Coming of Age

Telangana cinema and the changing language of the Telugu hero

01 December, 2023

The recent Telugu film Bhagavanth Kesari, featuring Nandamuri Balakrishna, one of the biggest stars of the industry, was a bit of a surprise. After 107 films, the audience was used to the actor’s staple fare of overblown dialogues and logic-defying action sequences. Critics were, I would hazard, convinced they would never watch a Balakrishna movie that mirrored social realities. Bhagavanth Kesari broke this mould in several ways. It preached female empowerment, a subject other industries would yawn at but is novel and pathbreaking for Telugu cinema. But, more significantly, Balakrishna’s character is firmly a son of the Telangana soil, speaking in the idiom of the region.  

The use of a recognisable Telangana Telugu is a first in Balakrishna’s career, spanning over four decades. It is something that even his father, the tallest icon of Telugu cinema, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, or NTR, never attempted. Why did the biggest stars of Telugu cinema ignore a dialect spoken by roughly a third of their audience? The answer lies in the argument of cultural subjugation that formed the basis of the separate statehood movement—the unified state of Andhra Pradesh, formed in 1956, brought together regions that shared a language but not a culture. 

The merger of the more developed Andhra and Rayalaseema areas of the Madras Presidency with the poverty-ridden Telugu-speaking districts of Hyderabad state, referred to as Telangana region, gave birth to an unequal power dynamic. People of the two regions spoke the same language, Telugu, but noticeably different lects. In fact, conversational Telugu varies every few kilometres, adding and shedding quirks unique to the area. However, the differences in the Telugu of the Telangana region and the coastal expanse were substantial enough to catalogue. 

Telugu is supposed to have branched out from Proto-Dravidian, the ancestral lode of all Dravidian languages. But the language was bequeathed with Persian, Urdu and Hindustani legacies—starting from the Bahmani Sultanate of the fourteenth century to the two-century-long rule over Hyderabad by the nizams. Today, the prolific use of Urdu and Hindustani words in Telangana Telugu is probably what distinguishes it from Telugu spoken in other regions. What is now referred to as Telangana Telugu is by no means homogeneous. Instead, it is a loose mix of the versions spoken in the formerly undivided Warangal and Karimnagar districts. Words such as dukanam, mazaku, pareshanu, mastu, dawatu and karabu are specific to these regions. The Telugu spoken in Andhra and Rayalaseema, while dissimilar, are not particularly reminiscent of this lineage.