based on your reputation but will they give him the offer letter without knowing his competence?

It is a hard case to prove that fans are hindering the progress of Telugu cinema. While they are limiting movies their actors are involved in, there are still many directors and actors available to make meaningful cinema.

Actress from the fairy land

There are a handful of Telugu speaking actresses in the Telugu film industry. The industry is so obsessed with fair girls from the north that irrespective of their acting talents, they are preferred over local talents. Not that there is an abundance of local talent overflowing but given two women with equal attributes, it’s easy to guess who has a better chance.

It is unfair to blame these actresses themselves. Most of them are models or aspiring actresses looking for work and if they find work in an alien language, who will say no. Most movies do not have adequate scripts that need them to do much acting. They are required to appear as glam-dolls and dance well enough to compliment the hero on screen. Most actresses satisfy these conditions. There are actresses from other states who can act and care for the industry and have learnt the language. There are a few other actresses who make it appear that they are doing the industry a great service by agreeing to act and throw tantrums.

One reason these actresses attribute for accepting meaningless roles is their short career spans and the uncertainty of finding a movie after an unsuccessful one. Yet, one cannot help wondering that if these actresses have the talents wouldn’t there be a director who would use them? There have been glimpses in Eega, Arundhati and Anukokunda Oka Roju but such films have been few and far to amount to a change in attitude. The other question is if these actresses can demand more meaningful characters and receive them? They get away with demanding other luxuries on sets, then why not demand better characters? One argument is the readiness of a small section of actresses who don’t care for the roles and will substitute them that hampers such an attempt to make demands. Again, if your talent cannot demand your need in a movie, it may be time to introspect and do something.

But these are just bits and pieces of a bigger problem. The lack of local actresses in the industry. While the industry laments on the choices available, the girls themselves raise concerns with an industry that is not welcoming and has the reputation, often wrongly, of exploiting young stars. Again, it is a chicken and egg problem. The onus lies with the directors and actors to encourage these talents and sign them in their movies.

Tejasvi Madivada is one of the rare local talents that is seen in Telugu movies. She has so far been limited to smaller budget movies or doing smaller roles in bigger movies. What was the need to select her as the heroine’s friend’s sister in Heart Attack instead of a lead role is a question to ask Puri Jaganadh and Nithin. How bad is their script for the need to have a fair girl from the north to get them more audience? Tejasvi may or may not be adequate for the said role in question but it is beside the point.

It is high time that these local talents shred their inhibitions and throw away the general perception of the industry and step out and make their claims stronger. If they come across such atrocities, in this day and age it is not a difficult task to expose them. There has been a trend though in tiny budget films of using local talent. But to see a major change, this needs to resonate upwards with big and medium budget movies.

Actresses from other states do not perform at any award ceremonies or events and it is left to smaller local stars to entertain. Contrast this to Bollywood award functions where the likes of Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor etc perform. There is no need for everyone to perform but the general attitude towards doing them is repulsive with a “We are too good for such b-class things” attitude.

The lack of a good competition is allowing these other states actresses to do as they please. While it is hard to lay the blame on their feet, they are part of a system in shambles and is problematic.

The way forward

Among these bad practices though there have been silver linings. Actors like Sharwanand and Nani who have risen through their own hard work have been a genuine breath of fresh air. It is hardly surprising that these two are the best actors among the current lot of youngsters. Directors like Sukumar, Chandrasekhar Yeleti and Krish are still making movies and have not run away which can be seen as an encouraging sign.

Haider, a Hindi language movie was made with the lead actor who forewent his remuneration for a stake in the films profits. This is a good model to pursue for Telugu Films if any of these big stars are interested in making at least a few meaningful movies. It will still require a director to write a good story but at least it will not have monetary constraints.

- Ramakanth S Josyula


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