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  Books   30 Mar 2024  Book Excerpt | How Telugu films celebrate folk heroes and NTR created Bobbili sub-genre

Book Excerpt | How Telugu films celebrate folk heroes and NTR created Bobbili sub-genre

Published : Mar 31, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Mar 31, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Folk stories are also where Telugu cinema draws its method of exaggerated emotions from.

Cover Page
 Cover Page "The Age Of heroes: The Incredible World Of Telugu Cinema" by Mukesh Manjunath. (Image by arrangement)

Fairly or unfairly, the benefits of folk tales and culture have accrued to Telugu heroes. They have garnered applause; they have launched their sons, grandsons, their political careers. Two of the biggest heroes Telugu cinema has produced needed folk stories and folk subcultures to either establish or save their herodom. NTR needed the magic of Pathala Bhairavi, and Chiranjeevi needed a sultry mother-in-law. This wasn’t the last time they’d use these folk stories. NTR, a year before launching his party, would use the part-history and part-folk mythos around the region of Bobbili. This region is touted to have produced fierce warriors who fought against colonial forces. Tales of the historic battle over the Bobbili Fort and the royal families of the region are retold much like the Rajputs and Maratha retelling their tales of war and glory. While there are historical precedents for these events, the stories are told and the heroes valorised through folk mechanisms. NTR created the ‘Bobbili’ sub-genre, while acting in films like Bobbili Puli (The Tiger of Bobbili) and Bobbili Yuddham (The War for Bobbili). Other actors, too, became part of this category of films — Krishnam Raju, another Telugu hero who capitalised on his career in cinema to enter politics, acted in Bobbili Brahmanna (Brahmanna of Bobbili); actor Venkatesh had his own version of Gods Must Be Crazy in The Bobbili Raja.

Recognising the impact of folk heroes and their importance to Telugu cinema rids it of one important myth — that all mainstream cinema is essentially a retelling of the epics. That, all good male lead actors are modelled around Ram. All evil villains get a Ravana treatment. And all heroines are reduced to Sita. Telugu cinema’s dependence on folk sensibilities resist against such blanket arguments. The epics are great stories in and of themselves, but there are other stories, too. This infusion into Telugu cinema is a way of folklore to demarcate space. A. Ramudu challenges our understanding of foreigners. Attha-alludu tell us the porous nature of supposedly rigid relationships. The markers of differentiation are not limited to cinema and extend to the way the culture of cinema is enjoyed. Films such as Baahubali have taken Telugu cinema to an international audience. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, accepts that Rajamouli’s Magadheera was his inspiration for his new animated show Disenchantment. But it’s in the small lanes of Guntur on hot afternoons, in crying after eating Uggani Bajji in Kurnool, in singing songs during festivals in Telangana that Telugu cinema finds the stories truly worth telling.

Folk stories are also where Telugu cinema draws its method of exaggerated emotions from. The images on-screen are metaphors and similes used by folk storytellers. There is some irony in the fact that while the culture of folk storytellers arriving in small towns during festivals is quickly disappearing, Telugu stars (who play folk heroes) and Telugu directors (new substitutes for folk storytellers), compete to release their films around Ugadi and Sankranti, when films get large returns owing to the number of holidays issued by the government.

In the process of trying to chart the graph of these storytellers, I may have done one storyteller gross disservice. My grandmother. All her stories weren’t bad — because her best one was her last.

I had always wondered what made me my grandmother’s favourite grandchild. I wasn’t particularly well-behaved, I wasn’t academically bright or promising, I wasn’t even gifted with cuteness that other children seem to have. What was it that made me — the recipient of her stories and experiences — special?

I eventually did ask her one day. I was hoping that she would negate my insecurities regarding my behaviour, intelligence or looks. But my grandmother told me a different story. During her youth, all she wanted was someone like NTR in her life. He was the actor she loved more than anybody else.

But she never got to meet the actor her whole life. That was her one big regret.

I told her how horrible that was and how horrible all the gods are for not listening to her prayers. She concurred.

“But what does that have to with me?”

She replied that after giving up hope, just as a joke, she prayed to another goddess, to see if anything can happen. And the goddess answered. It wasn’t the real deal, but it’s the closest any divine entity had ever gotten her to NTR.

In 1993, on 28 May — the very same date on which NTR celebrates his birthday — I was born. In a life where that quest to meet NTR seemed impossible, this gift was the answer to my grandmother’s prayers.

Fictional goddesses can only do so much.

Jai Pathala Bhairavi.

Excerpted with permission from The Age of Heroes: The Incredible World of Telugu Cinema (HarperCollins)

The Age of Heroes
By Mukesh Manjunath
HarperCollins India
pp. 208, Rs 399

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