When Prahlad, Lord Vishnu’s ardent devotee, uttered a few words on screen, he was, in fact, heralding a new chapter—the first Telugu talkie 'Bhakt Prahlada', released on September 15, 1931.
Eighty years later, the past and present have merged in a kaleidoscope of colour, music and glorious celebration. Viva la Tollywood, which produces as many films in a year, as there are days.
Ardeshir Irani, who made India’s first talkie 'Alam Ara', cast his eyes on regional cinema and entrusted the job of making 'Bhakt Prahlada' and 'Kalidas' (Tamil) to his protégé H M Reddy. For the first few years, mythological films—'Luvkusa', 'Seetha Kalyanam', 'Bheema Pratignya', 'Shakuntala', etc—held sway over the masses until 'Prema Vijayam' (1936) changed the script somewhat.
Around this time, many new faces began to surface such as Chittoor V Nagaiah (labelled Paul Muni of India) Bhanumathi, YV Rao, P Kannamba, Kamala Kotnis and Kanchanmala (compared to Greta Garbo), who later became successful figures in Tollywood.
S V Ranga Rao was another force to reckon with. His portrayal of Keechaka in Narthansala won him an international award for Best Actor at the Indonesian Film Festival in 1963.
Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR) contributed greatly to the golden period. ANR was only 15 when director Ghantasala Balaramaiah selected him to play the lead in 'Sri Sitarama Jananam'. The movie that catapulted him to stardom though was 'Devdas'. Giving him company a few years on was another stalwart, N T Rama Rao (NTR). Beginning with 'Palletoori Pilla', ANR and NTR, figured together in about 15 films. Producer D Suresh Babu says there was nobody like NTR.
“He reinvented himself late as a superstar and stuck to lead roles till his death.”
Maya Bazaar was the tour de force of Telugu cinema. Directed by Kadri Venkata Reddy, it boasted of names like ANR, NTR, S V Ranga Rao, Gummadi Venkateshwara Rao and Savitri. People identified with all the film’s characters, with the dialogues becoming a part of everyday conversation. Who can forget the evergreen numbers— Aha naa pelli anta and Vivaaha bhojanambu?
Speaking of landmark films, the ones that come to mind are Sankarabharanam and Sagara Sangamam, directed by the legendary K Viswanath, who made a habit of picking up national awards. Other prolific directors such as Dasari Narayan Rao, K Raghavendra Rao, L V Prasad and Bapu contributed their might to the growth of Telugu cinema.
The 1980s and 90s were a mélange of great happenings—megastar Chiranjeevi ruling the industry with an iron fist, allowing however his contemporaries Nagarjuna and Venkatesh their moment under the sun; the arrival of Ram Gopal Varma; and the formation of NTR’s Telugu Desam Party on the strength of his demi-god status. It also marked the birth of prestigious studios such as Padmalaya and Ramanaidu. Glamour and talent rode hand in hand with actresses Sridevi, Jayaprada, Jayasudha and Vijayashanthi.
Today, Tollywood is like one big happy family, with star sons (Mahesh Babu, Nag Chaitanya, Prabhas, Ram Charan Teja and Junior NTR), nephews (Allu Arjun) and cousins all in the fray. But where does the industry stand? Says D Suresh Babu: “Even after having completed 80 years, it has still not come up to international standards. When it comes to a total cinematic experience, there are hardly any films I can name.”
According to Kodi Ramakrishna, while technically it has made great strides, content and quality are areas of concern. Homework is lacking, he rues. Gautham Menon says the industry is hero-driven, leaving the heroines high and dry. But says Babu: “I don’t know any other industry where just five directors have 100-plus films to their credit. We may not have the best batsman or the best bowler, but we know how to win matches,” he chuckles.
Hits and misses, praise and ridicule, hiccups and smooth landings—Tollywood has seen it all. The show goes on.