Firstly, the thumbnail is a conscious choice to lure readers. Ever heard of clickbait? Why should it remain confined to YouTube thumbnails? Let us, the poor writers, gain a pinch of traction as well. Plus, had I revealed my favourite films in the image, why would anyone care to read the whole write-up? Enough of deceit and defense, continue reading.
2020 was a terrible year for Telugu cinema. I don’t attribute it to the pandemic. Just that the films released this year were bad, and I strongly feel that in a parallel universe – where COVID-19 didn’t exist – it would have remained the same, only with more bad movies. There were no Malleshams, Agents, Jerseys, etc. and the majority of the movies ranged from terrible to bad, which eased narrowing down these four films. Had it been factually possible, I’d have put Brochevarevarura in this list and the next year-end list too. Nevertheless, moving on, here are four Telugu films I enjoyed the most. Sounds weird, but as I tried to recall, I came up with only four films. Not that I hated every other film (in a way, I did) but found these four the most significant although each have their own flaws.
4 – Palasa 1978
The film has superb world-building and the most authentic Srikakulam-dialect in Telugu cinema. However, it suffers from Rangasthalam hang-over and becomes a masala film at stretches, that makes it a completely different film for the time being. Nevertheless, it has the guts to address real people and real incidents, considering how Telugu films tend to ignore the world, pretending they exist in a timeless space. It’s not coherent in its entirety. For instance, certain aspects such as how easily the film’s protagonists part aways after a conflict, fell forced; so is the acting. However, that’s what it intends to be. The final film, though, is neither as powerful as Pa Ranjit or Vetri Maaran’s works nor as brave as a Spike Lee joint (considering their films and Palasa exist in an accessible zone, unlike, say the works of Sanal Kumar). I understand that it’s India. Like Shoojit Sircar – who said he wants a political environment in which he can make films that allow him to name real people and talk about the real-world – Karuna Kumar is a filmmaker who would thrive in a world where free speech is valued. Yet, Palasa 1978 is the bravest Telugu film of recent times, and its braveness overpowers its flaws to an extent, which is why it is better than many all of the Telugu films of 2020, except for a few, including the one in which Karuna Kumar gets his photo clicked.
Hopefully, in a better tomorrow, if we look back at films that began to voice caste-conflict, I’m sure Palasa 1978 will forefront modern films.
3 – HIT: The First Case
‘Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?’ is analogous to ‘who doesn’t love Hyderabadi biryani?’
Everyone does. If they don’t, it means they haven’t watched a good murder mystery or tasted Hyderabadi biriyani. The reason why whodunits are easily watchable is they itch curiosity, and we sit with eagerness to know whether we are a step ahead of the writer. It’s a race between the writer and us. If we win, the writer loses; but if the writer wins, we win too. In the case of HIT, both writer and viewer win. The film has shades of a noir: from its lighting to the dark, ambiguous past of the protagonist, adding a touch of newness to a rarely ventured corner in Telugu. Like many whodunits (unless it’s a Rear Window or Seven) the film doesn’t stand a second-viewing but, there is a fine technicality at a display coupled with a tight script that is continually intriguing although we crave for closure on the character’s arc.
Despite its silliness in an otherwise serious and conscious story, HIT makes up for an entertaining watch, which made me overlook its emotionally bland script. Moreover, when the film’s Hindi remake was announced, Rajkumar Rao, who is set to lead the cast said “It’s an engaging story, relevant in today’s environment”. Engaging, yes. Relevant, how?
2 – Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya
UMUR does so many things that many Telugu films do not. Like Palasa 1978, it acknowledges the real world it is set in; political parties are referred to, movie stars and their futile fandom is avowed without making a deal for cheers out of it, and the Christian community is represented without the stereotypes. Moreover, all of these exist in a very pleasing, comforting space making the viewing-experience an equivalent of having gulab jamun after a filling, spicy meal. The time of its release, amidst a raging pandemic during the monsoon, bolstered in transporting us from our apartments to palatial landscapes of Araku. In that sense, UMUR was comforting in the truest sense.
The film uses human nature – something that’s extremely broad in conception – as a plot device and it keeps provoking the characters to do things that push the narrative forward. One may assert that character motives and actions are the driving factors behind a film, question what makes UMUR special. UMUR is special because it focuses on the tiny impulses as much as it does on the consequences.
1 – Middle-Class Melodies
Hands down, this is my favourite movie of the year and I have seen it enough times to recite every swear of Kondal Rao, the protagonist’s father, and the film’s stand-out character. Every character in the film has an arc: the son’s aspirations, the father-son relationship, a parallel love story disturbed by astrology, and an elderly milk delivery man who wants his grand-daughter to pursue education, among others, come to fruition. Instead of giving the treatment of characters, the screenplay creates a world in which every by-passer has a past and present. For instance, a retired school teacher helps the aforementioned milk delivery man with money when the latter is in financial difficulties. The teacher is the same person who informs Kondal Rao about a piece of land he owns in one of the film’s most hilarious storylines (there are several storylines in the movie). Furthermore, the protagonist Raghava’s ambition to succeed as a cook and restaurateur feels real yet arduous to achieve, making the journey convincing. The screenplay makes you believe that many things that are usually ignored and compressed into a hero-success-song (ex: Suryavamsam) are uphill tasks.
Everything is a trial, and Raghava has to learn and unlearn his beliefs. In the film’s most touching scene, he calls his mother and tells her that he might not be as skilled as he believes himself to be. Such clean writing makes this more than a slice-of-life drama, and I won’t mind having more slices if they are as delightful as this.
It’s been a tough year and movies have remained my comfort throughout. Hope they have been equally comforting to you as well.
PS: If you want the worst movies of the year list, look at the featured image.
- On Uma Maheswara..
- Realtability, Middle-class, and Telugu Cinema
- Listen to our podcast on Uma Maheshwara
Palasa 1978, HIT: The First Case, and Middle Class Melodies are streaming on Prime Video.
Uma Maheshwara…is streaming on Netflix