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As we stand on the threshold of a new year, its time to face the harsh reality of 2018: it was another disappointing year for fans of Telugu cinema (barring a few exceptions). The film industry saw a steady flow of brain-dead movies, failing to live up to its promise of being on the verge of a tectonic shift in its approach to filmmaking.
Following the humongous success of Baahubali: The Conclusion last year, there was lot of energy at the beginning of the year. Everyone was talking about the changing times in Tollywood, where films with a strong script and memorable performances sold more tickets at the box office. But, the majority of the filmmakers still stuck to producing mediocre films that worshipped heroes and stereotyped women.
For me the biggest disappointment was, losing an actor like Vijay Deverakonda to blockbusters. I saw him as a harbinger of new-age cinema in Telugu, thanks to his path-breaking films like Arjun Reddy (2017) and Pelli Choopulu (2016). The actor gave us three films this year (Geetha Govindam, NOTA and Taxiwaala). Five if you count his extended cameo in Mahanati and his long-delayed movie Ye Mantram Vesave (it was disowned by the actor), which was released this year to cash in on his newfound popularity.
Of all his films this year, we did not see a dark and gritty film like Arjun Reddy or smart and charming film like Pelli Choopulu. What we got is him falling back on the clichés of the commercial potboilers to score big at the box office.
Even as I enjoyed his performance, Geetha Govindam was a deeply problematic film. It glorified patriarchy and turned Vijay Deverakonda into a poster boy for Indian sanskar. And, guess what, it became one of the highest-grossing films of Tollywood. NOTA, his debut in Tamil, again relied heavily on his star power, instead of exploring his raw and refreshing potential as an actor. The film did not make a mark at the box office, though. Taxiwaala was another forgettable potboiler in Vijay Deverakondas CV.
But, any given day, I would prefer a Vijay Deverakondas commercial potboiler over a Ravi Tejas mindless entertainer. Ravi Teja remained uncompromising in his determination to steer clear of sensible movies even this year. He began the year with Touch Chesi Chudu and he doubled down on his brand of meaningless films with Nela Ticket. And he reassured us that we cant expect meaningful work from him anymore with Amar Akbar Anthony.
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Not just Ravi Teja, even Balakrishna (Jai Simha), Kalyan Ram (MLA, Naa Nuvve), Sai Dharam Tej (Inttelligent, Jawaan), reiterated their conviction in routine no-brainers as did the heavy-weights of Telugu cinema.
Pawan Kalyans Agnyaathavaasi, Nanis Krishnarjuna Yuddham, Mahesh Babus Bharat Ane Nenu and Allu Arjuns Naa Peru Surya Naa Illu India were all major disappointments. Even Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam of Pelli Choopulu fame delivered an underwhelming buddy-comedy called Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi.
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Filmmaker Trivikram Srinivas redeemed himself with Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava. The film starring Jr NTR benefited from Trivikrams flair for writing a decent existential drama within the confines of a commercial film. Touted as a feminist film with male lead taking advises from the female characters, Aravinda Samantha preached non-violence and took a stand against toxic masculinity.
Naga Chaitanya, on the other hand, repeatedly blew his chance at redemption. He opened this year with Shailaja Reddy Alludu, a subtle misogynistic film that was based on an archaic theory: women cant handle power without mistreating men and so its for men to teach a lesson to them. And he followed that disaster with a tiresome melodrama, Savyasachi.
2018 was not all gloomy though. We saw a ray of sunshine here and there, filling us with the hopes of a new day in Telugu cinema in the future.
Debutant director Prasanth Varmas Awe was a well-written film that was driven by strong female characters. It even broke some social taboos by being inclusive: Nithya Menen and Eesha Rebba played a lesbian couple.
Adivi Seshs Goodachari made a dent with his stylistic frames and well-choreographed action scenes. Even as I have problems with its script, in hindsight, it deserves due credit for its attempt to make a very good-looking spy thriller in Telugu on a tight budget.
Tollywood star Ram Charan Teja broke away from his routine with Rangasthalam (Stage), which was directed by Sukumar. The film set in a village backdrop stripped Ram Charan of his star glamour. It had him embrace the role of a village simpleton with hearing impairment.
Charan has come a long way since the days he was not ready to lose his stubble and sport a clean-shaven look to play a cop character in Zanjeer. However, judging from the teaser of his upcoming film Vinaya Vidheya Rama, which is due in cinemas next year, we may see him returning to his home ground: loud action potboiler filled with punchlines glorifying his masculinity.
Telugu filmmakers are still finding it a challenge to write good female characters. 2018 has only managed to produce a handful of strong characters for women actors in Tollywood.
Anushka Shetty played the lead role in horror thriller Bhaagamathie. She again summoned her expertise to play a character possessed by an ancient spirit and scored big at the box office. The film solely worked on her scream-queen image, an act she has followed for sure-shot box office success since her runaway hit Arundhati (2009).
Mahanati came as a blessing for Keerthy Suresh and gave her a larger platform to showcase her acting talent. Even as it was a black-and-white tale based on the life of legendary actor Savitri, it still managed to impress the audience with its drama and the stellar performance of its star cast. After the critical and commercial success of Mahanati, Keerthy Suresh returned to playing the heros arm candy.
Samantha Akkineni also played a strong role in Mahanati. And followed it with her solo film U-Turn, the remake of Kannada hit of the same name. Directed by Pawan Kumar, the film allowed its female protagonist to save the leading man from distress. The year 2019 will also be interesting for her with director Thiagarajan Kumararajas Super Deluxe getting ready for release.
In conclusion, 2018 was not a very memorable year for Telugu cinema. Top filmmakers and actors, who were supposed to be pushing Telugu cinema towards a new direction, largely made formulaic films. Rigging a film with all commercial elements so that it can join the so-called Rs 100 crore club, became the priority over making a film for cinematic integrity. It was no longer about the craft. It was about box office records and holding on to the tail end of their stardom.
Hope 2019 will usher in a new wave of change in Tollywood.