As digital streaming emerged the new norm during the pandemic, there were lessons to be learnt. Will Telugu cinema see a change in narrative?
A couple of years ago, aspiring director Vinod Anantoju had a tough time finding producers who were confident of the commercial viability of a story depicting the tussles and dreams of a middle class family in Guntur. We know what happened eventually. Middle Class Melodies won hearts and was among the best Telugu films that released directly on streaming platforms.
Cinema is primarily made for the theatre experience but during the pandemic, streaming services opened up an alternate revenue stream. The consumption of immersive stories across languages among home-bound viewers in 2020 sparked hope that more Telugu filmmakers will be encouraged to explore newer narratives.
Break even on digital
Actor Anand Deverakonda who played the protagonist in Middle Class Melodies, states the overwhelming response to the film has affirmed that viewers will support relatable, realistic stories: “From 2000 to 2010, Telugu cinema was dominated by mainstream commercial cinema. A few writers and directors then began experimenting. Moving ahead, we will see more join this tribe. Producers will also be more confident of backing diverse stories, given the possibility of breaking even through digital streaming.” He believes that while the big masala films will remain, there can be more films rooted in reality.
New measure of appreciation
As the lockdown extended and theatres remained shut, Siddhu Jonnalagadda had resigned to destiny and was ready to go back to leading a quieter life in Secunderabad. The actor-writer had been looking forward to the theatrical release of Krishna and His Leela. But it turned out to be the first significant Telugu film to stream on OTT and earned appreciation from Telugu film viewers and beyond. It gave Siddhu, director Ravikanth Perepu and the team a new lease of life.
“I had two digital hits (Maa Vintha Gaadha Vinuma followed) and people called me the lockdown star,” laughs Siddhu. He earned a foothold in Telugu cinema and says, “This year has taught the entertainment industry that OTT can also be a measure of creative appreciation. More filmmakers are likely to push the boundaries in storytelling.”
Real change takes time
Director Venkatesh Maha, whose Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya was among the appreciated direct OTT releases, cautions against overt optimism: “The growth of digital platforms have ensured more jobs for aspiring writers, filmmakers and technicians. However, during lockdown when I heard my friends talk about binge watching films and series, my concern was that the quality of content on OTT shouldn’t get diluted with time. It happened with YouTube short films, which gave hope to aspiring filmmakers a decade ago.”
Maha acknowledges the scope of digital platforms but asserts that theatres will remain the ultimate destination for filmmakers. He avers that real change will happen only when more investors back non-formulaic content and emerging filmmakers like him hold on to their resolve, to raise the bar for storytelling.
Content and commerce
Naveen Polishetty in ‘Jathi Ratnalu’, which is poised to release in 2021
Actor and writer Naveen Polishetty who started his YouTube channel and rolled out fun lockdown videos, agrees with Maha’s line of thought and adds, “Whether it’s pre or post-pandemic, I look for films that can hit the sweet spot between commerce and good storytelling. 2020 has made more people in the entertainment sector realise that it would be a risk to not take a risk. Scam 1992 series streamed on a comparatively less popular platform but was widely talked about. If the content is good, the audience will seek you.”
Producer Supriya Yarlagadda underlines the need to support writers and encourage collaborative work to put forth qualitative storytelling. She reckons that theatres and OTT are different spaces: “The star culture and big, event films will always be there. There will also be films with alternative storytelling and often, they too find audience support. Some films may not find its audience in the opening weekend and need time to grow [through word of mouth publicity]; OTT gives them the breathing space. However, the digital space is also getting competitive.”
Meanwhile, star-led mainstream Telugu films are finding their way back to theatres beginning with Solo Brathuke So Better (SBSB) during Christmas. Big films are in the offing for Sankranti. These films were conceived before the pandemic set in.
Producers are also aware of the possibility of a dip in revenues since theatres have opened with 50% seating capacity and a certain section of the audience might stay away from crowded cinema halls. Supriya agrees and also shares an alternate line of thought in the industry: “The optimists have been stating that the audience will return to theatres since they are tired of being home-bound and have hit a saturation with digital platforms.”