Tholi Prema: Pawan Kalyan-Keerthi Reddy’s romantic classic continues to inspire filmmakers even after 20 years

Hemanth Kumar

Feb,08 2018 16:52:24 IST

There are blockbusters and landmark films. And then, there are films which refuse to fade away from our collective memory because their first impression is so strong that they subconsciously influence how an entire generation approaches certain themes, like love for instance.

For a lot of moviegoers back in the 90s, one such film was A Karunakaran’s Tholi Prema (First Love), a romantic drama which turned its lead actors Pawan Kalyan and Keerthi Reddy into heartthrobs when it released in 1998. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, even today, a mere citation of the film’s title brings back an ocean of memories.

No wonder then, at the recent audio launch of Varun Tej, Raashi Khanna starrer Tholi Prema, Varun said, “Although we considered a few titles, Venky suggested that we use Tholi Prema. I remember telling him that it’s not a good idea because if we don’t do justice to the title, fans of my uncle won’t spare us. I’m well aware of the love and support people have given that film. Since I’ve watched our film, I can confidently say that we have done justice to the title.”

Stills from Tholi Prema.

You might wonder - What’s in a name? Isn’t a title like ‘Tholi Prema’ which means ‘First Love’ a tad too generic that others have to think twice before using the same name? Turns out that, sometimes, a film’s title isn’t just a name alone. It’s an idea that, with time, evolves into something larger-than-life because it soaks so much into our memories. Yes, the original Tholi Prema broke several records at the box-office and ran for over 200 days in few towns and cities, but its impact goes beyond mere numbers. The film also shaped and changed the idea of romance and expression of love in Telugu cinema so much that even after 20 years, the characters and underlying emotion of Tholi Prema continue to manifest themselves time and again.

The ‘90s was all about change and embracing the ‘new’, and movies were no different. It was also an era when the third generation of Telugu actors and new talent were slowly making their foray into the industry. Pawan Kalyan was one among them who made his debut with Akkada Ammayi Ikkada Abbayi in 1996. Two years later, after acting in Gokulam Lo Seetha and Suswagatham, when Pawan Kalyan’s Tholi Prema released, the time was just about ripe to break free from the conventions of the day. It not only forced to us to relook at what was acceptable, especially when it comes to portrayal of a hero, but also, proved that youth-centric films had become the order of the day.

Every film is defined by a character’s motive to achieve something. Whether it’s a Rudraveena, where the protagonist wants to fight for the rights of the underprivileged, or a Shiva, where the protagonist stands up against the atrocities of Bhavani, a character’s heroism is highlighted by his goal. That becomes his mission in life. However, when it comes to Tholi Prema, the character’s motive is itself treated as a story. The entire story is a build up to one particular scene, where a character has to confess his/her true feelings for the other person. This act of ‘expressing one’s love’ is projected as a triumph, because the story turns a youngster, who’s always projected as a loser, into a hero in the end.

The biggest influence that Tholi Prema had on subsequent Telugu films boils down to two fundamental aspects. First, it normalised the idea that every family has a black sheep, and that that character too can be a hero. And second, it made the concept of one-sided love story into a predominant theme in Telugu cinema. And hence, we saw film after film which narrated a love story from a hero’s point of view. On the other hand, a heroine became a personification of an angel, who is either too innocent or too headstrong to notice how much the hero loves her. But in the end, it all ends well, because she realises how ‘sincere’ the hero’s love is for her.

As cliched as it may sound now, back in 1998, this was a refreshing change from the existing films of the day. Quite early in the film, Balu (Pawan Kalyan) is denied entry into a discotheque because he’s single. Balu’s father is perennially angry at him for whiling away all his time. However, Balu’s uncle (played by Nagesh) always comes to his rescue, apart from his sister (Vasuki). And then, one fine day, he comes across Anu (Keerthy Reddy), who descends into his life like an angel. Nearly every scene reinforces the idea that Balu is chasing an impossible goal. Even his friends tell him that Anu is way out his league. If that wasn’t enough, Anu makes it clear that she doesn’t believe in love and that she expects everyone to have a goal. Her goal is to study in Harvard. His goal is to make her realise how much he loves her. The contradiction in their personalities couldn’t be more stark.

The film also turned Pawan Kalyan into a style icon with youngsters emulating his hairstyle, dressing up like him, and Keerthy Reddy became a gold standard for femininity and beauty. The world might have moved on and people more straight-forward, especially when it comes to expressing their love, but the films have largely retained traits first seen in Tholi Prema.

In Karunakaran’s own films, like Yuvakudu, Vasu, Ullasamga Utsahamga, and Darling, the heroine’s introduction scene has been the same - they are always dressed in white and they make the hero’s heart skip a beat. And even today, most Telugu films have a happy-go-lucky guy as a central character, who runs away from his responsibilities in the beginning only to fall in love and reform himself in the end. It’s a variation of what Tholi Prema once highlighted.

With the Varun Tej, Raashi Khanna starrer Tholi Prema releasing this weekend, it makes us wonder if the concept of ‘first love’ still has the same charm to merit a full-fledged feature film after all these years. But then, that’s the thing about love and falling in love - every love story is unique. People might fall in and out of love as they grow up, but first love always remains as a memory for a lifetime. Maybe that’s why Tholi Prema - the film - too has remained so special even after 20 years.

Updated Date: Feb 08, 2018 16:52 PM