Telugu Biopics: Catching Up Slowly

Unlike Bollywood the trend of biopics is not so common in Telugu Film Industry. Biopics in Telugu can be broadly divided into three categories. First category is mythological biopics, second one is historical and third one is on recent persons either alive or dead. Examples of mythological biopics are films on Ramayana, Mahabharatha characters, which we have in galore and which brought great recognition and appreciation to Telugu film industry. Historical biopics include Alluri Seetharamaraju, Gautami Putra Sathakarni, Rani Rudrama Devi, Saira Narismha reddy etc. These mainly cover kings, queens, poets and famous singers etc, who are real but a century or two old. With not many details available about their life film writers seem to have taken lot of liberties in bringing them alive on screen.

The third category, that is the flesh and blood biopics, include Mahanati on Savitri, Kadhanayakudu and Mahanayakudu on NTR, Yatra on YSR etc. Some of these biopics are on commoners like Mallesham (weaver), brave soldiers like Major (Sandeep Unni Krishnan). Earlier also we had a few biopics like Mayuri produced by Usha Kiran movies. Recently RGV has also done some biopics. These are Raktha Charitra based on Paritala Ravi, Lakshmi’s NTR, Vangaveeti and Konda.

One can’t say how much of these biopics are true to the life of the persons and how much of it is fiction labeled as director’s creative liberties. Most of these biopics avoid controversial aspects of the person’s life. Some of them are huge hits, others haven’t done so well. I will confine myself to the films in the last category alone.

1. Mahanati (2018) – Making a biopic on a legendary actress is not an easy task. Savitiri is an actress with immense recall value. Generations of Telugu audiences, for that matter other audiences of south Indian languages, have a huge emotional attachment towards her. Capturing her eventful life is daunting but director Nag Ashwin made an exemplary biopic which not only won rave reviews, but also made it a money spinning venture.

Keerthy Suresh got a role of a lifetime and the actress grabbed it with both hands. The status of Keerthy Suresh changed dramatically overnight. Dulqer Salman as Gemini Ganeshan also stood tall and made the character more charming than the actual person.

Unlike other biopics Mahanati is not narrated in a linear fashion. We see her life at different stages from the eyes of a young journalist played by Samantha. The film never gets judgmental; it depicts her more as a victim of circumstances.

2. Kadhanayakudu and Mahanayakudu (2019) – Krish Jagarlamudi got the best out of Balakrishna in both these films. It was refreshing to see the actor step away from his mass characters. It is true that Balakrishna was playing his own father but still it is no easy job, considering the legend that NTR is.

The graph of the character is immense both physically and emotionally. He nailed both the attributes. He made us also cheer for the young NTR in his journey to become a big star. Similarly the emotional turmoil before NTR became a politician was also wonderfully brought out by the actor. Though the movie is crowded with NTR’s images (real and fictional) which is understandable, still director Krish managed to show NTR’s life from the perspective of his wife Tarakam played by Vidya Balan. She of course did a thorough job. Krish’s homework is laudable given the extraordinary life of NTR both as an actor and also as a politician.

3. Yatra (2019) – There is no denying that Yatra had a big political agenda behind it. It was meant to be an emotional tribute to the late Chief Minister Y.S Rajeshekhar Reddy, which it perfectly achieved. The film is not on his entire life. It covers only his Padayatra leading to his Chief Ministership. It was directed by Mahi V Raghav, a relatively new director, but did a good job.

A major reason for this film’s success is Mammootty’s performance. He has always been a great actor. And as YSR he gave one of his best performances in his career. He showcased the pain and spirit of YSR in a simple yet effective manner.

4. Mallesham (2019) – Irrespective of the controversies around the film Mallesham, there is no denying that this was a well made biopic. Priyardarshi who generally does comic and supporting roles got a promotion as a leading man.

The story of Mallesham revolved around a Padmasri award winner by the same name. Mallesham became famous for inventing the Asu machine. His motive behind inventing this machine is to help his mother played by Jhansi. The story of Mallesham was primarily about the difficulties that he faced while inventing this machine, along with the success that followed.

There were several reasons why Mallesham won appreciation. The director Raj R did a splendid job in capturing the aesthetics of the Telangana culture. The plight of the handloom weavers was also realistically depicted. Priyardarshi as Mallesham captured the various nuances of the character without missing a single beat. An aspect of Priyardarshi’s performance that stood out was his body language.

5. Major (2022) – The story of Major Sandeep Unni Krishnan isn’t an unknown one. Most of us are aware about how he died while combating the terrorists on 26/11.

But Adavi Sesh’s Major was not just about that day. It showed Sandeep as a complete human being. Adavi Sesh excelled big time both as an actor and also as the story writer of the film. His performance was brilliant both in the action scenes and also the emotional ones. We can give credit to director Sashi Kiran for not making it jingoistic though there is lot of scope for it in the story.

These are recent ones. Now I will go back a bit.

6. Sri Ramulayya (1999) – N Shankar’s Sri Ramulayya is based on the life of Paritala Sriramulu. Sri Ramulayya tells about a man who spent his life fighting for the rights of the landless poor in a very backward area of Rayalaseema.

Sri Ramulayya presented actor Mohan Babu in a completely different light. It was devoid of the typical antics that we have come to associate with the actor. Mohan Babu surrendered to the part, he came up with the best performance of his career.

7. Mayuri (1985) – Sudha Chandan’s Mayuri is one of those biopics that has aged really well. The film talks about a young college girl who becomes paraplegic after an accident. It is about how she overcomes her handicap and resumes her career as Bharatanatyam dancer.

What makes Mayuri unique is that you have the real life person playing herself instead of an actor. Sudha Chandan gave an immersive performance. She was particularly good in those scenes when the character is determined to make a comeback as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s direction made it a memorable film. In a way it was a trend setter as it opened a new genre.

This list is no way complete. I just picked a few films that are more popular. Wish someone would do a more comprehensive analysis of biopics in Telugu films.

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