There's an iconic line in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight where Joker says, "As you know, madness is like gravity...all it takes is a little push." This couldn't be more true in case of Telugu cinema's ongoing obsession with period dramas, which range from folklore about warriors to stories inspired from real people of yore. In the past few years, Telugu film industry saw films like Baahubali: The Beginning, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, Rudramadevi and Gautamiputra Satakarni to name a few, apart from Kanche, Mahanati and Kathanayakudu. While some of these films met with a mixed response at the box-office, the lure of big moolah and offering a big screen experience to the audience has ensured that the wind is in favour of filmmakers who are keen to bet big on period dramas. Chiranjeevi, Amitabh Bachchan, Nayanthara, and Tamannaah starrer Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy is slated for release on 2 October; there's also SS Rajamouli's upcoming period drama RRR (starring Ram Charan, NTR, Alia Bhatt, and Ajay Devgn), which tells the story of two of the most prominent freedom fighters from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana " Alluri Seetharamaraju and Komaram Bheem; Add to that: a biopic on legendary wrestler Kodi Ramamurthy Naidu, a story about a notorious thief Tiger Nageswara Rao, and an ambitious retelling of Hiranyakashyapa's legend starring Rana Daggubati among several other films.
Chiranjeevi in a still from Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. YouTube
The film, which irrevocably pushed the whole industry to dream big at least in this decade, is SS Rajamouli's Baahubali. Its record-breaking performance at the box-office has turned into a case study for other filmmakers and producers who want to follow a similar path to make big-budget action epics. Acknowledging the seismic effect that Baahubali's success has had on Telugu cinema, Chiranjeevi said, "For almost 20 years, I have been evincing my interest to play the role of Bhagat Singh; however, my dream went unfulfilled. More than a decade ago, when writer Parachuri Venkateshwara Rao convinced me to play Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, a freedom fighter from Rayalaseema, no one came forward to produce the film because we couldn't afford the budget or resources to make a film on a grand scale back then. It was only after SS Rajamouli made Baahubali and expanded the market for epic Telugu films that we gained the confidence that the time was right to tell the story of Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. Indirectly, Rajamouli is the reason behind why we made this film now. Leaving the money aside, Baahubali earned a lot of respect for Telugu cinema and I sincerely hope that Sye Raa too earns a lot of recognition."
This trend has inadvertently given an excuse to filmmakers to glorify the past, which coincides with the ongoing political discourse about revisiting and, at times, rewriting India's history. While Baahubali was rooted in folklore and characters inspired from Indian mythology, few other films like Rudramadevi, Gautamiputra Satakarni, and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy are based on the lives of various rulers who have left an indelible impression on the history of the region. In Balakrishna starrer Gautamiputra Satakarni, he is portrayed as a Telugu emperor who united Indian kingdoms to fight against foreign invasions, primarily the Greeks and other European powers of the time. Towards the end of the film, Satakarni makes a case for a united nation, long before the thought ignited the freedom struggle. And then, in Rudramadevi, Anushka Shetty plays a warrior queen who was instrumental in changing the dynamics of the society, which hadn't witnessed a woman rule over a kingdom before her. And then, there's Chiranjeevi starrer Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy which turns a local chieftain's battle with the British into a war cry for India's independence from the British empire. The story was developed keeping Chiranjeevi's larger-than-life image in mind so, a significant part of the original story had to be fictionalised and turned into an all-out epic drama.
The first poster of RRR
Apart from all these historical dramas, Telugu filmmakers and actors are also exploring stories and events which unfolded in the latter half of the 20th century. Films like Keerthy Suresh starrer Mahanati, NTR's Kathanayakudu, Nagarjuna's Rajanna, and Ghazi dug into the past of its lead characters, and quite a few other films are soon in offing including Virata Parvam (starring Rana and Sai Pallavi), which is set in the early '90s against the backdrop of naxalism.
What explains this growing fondness for stories from the past? In a way, one could interpret it as Telugu cinema going back to its roots, especially the '50s and '60s, which saw scores of mythological and period films starring NTR, ANR, SV Ranga Rao, Kantha Rao and Savitri among many others. Films like Pathala Bhairavi, Mayabazaar, Lava Kusa, Nartanasala and Dana Veera Soora Karna were some of the biggest hits and they turned the heroes, especially NTR, ANR, and SV Ranga Rao into demigods. The impact which these period dramas left on an entire generation was so huge that later in the '80s and '90s when Telugu cinema tilted more towards action and romantic dramas, the box-office success of Nagarjuna starrer Annamayya and Balakrishna's Bhairava Dweepam was proof enough that the demand for the genre was alive and strong. However, in the noughties, with the cost of production skyrocketing, the genre took a backseat. It was only towards the end of the decade, thanks to the success of Anushka starrer Arundhati and SS Rajamouli's Magadheera that Telugu cinema once again set sail to expand its market and increase the box-office revenue.
There is, however, another reason why actors and filmmakers are increasingly opting for stories from the past. Unlike Hollywood, where sci-fi is a popular genre and dystopian future seems all the more real, Indian cinema (Telugu cinema in particular) has looked back into the country's past to make larger-than-life epics, which are meant to be a big screen experience. In the past two decades, the stories in Telugu films have oscillated between heroes going to smaller towns and villages to solve local issues and heroes fighting bigger battles plaguing the society including crime, corruption, injustice, and abuse of power. Under these circumstances, a period drama offers the actors and technicians a bigger challenge because of its heightened sense of drama and the scale it demands. The norm in the industry, especially when it comes to writing, is to find either a new conflict point between characters or a new backdrop to tell a familiar story in a different context. The current trend of period dramas fits into the latter option, and there are countless stories and incidents waiting to be brought alive on to the big screen. On the downside, there are plenty of risks associated with the genre, especially in terms of escalating budgets. Moreover, it's also a time-consuming and labour intensive process. In an interview when Rajamouli was asked if he knew that making Baahubali in two parts would take nearly five years, he said, "If we knew it then I don't think we would have made the film. Our initial idea was to finish the film in a couple of years, but it kept getting bigger and bigger. There are phases where you get tired, but it's the joy of telling a fascinating story that keeps one going." The story is no different when it comes to Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy and by his own admission, it's Chiranjeevi's dream project. "I kept wondering if I can pull off the stunts and look convincing in the role at this age. But once I wore the costume, I forgot about everything else. The only thing that came to my mind was the expectations that my fans have on me. I didn't want to let them down," Chiranjeevi remarked at the pre-release event of Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy.
With SS Rajamouli's RRR slated for release in the summer of 2020 alond with Prabhas-Pooja Hegde's '60s-set upcoming film, Telugu cinema is continuing to bet big on period dramas and in the wake of their pan-Indian appeal, there's no stopping this juggernaut.