Art of the State

Will the Andhra Pradesh affect the future of Telugu cinema?

A poster of the film Jai Bolo Telangana (2011), on the movement for statehood. Fears that Andhra Pradesh’s division will damage the industry’s fortunes are misplaced. MOHAMMED YOUSUF / THE HINDU ARCHIVES
01 September, 2013

THE IMMINENT FORMATION of Telangana state, the proposed capital of which, Hyderabad, also houses the Telugu film industry, has triggered fresh speculation about the future of Telugu cinema. The humongous Telugu movie business—Andhra Pradesh has India’s second largest film industry and its highest number of cinema halls—has been increasingly embroiled in political controversies related to the state’s division, and the over-representation of coastal Andhra in most departments and sectors of the industry has contributed significantly to anxieties over the industry’s fate. This regional skewing dates back to the late colonial era, when entrepreneurs and actors from the coastal region became an important part of the film industry in Madras, which was the centre of film production in South India between the late 1930s and early 1990s. To this day, the Telugu industry’s leadership is primarily constituted by actors and producers who began their careers in Madras, and belong to what is now being called the Seemandhra region—a combination of Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra.

For some years now, statehood agitations in Telangana have disrupted film shootings and screenings, and led to protests against individual film stars or films. After the UPA government announced the bifurcation of the state in early August, anti-Telangana protests in Seemandhra—largely driven by fears of losing access to education, employment and investment opportunities offered by Hyderabad—have complicated matters even further for the industry. Big-budget productions lined up for release, including a Rs 50-odd crore project featuring film-star-turned-politician Chiranjeevi’s brother Pawan Kalyan, were delayed. Kalyan’s film was expected to face trouble in Telangana because of Chiranjeevi’s anti-bifurcation stand, but its fate is now also uncertain in Seemandhra, where agitators are reportedly unhappy with Chiranjeevi’s reluctance to resign from his position as the Minister of Tourism in the union cabinet.

Although the short-term impact of a separate Telangana on Telugu cinema is clearly negative, the big question is what its long-term consequences, if any, will be. The industry is going through a bad patch, and it is tempting to attribute its struggles to the Telangana tangle, but that might be a simplistic view.

Like every other film centre in India, the Telugu film industry’s survival and growth are predicated on its capacity to attract new investments, usually of a speculative kind. Typically, big producers exploit the star cast of their latest films to recover costs (or make a profit on investment) by selling distribution and other rights of projects still under production. The genius of the system lies in its ability to distribute losses widely.

But the economics of the Telugu film business are complicated by investors’ political calculations, and caste and kinship dynamics. Since the successful crossover of the film star NT Rama Rao (NTR) into politics in 1983, the industry has functioned as an important political institution, one with huge economic stakes. Not only have dozens of Telugu actors contested elections, but entrepreneurs with political ambitions are drawn to Telugu cinema; film production can absorb relatively large capital infusions as well as lead to election tickets. In recent times, at least two relative newcomers to film production—Chengala Venkat Rao and Kodali Nani— invested in lavish films featuring the senior NT Rama Rao’s actor son and grandson, respectively, before going on to lobby successfully for party tickets.

It remains to be seen how the new political geography will impact an establishment such as this. The formation of Andhra Pradesh in 1956 proved to be a blessing for the Telugu film industry, which was then based in Madras. The merger of Telangana, previously a part of the linguistically diverse Hyderabad State, with the Telugu-speaking districts of Madras State, opened up the market by expanding the Telugu film distribution network. (Until this point, Telangana had a relatively small number of cinema halls, and although the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad had a sizeable number of theatres, they preferred to show non-Telugu films.) Over the next six decades, with a steady increase in the number of exhibition venues and the audience for Telugu cinema, the importance of the region for the industry kept growing. By the 1980s, Hyderabad had replaced Vijayawada as the most important centre for Telugu film distribution and exhibition alike. From contributing only 10 percent to the state’s film market share in the early 1940s, Telangana is today responsible for anywhere between 45–50 percent of Telugu cinema’s box office collections.

Andhra Pradesh’s formation also impacted Telugu film production by boosting government support for the industry. Until then, few producers were willing to make films in Hyderabad. The actor Mikkilineni Radhakrishna Murthy wrote in his history of Telugu cinema, Teluguvari Chalanachitrakala (1975), that the city’s first post-Independence studio, Sarathy Studio, was launched in 1956—it was completed by around 1958—with a loan of Rs 2.25 lakh from the Andhra Pradesh State Finance Corporation. But even up to 1963, only 14 films had been produced there. In 1964, the Andhra Pradesh government announced a new film policy, whose highlights were cash subsidies for films produced in the state, and loans for constructing studios and other industry infrastructure. Hundreds of acres of land were made available in Hyderabad at reduced prices for housing the industry and its personnel.

The response was positive. The actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao, who passionately supported the government campaign, used to insist that his producers shoot their films in Hyderabad, and went on to construct a studio in the city. NTR, who was criticised for his initial indifference, not only built cinema halls and studios in Hyderabad, but also made so many other investments in the city that one of his biographers claimed that the star put “all his hard earned money” into its real estate. In the years to come, others, such as the younger actor Krishna and the producer D Ramanaidu, built studios, while LV Prasad, who owned film processing and other facilities in Madras and Bombay, set up a laboratory here.

The relocation took a long time, however, delayed by the concentration of superior facilities and human resources in Madras, and factors such as the separate Telangana and Andhra agitations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, respectively. But in the three decades between the announcement of the state government’s film policy and the shifting of the industry to Hyderabad, the business grew, on the strength of rising numbers of both cinema halls and filmgoers.

This spurt continued until the 1990s, when the proliferation of alternate film viewership avenues—primarily satellite television channels—led the exhibition sector, consisting of some 3,000 screens, to contract. Hundreds of cinema halls have been closed over the decade, due to rising maintenance costs and falling attendance. (According to a report in the Telugu newspaper Andhra Jyothi, 100 cinema halls were closed since 1995 in Hyderabad city alone.) Even the opening of multiplexes in recent years has not been able to arrest the passing of a film-viewing culture fashioned on the basis of state support and physical infrastructure.

In other words, while Telugu cinema’s past gains from a unified Andhra Pradesh are beyond doubt, the biggest hurdle the industry now faces is not the division of the state. Rather, other challenges now threaten the business, the foremost of which is declining theatrical attendance, a global trend that has forced film businesses big and small to try to tap revenue options other than the box office.

Telugu cinema’s box office revenues continue to increase, primarily because of a hike in ticket prices, creating an illusion of growth. But higher prices, some industry insiders argue, further alienate viewers—especially those from the working class. What works in the industry’s favour is that Telugu cinema’s audience has grown, due to the availability of filmed entertainment on television and in digital formats. Dubbing of Telugu films into Hindi has introduced new market territories like Hindi channels, and cinema halls in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But unlike Bollywood, the Telugu film industry has not quite figured out how to deal with newer markets, especially those that exist beyond the cinema hall. Overseas distribution is poorly organised and is focused on the films of a handful of stars or directors. Home video’s potential remains untapped, as evinced by the non-availability of high-quality DVDs of even relatively recent films.

Apart from falling attendance and an unfamiliarity with newer markets, the third challenge before the industry is a creative one (although even this is linked to markets and revenue streams). In comparison with the other two big cinemas of India, Hindi and Tamil, Telugu cinema shows far less depth of creative talent and capacity for diversification, and this lack of variety translates into a failure to create or address niche audiences.

There was a promising phase in Telugu cinema a few years ago, when its films began to display a fresh range. A new wave of directors and actors came in; films were being made in a variety of genres; and local cultures—both rural and urban—were explored. (For example, Dakhni Urdu was heard in low-budget comedies set in Hyderabad, such as The Angrez.) Puri Jagannadh, SS Rajamouli and VV Vinayak assembled spectacular vehicles for relative newcomers and established stars alike. It was partly on the strength of their work that the post-Chiranjeevi generation of stars—including his son Ram Charan Teja—established itself. Indraganti Mohan Krishna and Sekhar Kammula made fascinating films on shoestring budgets. Grahanam (2004), Mohan Krishna’s award-winning film, was shot with a digital video camera and barely made it to the theatres, but was widely watched in Andhra Pradesh and beyond in VCD and DVD formats. Kammula’s Anand, which had neither stars nor action sequences—nor even, according to some, a storyline—was a major box office success. The hero of Rajamouli’s 2012 blockbuster Eega is a computer-animated housefly.

Notwithstanding audiences’ appreciation of such filmmaking experiments, however, the majority of Telugu films continue to adhere to formulae that are traceable to the 1990s. In an amazingly candid demonstration of the industry’s inability to move forward, the typical Telugu film narrative now moves backwards: dragging heroes out of cities across the globe to avenge the glorious dead in the remotest of villages, or pitting suitable young men against future fathers-in-law. For fans of Telugu cinema, there is something comforting and reassuring about the familiarity of even the newest films on offer; everything changes but our cinema.

Telugu cinema was well and truly in crisis long before Telangana’s formation was announced. For this cinema of the status quo, the division of Andhra Pradesh presents a unique opportunity to reinvent itself. The possibilities offered by the unification of Andhra Pradesh in 1956 have been exhausted. The contraction of the exhibition sector is evidence of a paradigm shift in the consumption of cinema in the 21st century. Cinema is now “content” that can be accessed anywhere. At a time like this, a geographically bound market is neither necessary nor a guarantee of Telugu cinema’s health.