The Telugu World Column No: 25

Escapist, Make-believe World of Films

The resounding success of Chota Bheem cartoon series on television and of the film versions that followed put the focus on one aspect of the Telugu world: the tendency to live in the make-believe, escapist world of cinema and television serials. A reference to the Telugu world cannot be complete without mentioning the film industry. Decades ago I used to joke, “If a Telugu man gets a few lakhs (then it was a big amount, perhaps now crores) of rupees, he would take the first train to Chennai, try to produce a film and fail.”

This prompted the joke, “The Telugu people live only to see films. Ban films and serials and they would all collectively die” and stories of Vijayawada housewives hurriedly finishing their morning chores to go and stand in the ticket queue of the morning shows that usually begin at 11 a.m.  As a blog put it, “Telugu Talli (Mother Telugu) is standing in the queue for cinema tickets.”  These very columns had repeatedly lamented that great Telugu persons –academics, scientists or poets– are less known than even the least popular film actors.

A reader has pointed out that this is true in most countries and that even in the US, sports stars and rock singers earn more and are better known than scientist, writers or academics. But the celluloid world’s hold on the lives of the Telugu people cannot be denied. A renowned Telugu poet, Tanikella Bharani, said that he would like to be born again as a poet, but not in the Telugu states. He pointed out that the revolutionary Telugu poet SriSri (Srirangam Srinivasa Rao) is remembered more as a film lyricist than as the author of the classic ‘Mahaprasthanam’. One of the greatest classical music singers of the South, M. Balamuralikrishna, put off by the craze for film songs and neglect of the classical music, vowed never to sing again in the Telugu states.

This escapism is obvious in two other southern states too –Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In TN, two film-industry groups, the Dravida Munnetra Kazakam and its break-away group the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazakam have been ruling the state one after the other (as if in collusion). Two more film people, Rajnikant and Kamal Hasan may enter the field soon to play the same trick. Like the Democrats and Republicans in the USA they have made all other parties irrelevant. In Karnataka film-stars have not yet come to power, but the whole state was on fire with widespread violence when a superstar, Rajkumar, died a natural death.

This may be attributed to the fact that life is harder down South than in the more prosperous and dominating North, leading to escapism.

The Telugu cine industry is now called Tollywood, after Hollywood, given the Indian craze for everything American. It is based both in Chennai and Hyderabad, with the Ramoji Film City in the latter once called the world’s biggest film studio. Ihopeit still is.However, it was once totally based in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai (then Madras). Telugus dominated all its departments. Even other language films were made by Telugu producers and directed by Telugu directors. This monopoly gradually ended, though many film industry big guns in Chennai are still Telugus. Most Telugu films are dubbed or remade in Hindi by the Bollywood and the recent trend is to have south Indian directors, mostly Telugu, for the remakes.

A Maharashtra man, Dadasaheb (Dhundiraj Govind) Phalke, made the first Indian (silent) film, Raja Harischandra, in 1913 and so the highest honour in the film industry, conferred by the government, is the Daddasaheb Phalke Award. Telugu producers B. N. Reddy, B. Nagi Reddy, L. V. Prasad and D. Rama Naidu, and a matinee idol A. Nageswara Rao,  were conferred this lifetime achievement award so far.

Telugu film actors and especially the actresses also dominated films in all south Indian languages once. Telugu playback singers like Ghantasala, P. B. Srinvas, S. P. Balasubramanyam and P.Susheela had a near monopoly. Mumbai (Bombay) is still the seat of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry,  said to be the world’s biggest film maker. Actors and actresses who failed in Hindi films made a beeline for Chennai or Hyderabad to ‘star’ in Telugu or other southern films.  Telugu and Tamil films have become the launching pads for Hindi film actresses. Aspiring film artistes from all over India now seek a foothold in Telugu or Tamil films as a gateway for Hindi film industry –their ultimate goal. Waheeda Rehman, Rekha, Hema Malini, Guru Dutt, Deepika Podukone, comedians Johnny Lever and Mahmood and music director Jaikishan, all  hail from the south. The first two and Lever are Telugus.

A strange new development is that almost all top actresses in Telugu today are non-Telugus by birth. You find Telugu film heroines who are Marwadis, Bengalis, Marathis etc.; so much so that a Telugu girl may have to assume a Bengali, Marathi or some non-Telugu surname to be even considered for an audition. With local ‘dubbing artistes’ lending their voices all heroines from other languages speak with the same accent and often even voice.

Cinema, no doubt, is a great medium with impact on learning and lifestyles, but seems to have little effect on morality or social values. This is seen in the way corruption and other evils like the dowry and caste system have grown despite several “purposeful” films. Telugu short-story and fiction today are much influenced by films. Many novels are written with particular heroes in mind (In the patriarchal, gender-biased society, heroines still do not count).


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