CE Year in Review 2022: The year Telugu cinema went global

We look back at 2022, which proved to be an exciting year for Telugu cinema and opened up windows for filmmakers to take their stories to the next level 
CE Year in Review 2022: The year Telugu cinema went global

There’s no denying that 2022 has been an eventful year for Telugu cinema. Trade pundits might slightly differ, indicating the volatility of the box office and the fluctuating results week after week, but 2022 will go down as the year Telugu cinema went global full throttle with RRRIt will also be the year that saw fresh voices and stories emerge and more importantly, succeed. It will also be the year when audiences saw through the mediocrity at the core of some massive star-driven films, regardless of how richly they were decorated.

Let’s take a look back at what worked, what didn’t, and how these happenings are likely to influence the direction the industry takes in 2023:

The year began on a rather tepid note with the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic thwarting grand plans for the most anticipated festive season of the year, Sankranthi. The Nagarjuna-Naga Chaitanya-starrer Bangarraju capitalised on the lack of major releases and offered movie buffs who were craving the Sankranthi movie experience some joy, despite following the familiar beats of a comedy entertainer. Another festive release, Sriram Adittya’s Hero was a quirky and fresh comedy that tipped its hat to Tollywood but, sadly, couldn’t pull crowds to theatres. It still remains one of the better entertainers of the year. 

Things began getting slightly interesting in February, which saw Ravi Teja’s actioner Khiladi—the first big-ticket release of the year—failing critically and commercially. On the other hand, a low-profile comedy, DJ Tillu, directed by Vimal Krishna and starring Sidhu Jonnalagadda as the titular character who gets caught in a web of crimes when he learns his love interest is two-timing him, was released a day later and spun magic. DJ Tillu turned out to be the respite both the trade and the audience were hoping for. Two weeks later, the masala-laden action drama, Bheemla Nayak, starring Pawan Kalyan and Rana Daggubati in lead roles, came when the industry desperately needed a theatrical celebration, and boy! did it deliver. Fans of the film's original version, the Malayalam drama Ayyapanum Koshiyum, might not have wholeheartedly embraced the massified version but Bheemla Nayak once again showed why the masala game of Telugu filmmakers is always on point.

In March, the highly awaited Radhe Shyam, a love story starring Prabhas and Pooja Hegde, couldn’t quite become the epic it aspired to, despite being a grand visual experience. However, film buffs and the trade quickly uplifted their spirits in anticipation of the biggest cinematic event of the year, the arrival of SS Rajamouli’s RRR, which surpassed expectations, went on to break box-office records, and then did something that nobody quite expected it: create a storm globally and put Telugu cinema on the world map. RRR changed the general perception of Telugu cinema and, in fact, spelled out the distinction between Bollywood and Tollywood to the unversed. It is no exaggeration to say that RRR became Telugu cinema’s identity and is carving its place in its history books alongside classics like Mayabazar (1957) and Sankarabharanam (1980) for the sheer cultural impact it is creating as we speak. A Telugu film being considered for the Best Picture Oscar nomination or a Telugu song—the MM Keeravani composition, ‘Naatu Naatu’— making it to the shortlist of Academy Awards is not an everyday business. RRR made the world turn its head towards Telugu cinema, which is its biggest accomplishment, beyond the awards prospects.

Mishan Impossible, the sophomore feature from Swaroop RSJ, was a fascinating crime comedy, led by three children, that felt like an amalgamation of Jathi Ratnalu and the filmmaker’s own crime thriller, Agent Sai Sreenivas Athreya. It delivered both laughs and thrills, and one can only wish that such genuine attempts are encouraged more. Towards the end of the month, Chiranjeevi’s Acharya—brought down by a joyless screenplay—turned out to be a mega disappointment and served as a testament that even the biggest of the names cannot salvage the situation if the script is irreparable.

May began with two authentic rural dramas that proved that the milieu of a story is as important as the story itself: Vijay Kumar Kalivarapu’s Jayamma Panchayathi and Vidya Sagar Chinta’s Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam (AVAK). Both films are fine dramas, set in a lived-in world, taking on familiar conflicts and staying true to their characters. AVAK, with a strong performance from Vishwak Sen, got more visibility than Jayamma Panchayati. The bigger event of the month was Mahesh Babu’s Sarkaru Vaari Paata, which stuck to the tried-and-tested action comedy formula to hit the bull’s eye at the box office. But it did evoke the feeling that perhaps it is time for Mahesh Babu to put social messages to rest. It's overkill at this point.

June was perhaps the year’s most exciting time with three of the year’s best films releasing in consecutive weeks. Sashi Kiran Tikka’s Major, Vivek Athreya’s Ante Sundaraniki and Venu Udugula’s Virata Parvam. Major, a biopic of the fallen 26/11 hero Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan was an inspiring film that placed the individual’s virtue above jingoism. Ante Sundaraniki, starring Nani and Nazriya, as childhood friends hailing from different religions who fall in love, was a hilarious, inventive, and heartwarming take on our deep-rooted prejudices. Filled with beautifully written and crafted moments, Ante Sundariniki is one of the most unique and entertaining films to come out of Telugu in recent times. Virata Parvam, on the other hand, was a beautifully shot and narrated love story set against the rather distressing backdrop of Naxalism. Starring Sai Pallavi and Rana Daggubati, the film might not have worked for everybody, but it was a brave attempt. Regardless of their box office results, it is films like Ante… and Virata Parvam that encourage filmmakers to come up with original stories. 

July was a disappointing month—both content and box-office wise—with Rithesh Rana’s love letter to meme culture, Happy Birthday, despite keeping its promise to deliver a nonsensical comedy, finding only a limited audience. Ram Pothineni’s Tamil-Telugu bilingual cop story, The Warriorr, Naga Chaitanya’s Thank You, and Ravi Teja’s Ramarao on Duty, failed to leave a lasting impression.

August witnessed pleasant surprises in the form of Bimbisara and Sita Ramam, both of which were widely embraced, thanks to the fresh stories. Bimbisara told the tale of a cruel king who has to absolve himself of his sins when fate brings him to the modern day from 500 BC. The Vassistha directorial, starring Nandamuri Kalyanram, packed enjoyable ideas into the evergreen template of a Telugu mass action movie. While Bimbisara did comprise certain elements that one generally associates with a blockbuster like high-octane action sequences, it was Sita Ramam that swam against the tide and emerged as one of the biggest successes of the year. The male lead’s a Malayalam actor, the female lead’s a Hindi actor making her debut down south, the genre hasn’t been a huge draw at the ticket counter (cough! Radhe Shyam, cough!), filmmaker Hanu Raghavapudi’s previous film, Padi Padi Leche Manasu, wasn’t a commercial success either. Despite everything working against it on paper, the film proved that a great, heartfelt script can turn the tables around. Karthikeya 2 in the same month turned out to be a surprise hit with the film’s religious undertones helping the film make a splash in the Hindi-speaking belt too. The month ended on a bitter note with Liger turning out to be a nightmare that nobody wants to remember.

The disappointment triggered by Liger pervaded September, with the only remarkable and memorable film that month being Oke Oka Jeevitham, which blended elements of science fiction to tell an endearing, heartwarming tale of second chances. 

October kickstarted on a festive note with Nagarjuna’s The Ghost and Chiranjeevi’s GodFather clashing for the big Dushera weekend. The former, a rehash of everything from the age-old Baasha to this year’s sensation, Vikram, fell prey to a lack of originality. While GodFather, being a remake of the popular Malayalam film Lucifer, didn’t quite excite those familiar with the original, it absolved Chiranjeevi of the dud Acharya was. 

November was a relatively impressive month with Samantha’s action thriller Yashoda making a mark at the box office. While the film’s ideas could have been executed with more finesse, a female-centric film doing good numbers—at times when they are being relegated to streaming platforms—is a positive trend. Likewise, Masooda, directed by Sai Kiran, is perhaps the year’s only true horror film and was fittingly rewarded by the audience. The success of smaller films like Masooda—at times when there’s a persistent debate about smaller films struggling to find an audience in theatres—is an healthy and encouraging affair, even if it’s an outlier.

In December, Sailesh Kolanu’s HIT: The Second Case delivered the thrills it promised, ensuring that the 'HIT-verse' will expand. Telugu cinema now has its own, home-grown film universe. How exciting is that? Dhamaka and 18 Pages were the last major releases of the year. 18 Pages, one of the most fascinating scripts of the year, was restricted to a niche audience. The Ravi Teja-starrer Dhamaka, on the other hand, followed every point in the rule book of Telugu masala entertainers: a grand hero introduction sequence, gravity defying-fights, a heroine whose purpose is to provide segues to songs in foreign locations, an interval bang… so on and so forth. The film proved that the genre is here to stay regardless of the exposure to international cinema in the age of streaming.

In retrospect, the year might be confounding. Unique, stronger stories might not have amassed the desired numbers but films that followed tried-and-tested templates passed with flying colours. 'What works at the box office?' remains the million-dollar question and nobody has an accurate answer. However, it is vital that great stories are told. And without a doubt, many great stories came out this year, and hopefully, the trend will continue. 

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