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January 27, 1999


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A serious case

Ch Sushil Rao

Pavan Kalyan. Click for bigger pic!
It was a bad year for Telugu cinema. And this year is likely to be no better, and the industrywallahs are themselves partly to blame for the situation.

If there was one lesson there, it was that big stars, big directors, big technicians or big banners aren't enough. You also need a good story, however unreal that might sound to the dream merchants.

Of the 75 films released in 1998, there have been few hits. The rest vanished from the theatres almost immediately on release.

Megastar Chiranjeevi was quick to change his strategy when his films began flopping. He retreated into seclusion for eight months to reorganise his strategy. And when he came back, he had shed his old image. The result was Hitler in 1997 which did the trick for him. The two other films that he did this year, Baavagaru Bagunnara, with relatively new director Jayanth, and Choodalani Undi with director Gunasekhar also did well.

Chiranjeevi's younger brother Pavan Kalyan, who made his debut two years ago in the film industry delivered a big hit this year, Toli Prema was directed by Karunakaran, a rank newcomer.

Sakshi Sivanand. Click for bigger pic!
"There was no sex or violence in the film. The treatment of the story was different. That is why it was one of the very few films that were a hit this year," says P S Bhaskara Rao, president, Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber of Commerce.

But all those film-makers who tried to dish out the routine masala were in for a shock. Even top hero Akkineni Nagarjuna was rejected in every one of his films. His Chandralekha, a remake of a Tamil hit, bombed miserably at the box office. It was a big blow for director Krishna Vamsi whose Nagarjuna-starrer Ninne Pelladutha released a couple of years ago was one of the biggest hits in Telugu cinema.

The Telugu film industry, which used to produce the most films in the world at one time, now has few films and much fewer hits. From a high of 105 films cleared in 1992, the number has gone down considerably.

Though the Regional office of the Central Board of Film Certification cleared 83 films this year, only 75 were released. And many films were given up due to financial problems or other factors.

Venkatesh. Click for bigger pic!
"Distributors are slow to buy films since they aren't sure whether it will bring the returns," says Bhaskara Rao.

The trouble is that film-makers no longer have an idea what the audience wants. They have tended to stick to a set of formulae that no longer work. They were even prepared to change a good script midway to ensure the formula wasn't compromised. That is what smashed up Suprabhaatam by director Bhinameni Srinivasa Rao.

All the films Bhimaneni directed earlier were big hits, but this film, remarkably similar to Kanyaadaanam by director E V V Satyanarayana, didn't have similar luck.

But according to A V Suryanarayana, comedian and general secretary of the Movie Artistes Association, "There are many reasons for the Telugu film industry not faring well this year. It's difficult to pinpoint a major factor."

He believes television channels have done the damage since people tend to go to the theatres only if a film is described as really good. Also, a family that spends Rs 200 at the theatre can sit at home and have their entertainment needs satisfied, he says, admitting that quality too has become an issue.

Ramya Krishna.
"There are high standards maintained even in television serials. So, apart from a good subject, a film also has to be technically good to woo audiences," he says, adding, "Pulling audiences to the theatres is truly a feat." Which is perhaps why producers offer film-goers huge amounts as prize money in lucky dips.

Satya hero Chakravarthy produced and acted in a film which became a talking point because it was released without a title. He also offered Rs 800,000 as prize money to anyone who suggested an appropriate name. About 80,000 film-goers plumbed for Paape Na Praanam. But despite all the interest generated, the film made little money.

"Yes, the film did not do well and I have no excuses to offer," a bewildered Chakravarthy later admitted. One desperate film-maker even screened one free show the day his film was released. It still bombed.

The industry has been badly affected by the entry of rich people attracted by the glamour and who hope to become big-time producers.

"These people offered artistes and technicians more money, forcing regular producers to cough up more money. Since the films made by the new producers lacked strong story lines and flopped, the industry was spending more than it was earning," a producer said.

Chakravarthy. Click for bigger pic!
Amidst the ruins stood producer D Rama Naidu, who was unaffected by the crisis.

"Stars don't matter to me so much as a good subject. That's why I'm careful about selecting subjects," he says.

The truth is that since established stars demand more money, Rama Naidu sticks with newcomers or get directors with less experience to work for films. So it was Suresh Verma, a young director, who made his Sivayya and while a newcomer, Tirupati Swamy, who directed Ganesh. Both were hits.

The year definitely belonged to the new directors. Jayanth, who has directed only one film in the past, Preminchukundam Ra, with Venkatesh, delivered two hits this year, Baavagaru Bagunnara with Chiranjeevi and Premante Idera with Venkatesh.

It shocked the industry that even the magic of ace director K Raghavendra Rao did not work. Fresh from the success of Annamayya which bagged several national awards, Raghavendra Rao directed Paradesi, a much-hyped film that crumbled at the box-office. Another smash-up was his Srimathi Vellostha with Jagapathi Babu in the lead.

Tabu. Click for bigger pic!
The biggest disappointed for him was probably Love Story 1999, the cast of which included Naveen, Prabhu Deva, Ramya Krishna, Laila and Rambha. The title itself was a measure of his confidence. Rao was certain that the film would run into the new year. Ostensibly, he didn't want it looking outdated in the new year.

Even a director like Dasari Narayana Rao who gave the Telugu film industry's biggest ever hit, Osey Ramulamma was in for a rude shock when his Greekuveerdu bombed very badly. And so it was that Dasari's son, Arun Kumar, who made his debut as a hero, is nowhere to be seen now.

Things weren't helped when another film Arun Kumar took up, Pelli Vaaramandi, directed by Veeru, also flopped.

Superstar Krishna also messed up big, despite a large fan following rooting for him. There was little response for all his three film, Sambhavam, Vaibhavam and Prathista.

Happily for Venkatesh, Rama Naidu's son, he had another story to tell -- the three films he acted in this year, Suryavamsham, Ganesh and Premante Idera were successful only because the story and treatment were so different.

Roja. Click for bigger pic!
While the heroes have had it hard, heroines have been in big trouble, particularly due to the competition from Bollywood.

"Why should anyone nurse ill-feelings about us? Competition should only be healthy," says Sakshi Sivanand who has one foot in the Telugu film industry and another in Hindi cinema.

While Sakshi and Laila have become regular heroines in Telugu, Tabu, Anjala Jhaveri and Poonam have also made forays. Despite the competition, Soundarya and Raasi have had it easy. Another actress who has had a decent time is Rachana, a Bengali actress who has really proved her acting skills.

So bad is the state of the industry that many theatres have been converted into marriage halls or shopping complexes. Some have been closed out altogether. Industry sources say as many as 300 theatres were out of the reckoning in 1998, with another 400 expected to go the same way this year.

Worried, the Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber of Commerce has suggested that at least entertainment tax be removed.

"If there is no tax on watching a movie on television, what justification is there for entertainment tax being levied for those shown in theatres?" asks an APFCC official.

"We live by hope. We hope times will change," says A V Suryanarayana, summing up the industry's feelings. But Bhaskara Rao is certain the problem can be fixed if directors just knew what new success formula was...

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