From Samarasimha Reddy to Aravinda Sametha, how Telugu filmmakers have brought alive stories from Rayalaseema
The rise of factionalism in Telugu cinema coincided with the slow shift towards a more hero-centric style of storytelling in the latter half of 90s
The parched lands of Rayalaseema, the South-Western region in Andhra Pradesh encompassing Kadapa, Anantapur, Kurnool, and Chittoor districts, has been a subject of political and cultural interest for several decades now. The region has witnessed violence, which reached its zenith in the 90s and subsequently became the stuff of legends in popular culture. The fight for dominance over the region - whether to protect people from a sect or caste, or to lay claim on its vast untapped mineral wealth - gave rise to powerful men, some of whom turned politicians, whose lives laid the foundation for a sub-genre of action dramas in Telugu cinema from the late ‘90s.
The rise of factionalism in Telugu cinema coincided with the slow shift towards a more hero-centric style of storytelling in the latter half of 90s. The necessity for strong heroes meant that filmmakers had to create more menacing villains, and somehow the tales emerging from Rayalaseema around that time gave ample firepower to writers and directors to talk about love, violence, relationships, and the need for peace in the midst of egos and a thirst for vengeance. One of the earliest films which sowed the seeds of the Rayalaseema factionalism in Telugu cinema was Venkatesh-Anjala Zhaveri starrer Preminchukundam Raa. Jayaprakash Reddy appeared as a factionist, who didn't like the idea of love marriages, ordered his confidant (Srihari) to kill Venkatesh, and after several twists and turns, Srihari let the young couple escape from all the violence brewing in the region to lead a happy life. And then, in 1998, Krishnavamsi’s Anthahpuram took a deep dive into the psyche of a factionist, played by Prakash Raj, and his obsession with continuing his legacy. The film was an adaptation of Not Without My Daughter, a film based on a book written by Betty Mahmoody. It followed the life of Bhanumati (played by Soundarya), who tries to escape from the region after her father-in-law decides to avenge his son’s death through his grandson.
The film which turned factionalism into a blockbuster formula was, however, Balakrishna-starrer Samarasimha Reddy, which released in 1999. Directed by B Gopal, the film laid down the foundation for what constitutes a faction drama and its principal characters, and it was the same template that scores of other actors and filmmakers followed for several years before the formula became a tad too stale. In the film, Balakrishna’s portrayal of a factionist, who renounces violence after the death of his friend, the larger-than-life persona built around his character, and dialogues became a rage and it turned out to be a sensation at the box-office. Later, he followed it up with a handful of other faction-based films like Narasimha Naidu and Chennekesava Reddy, whereas Chiranjeevi too jumped on to the bandwagon with another smash hit, Indra. This trend wasn’t just restricted to the top stars of the day. After all, the sub-genre was a money spinner at the box-office, and audiences were lapping up almost every other film which had epic chases of factionists and their henchmen in Tata Sumos, thunderous dialogues with men slapping their thighs to challenge the opponents, and heightened sense of drama between the heroes and villains. In the noughties, several other actors including Mahesh Babu (Okkadu), Jr NTR (Aadhi), and Ravi Teja (Bhadra) too appeared in films that had factionalism as the main theme. And just like that, the formula met its expiry date post 2005-06, and for a while, Telugu filmmakers didn’t return to the milieu.
Writer and director BVS Ravi says, “A story needs to have either a fresh conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, or it needs to have a different backdrop. Stories based on Rayalaseema factionalism had run out of steam after a point because the conflict between the characters became too stale. Violence and sacrifice were the recurring themes in all these films, and we pretty much stuck to the Baasha-formula of starting the story in a different place and then revealing the protagonist’s background through a flashback. Then, in 2010, RGV’s Rakta Charitra changed everything about such stories.”
Truth be told, RGV’s Rakta Charitra, which was based on the real life rivalry between Paritala Ravi and Maddelacheruvu Suri, changed the way faction-based films were perceived. Now, it was no longer a fight between the good and the evil. RGV’s Rakta Charitra explored the psyche of people who are forced into a path of violence due to gross injustice done to their respective families. In the process, both the lead characters commit crimes in the name of protecting their respective families and allies. Almost all the characters in the film were grey, and it was hard to empathise with only one of them. Considering the political climate of the time, RGV chose to narrate Rakta Charitra from Paritala Ravi’s point of view, whereas the second part was all about Maddelacheruvu Suri. Couple of years, RGV hinted that he’s returning to explore the raw emotions in the region through a web-series named Kadiapa; however, it hasn’t seen the daylight so far.
Another film which explored the milieu in a light-hearted manner was SS Rajamouli’s Maryada Ramanna, where the protagonist gets a taste of the kindness of his hosts before he realises that his life will be in grave danger as soon as he steps out of the house. In the meantime, the genre turned into a punchline in several comedy films including Seema Sastry and Sudigadu, where nothing was sacred anymore. Right from taking a dig at the act of slapping things as a signature move to challenge anyone to portrayal of anger, filmmakers didn’t hold back any punches. Gradually, factionalism in Telugu cinema had become a thing of the past and for a while, it seemed like everyone had moved on. Until Trivikram Srinivas revived the audiences’ interest with Jr NTR-Jagapathi Babu starrer Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava.
Talking about why he chose to delve into the genre after all these years, Trivikram Srinivas says, “In most of the films based on Rayalaseema factionalism, only the act of violence was glorified; however, none of those films focused on the aftermath of a war. Both Jr NTR and I became interested in starting our story with a bloody act of war to give the film a context and then explore how the protagonist shuns that path to bring peace. Later, when I came up with the idea of focusing on the lives of women and how families are torn apart due to such violence, it gave us a lot more depth to explore.” Jr NTR, who once starred in a faction-based film Aadhi, returned to a familiar space; however, he was a different person altogether this time. “Everything changes when you stop focusing on the man walking out the door to fight a battle and start focusing on the people he’s leaving behind at the doorstep. That’s what intrigued me so much about Aravindha Sametha,” the actor said in a recent interview.
Although the film was well-received at the box-office, it ran into trouble when members of the Rayalaseema Vidhyarthi Porata Samithi voiced their concern about the portrayal of the region in a negative light. The students questioned the necessity to make the film in a time when the bloodshed that the region once witnessed was a thing of the past. “The trend of factionalism is long over. Lakhs of students from the Rayalaseema region are pursuing higher studies and we are striving to lead a good life with our families. What’s the point of trying to revive negative emotions about the region through such films and disturb the peace prevailing in the region right now? If you really want to make films based on people from Rayalaseema, we have hundreds of stories on drought, unemployment, migrations to share,” the students had said at a press meet.
Despite the success of Aravindha Sametha, Telugu cinema’s obsession with factionalism is, perhaps, won’t be as strong as it was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But then, there’s no denying that the template set by the faction-dramas of the yore has percolated so deeply into action drama narratives that even though the backdrop is different, the emotions are pretty much the same. The only difference is that you probably won’t hear the word ‘factionist’ in such films. But the violence remains. It always has and it will in future too. There’ll be no end to it, be it in real or reel life.
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