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Arjun Reddy, Pellichoopulu, Baahubali and the Ache Din of TFI

A love letter for the times to come from a Telugu Movie fan

Baahubali got the entire world to take notice of Indian Cinema in a way they have not since may be Lagaan (and yes, for the last time, Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film), and back at home it woke-up the Hindi film industry to the true market potential. However, what has Baahubalis' success meant for the Telugu Film Industry? The answer, like most of our Facebook relationship status, is "it’s complicated".

Beyond the spectacularly executed special effects, cinematically Baahubali is still familiar territory for the Telugu movie audience. It's a bit like eating the good old biryani cooked with the best cook with the world, using the purest ghee and top grade spices imported from all over the world and served on a golden plate in a mountain top palace, over-looking the beach on a full moon night. It's delicious and easily the best biryani you have ever had, by far, but it is still biryani.

Now before some of you rush to make a judgement take it in any other way, Baahubali an achievement like none before and more than deserves every bit of praise it received and in no way am I under-mining that. Rajamouli is by far the best 'biryani cook' there is and he pulled 'Mangalyaan' on Bollywood/Hollywood, achieving comparable and in many ways even a better output, at the fraction of a cost. Then there is also the obvious benefit of bringing in the big bucks which can only be good for the industry and allows producers to take risks with smaller films but perhaps its biggest contribution is that it has raised the standard of the audience. Going back to the biryani analogy for one last time, Rajamouli has served us a biryani so good that it has the potential of spoiling every other biryani, because they are just not as good and we won't compromise anymore. This should push the rest of the directors to go that extra mile and over-time we should see much better quality output overall, at of the technical aspects of the film.

But under the shadow of the humungous Baahubali, there is a new trend evolving in T-wood which has the potentially to change it forever and for the better, the re-incarnation of small independent films and emergence of new-age filmmakers. I am going to go on a limb here and make a guess about what changed over the last decade that has led to this new trend and what it could mean for the future of TFI. Full disclosure, like with every other guess we ever make, I could be totally wrong about it too but what the heck we live in times where parody shows give us the most accurate news and real news is funnier than most comedy shows, so I guess I can take that chance .

These new age film-makers are more like you or me than ever before, products of the internet age and whose influences go beyond Jubilee Hills, Krishna Nagar or even Mumbai for that matter. These are film aficionados who downloaded world-cinema through torrents, who shared their favorites with each other on pen-drives, who when the credits rolled, came back home to Google the filmmaker, study him, look for others like him, and who could re-watch a single scene multiple times before they could establish a direct connection with the filmmaker, as if to say "now I see you". Just a few years ago, these were probably kids just like you and me, from middle-class families with no film connections, playing bet matches on the weekends, wondering which engineering/medical college to join yet always making time and borrowing money to watch a Jalsa or a Pokiri first-day first show. With just one small difference though, while our Google searches transitioned from "Best College in Hyderabad" to "Porn" to "Best University for MS" to "Porn again" to "Jobs" to "Matrimony" before settling down to "Porn" again, in all likelihood these guys kept alternating between "Porn" and "Filmmaking".

What's most exciting about the times we are in today is, while there will be an undeniably strong influence of the movies they see, because they come from such diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the state, they bring their own experiences to still tell us our stories. While last year Pellichoopulu was that Independent filmmaker screaming loud enough for his voice to be finally heard, Arjun Reddy just gave that film-maker a mic and a loud speaker to announce himself and for the rest of us to make it hard to ignore his existence. They had the audience, Telugu film audience is one of the most accepting audience there is, remember these are the same people who watch Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada films online and appreciate and share them with others, they just needed the right content from the right filmmakers and may be are finally getting their due.

Arjun Reddy in particular is a 'Bahubalian' step in changing the definition of the so-called 'Telugu Film Hero'. With Arjun Reddy, Sandeep Reddy Vanga has created a protagonist who is not beyond all evil in the world (or Newtonian physicals for that matter), whose moral compass doesn’t always point in the 'right' direction and who is not always surrounded by side-kicks whose sole purpose is to allow the hero to shine and be the butt of his jokes and antics. In fact, in a scene leading up to a key moment in the film, Rahul Ramakrishna who plays Vijay's friend yells at the hero "endi ra ne lolli, ucha aagada ra neeku? ", and for a change the hero doesn’t respond by slapping friend for cheap comedic relief but just looks down and lets his friend vent and have his moment, much like how even you would react with your best friend.

Another much talked about aspect of the movie, and for all the wrong reasons, the 'kissing scenes'. For years, there were two types of responses to intimate scenes in English movies in an Indian theater, one involves whistles and yelling "once more" and the other blushing and digging yourself into the seats and pretending to not exist, especially when you are with your family. For this audience, the decision to include any scenes of physical intimacy is a double edged sword and a huge challenge and I think it's only fair to say no one has been able to crack it in more than 60 years of industries existence, at least until now. Even in the seemingly more progressive Bollywood, kissing scenes continue to be more of a novelty than anything else and even after all these years they continue to be a big-deal, much to the fault of their filmmakers. The couple kisses often in slow motion and some heavy duty sad music, and there is usually just one or two such scenes because need to show well we are progressive.

Sandeep's approach to this is both gutsy and a stroke of artistic brilliance and for the first time ever, and he has done this by both treating the scenes aesthetically but also for maximum emotional mileage. If it was just one scene it would have end up being a gimmick and continue to generate one of the two responses I mentioned before, but Sandeep did not hesitate includes multiple such scenes at different emotional points in the movie and whenever the script demanded. In doing so he almost unintentionally was literally hand-holding the audience as they graduate from watching these as 'kissing scenes' to 'love scenes' and the kiss from being an 'act' to being an expression of love. A sign of this is the fact that the howls and snarky comments and whistles for such scenes were replaced by pin-drop silence in the theater later in the movie.

We have previously had an occasional 'realistic' film but that’s usually limited to crime, action or drama genres, Arjun Reddy is that rare 'realistic' love story and probably as real as a Telugu love story ever got. For a love 'failure' film to work it is critical to make the audience feel the depth of the relationship between the pair, it needs to go beyond the superficial, only then does is the parting painful and relatable and Sandeep Reddy has achieved this feet with flying colors. Most impressively, Sandeep does this with minimal dialogue and some terrific writing, Arjun Reddy expresses his love through his tone when he talks to her, he holds and hugs her like he means it and he kisses her and not out of lust every time, he greets her with a smile when they meet at the airport and when she slaps him once in a moment of angst, he just smiles again. As much as we all enjoy our usual song and dance romance, it is so refreshing to see love being expressed in a way that most guys/girls do and in a pure and un-adulterated fashion. It largely thanks to this connection that Sandeep invests in building, the audience is willing to endure the almost 1.5 hour and sometimes dragging 2nd half in a close to 3 hour film.

The movie has its flaws but I don’t want this to be a full-fledged review of Arjun Reddy, it's probably too late for that and there are people far more talented critics/reviewers than I can ever be who have already done it for you. I felt the same excitement when I saw Pellichoopulu last year, which in my humble opinion a better film than Arjun Reddy. Its screenplay and editing is near perfect and should be taught in every film school as the benchmark, and no I am not exaggerating here, in-fact to prove this I suggest a small test. Go back and watch the movie again and find one scene (everything between two cuts) that you can delete without affecting the narrative. I watched the movie more than 12 times and I couldn't find even one, like the cogs of a chain every scene starts where the previous one ended and ends perfectly leading onto the next, always taking the narrative forward. Tharun Bhascker's direction and writing style is layered, his framing is artful and tells a story of its own but always aiding the emotion conveyed by its artists through dialogue.

One thing that’s common between both Tharun and Sandeep's style is that they do not assume the audience is dumb, they respect the audience’s intelligence and for an audience that appreciated good movies from other industries, notwithstanding the language barriers, this was long over-due.

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Previously the exceptional did arise occasionally like RGV did in the early 90s, Chandra Shekar Yeleti in the early 2000s and Shekar Kammula in the mid-2000s, each of whom have changed the course of Telugu films in their own small way but they were usually outliers and never became the norm. This time though, I have a feeling we are witnessing a transformational change, thanks to broadband, internet, Youtube and short-films, I predict films like Arjun Reddy and Pellichoopulu are not one-offs but more of a dog-whistle that TFI will change forever.

The Telugu audience who appreciated the Adukalams, Premams, Bangalore Days, Pizzas, Ustad Hotels and Jigarthandas and wondered if there would be day where we could be sharing with friends on pen-drives and social media such small and exceptional films in Telugu, there is reason to be excited may be those days are not far away. Or maybe nothing will change, may be this is just a blip too but like everyone else, we are allowed to dream and hope be so let's all hope, that we are in the midst of a transformational change in the TFI and 'Ache din' are in the order for Telugu movie lovers.

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