Telugu cinema 2022: Ten films worth recommending – ‘RRR’, ‘Sita Ramam’, ‘Ante Sundaraniki’, ‘Major’, ‘HIT 2’, ‘Masooda’, ‘DJ Tillu’, and more

2022 was the year when S S Rajamouli’s Telugu movie RRR soared to international acclaim; with the film bagging nominations for coveted international awards, its popularity shows no signs of slowing down. It was also the year when a few Telugu films made with much smaller budgets — the wacky crime comedy DJ Tillu, the time travel family drama Oke Oka Jeevitham and the horror film Masooda enjoyed patronage.  

Data available from the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce suggests that more than 212 Telugu films and 57 dubbed films released in theatres. Among them, only 20 to 25 have been box office successes. 

Before recommending 10 films from the year, here is an overview:

Bigger the better? 

At the start of the year, director Sukumar and Allu Arjun’s mid-December 2021 rustic gangster drama Pushpa -The Rise was still running to packed halls. It looked as though the pandemic-induced lull was a thing of the past, but the Omicron wave took over briefly from mid January. It was a tepid Sankranti at the movies barring Bangarraju

Pan-India cinema was the buzzword, albeit overused, in the months that followed. RRR and KGF – Chapter Two (Kannada and Telugu dub versions) ruled the box office in the Telugu states. Sensing the enthusiasm among the audience for larger-than-life spectacles, ticket prices were raised with the nod of the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh state governments. This, in turn, made viewers weigh their choices carefully before venturing into cinema halls. Many OTT-habituated viewers preferred to wait till new releases found their way to digital platforms in a few weeks.

Radhe Shyam and Acharya proved that not every big film with an A-list star would work at the box office. The heavily-publicised Liger also joined this list, reiterating that the audiences cannot be taken for granted.

A film that was not promoted as a pan-India project, to begin with, but caught on swiftly, was director Chandoo Mondeti’s Karthikeya 2, backed by the producers of The Kashmir Files. The film had the potential to be a Da Vinci Code in an Indian context exploring Hindu semiotics, gained from the current socio-political mood and went on to be a hit in Telugu and Hindi. 

Two other films that caught attention in the Telugu States, and the nation, were Rishabh Shetty’s Kannada film Kantara and Mani Ratnam’s Tamil magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan -1. The Kannada version of Kantara with subtitles ran to packed halls in Hyderabad, prompting the distributors and exhibitors to increase the number of shows, even before the Telugu dubbed version hit the theatres. While Ponniyin Selvan -1 Tamil garnered overwhelming appreciation, the Telugu dubbed version elicited mixed reactions.

There were several weeks that witnessed at least half a dozen new releases, many of which went unnoticed. Sporadically, star-led vehicles such as Bheemla Nayak, F3, Sarkaaru Vaari Paata, Bimbisara, Godfather and Dhamaka generated footfalls. While the ability to draw packed houses in the opening weekend mostly rides on the shoulders of male stars, one of the few female actors to command a sizeable following that cheers and roots for her in the theatres is Samantha Ruth Prabhu. She was a treat to watch in the action episodes of Yashoda.

The changing OTT game

Digital streaming was a boon during the pandemic. Major OTT players acquired the rights of big, medium and small-budget films to satiate the ravenous appetite of homebound viewers who constantly looked for something new to watch. However, online fatigue set in as the pandemic prolonged for a little over two years; OTTs gauged that post multiple lockdowns, viewers mostly clicked on series and films that were backed by well-known names or had generated some buzz in the theatres. By mid-2022, new Telugu films struggled to get a direct digital release. Films such as Saakini Daakini and the anthology Panchathantram, which were conceptualised as digital projects, had to explore theatrical releases.

Watchlist 2022: Ten films worth recommending

The films are listed in no particular order.

RRR

NTR and Ram Charan in S S Rajamouli’s ‘RRR”

NTR and Ram Charan in S S Rajamouli’s ‘RRR”

A section of avid Telugu film buffs might be divided over whether Eega and Baahubali 2 were more absorbing entertainers helmed by director S S Rajamouli than RRR, but it is RRR that has fetched him and Telugu cinema global recognition. Anchored by the performances of NTR Jr and Ram Charan in characters inspired by freedom fighters Komaram Bheem and Alluri Seetharama Raju, and aided by a brilliant technical team forefronted by cinematographer K K Senthil Kumar and visual effects supervisor Srinivas Mohan, RRR raised the benchmark for showmanship. The world is still dancing to music composer M M Keeravani’s ‘Naatu Naatu’, joyously choreographed by Prem Rakshith, and Rajamouli and team RRR will hope to win a clutch of international awards. The film has two nominations for Golden Globe Awards and ‘Naatu Naatu’ is on the shortlist for Academy Awards 2023 for Best Original Song.

Sita Ramam

Dulquer Salmaan and Mrunal Thakur in the romance drama ‘Sita Ramam’

Dulquer Salmaan and Mrunal Thakur in the romance drama ‘Sita Ramam’

The nationwide hits Pushpa – The Rise, RRR and KGF – Chapter Two were testosterone-driven action dramas. Director Hanu Raghavapudi’s period romance Sita Ramam, produced by Vyjayanthi Films, broke the notion that only masculine narratives can conquer the box office. Sita Ramam shifted between two timelines — the 1960s and the 1980s — and rekindled the joy of watching an old world romance with the charm of letter writing. The Veer Zara-esque saga of the characters played by Dulquer Salmaan and Mrunal Thakur was fashioned as a musical (composer Vishal Chandrashekhar) and the story stressed the need to look at human relationships beyond religious and national boundaries. A relevant film at a time when the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ debates have taken over the discourse all around us.

Major

(Clockwise) Adivi Sesh, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj, Revathy and Saiee Manjrekar in ‘Major’

(Clockwise) Adivi Sesh, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj, Revathy and Saiee Manjrekar in ‘Major’

Major was an emotional, sensitive tribute to Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, one of the heroes of the 26/11 attacks, by actor-writer Adivi Sesh and director Sashi Kiran Tikka, supported by Mahesh Babu as a co-producer. Filmed simultaneously in Telugu and Hindi and dubbed in Malayalam, Major was embraced across the country, cutting across language barriers.

The feather in the film’s cap was the sincerity with which it saluted a soldier who was killed on his mission, without giving in to hyper-nationalistic overtones. It is tough to not have a lump in the throat when the on-screen parents (Prakash Raj and Revathy) recall the life of their son Sandeep, portrayed with sincerity by Sesh.

Ante Sundaraniki

Nani and Nazriya in ‘Ante Sundaraniki’

Nani and Nazriya in ‘Ante Sundaraniki’

Writer and director Vivek Athreya’s romance drama starring Nani and Nazriya is a favourite among critics and cinephiles. Ante Sundaraniki is a social commentary cloaked in comedy, and helped hugely by memorable performances from the lead actors and some of the ensemble cast. Though the lead characters Sundar and Leela are in prime focus, the non-linear narrative that moves back and forth between the adolescence of Sundar and Leela and the present, also trains its lenses on their families. A sister (Tanvi Ram) wonders if her worth is measured only by her ability to become a mother, the lead characters battle guilt when the web of lies they have built begins to cut too close to the bone, and a mother (Rohini Molleti) lashes out at the convenient hypocrisy in her family. Vivek Sagar’s richly textured musical score anchors the multi-layered drama. A lead male character gently stating that pregnancy is a choice, not a compulsion, is a statement one rarely comes across in mainstream Telugu cinema.

HIT: The Second Case 

Adivi Sesh in director Sailesh Kolanu’s ‘HIT 2’

Adivi Sesh in director Sailesh Kolanu’s ‘HIT 2’

A director’s second film is usually considered to be an acid test. Sailesh Kolanu who wrote and directed HIT (2020), led by a brooding cop protagonist played by Vishwak Sen, showed that he could deliver another brains-over-brawn cop drama with HIT 2. The stylish cop drama headlined by Adivi Sesh as a cool, smart-talking cop has set the stage for a HIT-Verse (HIT Universe), delightfully interconnecting with the previous film, and with the scope to forge crucial links with HIT 3, which will star Nani. The real test for the HIT-verse would begin with HIT 3. The Marvel Cinematic Universe served as an inspiration when Sailesh worked on HIT, with a blueprint in mind for the subsequent films. However, there is also a benchmark closer home in balancing star power and content in the form of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram starring Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil and Suriya, which interconnects with Lokesh’s previous film Kaithi, and revives Haasan’s character from the 1986 film, also titled Vikram. Incidentally, the Telugu dubbed version of Vikram was also a box office hit.

DJ Tillu

Siddhu Jonnalagadda in ‘DJ Tillu’

Siddhu Jonnalagadda in ‘DJ Tillu’

DJ Tillu was to 2022 what Jathi Ratnalu was to 2021 — a madcap comic caper that worked as collective laughter therapy after lockdowns. Co-written by director Vimal Krishna along with lead actor Siddhu Jonnalagadda, Tillu’s characterisation comes from the less explored side of what a streetsmart Secunderabad youngster could be. This DJ’s gigs are as local as Bonalu jatara and there is a hilarious gap between his aspirational sense of style, inspired by Mahesh Babu, and what he has to make do with. Siddhu’s uninhibited act and the fun lines he doled out ensured there was plenty of fun. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that nearly every other dialogue became reel-worthy material for Instagram and the humour was savoured repeatedly. ‘Atluntadi manathoni’ (that’s how it is with us) became a popular catchphrase. Tillu sequel is underway and this, too, will be a tough one to pull off.

Oke Oka Jeevitham

Ritu Varma and Sharwanand in ‘Oke Oka Jeevitham’

Ritu Varma and Sharwanand in ‘Oke Oka Jeevitham’

Director Shree Karthick’s time travel drama pointed out the inevitability of fate through a story that was less of a science fiction and more of an emotional roller coaster. The soul of the Tamil-Telugu bilingual (Kanam in Tamil) was the bond between the characters played by Sharwanand and Amala Akkineni, supported by Ritu Varma, Priyadarshi and Vennela Kishore. Stoking the nostalgia of the 1990s, the film brimmed with probabilities such as travelling back in time to meet one’s younger self in school and relishing a meal cooked by the late mother. Jakes Bejoy’s soulful music and the story that provides an emotional closure for the lead character hit the right chords. Watch this film if you missed it in theatres and you will not regret the time spent.

Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam

Vishwak Sen and Rukshar Dhillon in ‘Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam’

Vishwak Sen and Rukshar Dhillon in ‘Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam’

Thirty three year old bachelor Arjun Kumar Allam is tired of the society’s judgmental gaze. But nothing goes according to the plan of the protagonist portrayed by Vishwak Sen, when he and his extended family enter a village in East Godavari district, only to be tethered to the prospective bride’s house during lockdown. Written by Ravi Kiran Kola and directed by Vidyasagar Chinta, Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam begins like a rom-com and discusses caste and class differences and the pressure society places on young men and women. It is one of those endearing smaller films that struggled to draw the OTT-hooked audiences into cinema halls, but won hearts in the digital space.

Masooda

Thiruveer, Bandhavi and Sangitha in the horror drama ‘Masooda’

Thiruveer, Bandhavi and Sangitha in the horror drama ‘Masooda’

Long after the inventiveness of horror comedies wore thin and the genre was beaten to death, debut writer-director Sai Karthik’s Masooda came in as a refreshing slow burn horror drama. It is a broad, familiar story arc of a character wanting to unravel the mystery about another character being possessed and dragged into destruction. However, it does not resort to gimmicky jumpscares and evokes fear through its storytelling. Sangitha and Thiruveer play the central characters in this indie-spirited drama produced by Rahul Yadav who backed Malli Raava and Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya a few years ago. Masooda was among the few films that came in without much marketing and found its audiences through word of mouth publicity. It rekindled the hope for theatrical reception for small films in the post-lockdown scenario.

Virata Parvam

Sai Pallavi in director Venu Udugula’s ‘Virata Parvam’

Sai Pallavi in director Venu Udugula’s ‘Virata Parvam’

Director Venu Udugula’s period romance drama Virata Parvam, tracing Vennela’s (Sai Pallavi) pursuit of a rebel leader, Ravanna (Rana Daggubati), is not an easy watch and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In this fiction inspired by true incidents, Venu Udugula exercises caution to not romanticise the Naxal movement.

Vennela might draw a heart symbol over imagery of hammer and sickle, but it is her love for Ravanna that shines through rather than the rebel movement. A wonderful Sai Pallavi, cinematographers Dani Sanchez Lopez and Divakar Mani, and music composer Suresh Bobbili give this ill-fated romance saga a poetic touch.

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