Telugu cinema is in need of blockbusters. Can ‘Kushi’, ‘Skanda’ and ‘Salaar’ change the tide?

September releases: (Clockwise) Ram Pothineni in ‘Skanda’, Anushka Shetty in ‘Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty’, Samantha and Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Kushi’ and Prabhas in ‘Salaar’

September releases: (Clockwise) Ram Pothineni in ‘Skanda’, Anushka Shetty in ‘Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty’, Samantha and Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Kushi’ and Prabhas in ‘Salaar’

The ten-award-haul at the 69th National Film Awards announced last week brought cheer to the Telugu film industry in an otherwise dull month. Barring the Telugu dubbed version of Rajinikanth-starrer Jailer, the industry did not have significant box office hits in August. All eyes are on a few big-ticket films lined up for September and October, beginning with the Samantha-Vijay Deverakonda romance drama Kushi, which will release on September 1. The film that is perceived to have the potential to rewrite box office records, though, is director Prashant Neel’s Prabhas-starrer Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire, arriving on September 28. 

The other films scheduled to release in the festive months of September and October include director P Mahesh Babu’s Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty (Anushka Shetty and Naveen Polishetty), director Boyapati Srinu’s Skanda – The Attacker (Ram Pothineni and Sree Leela), director Anil Ravipudi’s Bhagavanth Kesari (Nandamuri Balakrishna) and Tiger Nageswara Rao (Ravi Teja). The industry hopes these films will ring in considerable numbers after the disappointing summer, with no big hits between April and June. 

The romance drama Baby, which received a polarising response critically, was a smash hit at the box office soon after its release in mid-July. The film, made with a budget of ₹10 crore, has reportedly earned more than ₹85 crore (worldwide gross).

The story so far

The hits:Waltair Veerayya, Veera Simha Reddy, Dasara, Virupaksha, Balagam, Samajavaragamana and Baby. Smaller films such as Writer Padmabhushan, Das ka Dhamki, Bedurulanka 2012 and Mem Famous were also reportedly among the profitable ones.

Coming up:Kushi, Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty, Skanda – The Attacker, Salaar: Part 1: – ceasefire, Bhagavanth Kesari and Tiger Nageswara Rao in September and October. 

Says Baby’s director Sai Rajesh, “This year, only three films — Chiranjeevi’s Waltair Veerayya, Rajinikanth’s Jailer, and Baby — earned more than a crore in the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana circuits for the first 13 days. As far as I remember, this has been the weakest summer at the box office.” Adipurush, Ravanasura, Shaakuntalam, Agent, Custody and Spy did not succeed. 

Pawan Kalyan and Sai Dharam Tej’s Bro and Chiranjeevi’s Bhola Shankar that arrived in July and August, also turned out to be box office dampeners. 

Vaishnavi Chaitanya and Viraj Ashwin in ‘Baby’, directed by Sai Rajesh

Vaishnavi Chaitanya and Viraj Ashwin in ‘Baby’, directed by Sai Rajesh

Sai Rajesh avers that the audience, habituated to watching better content across languages on digital platforms during the pandemic, want something other than run-of-the-mill narratives. “A big star can attract the audience on day one. The footfalls will be sustained only if there is good word-of-mouth publicity. Small- and medium-budget films have to be more than just feel-good entertainers. They have to be good to generate a buzz.”

Between 2020 and 2022, it was widely believed that only big-budget films with A-list stars could bring the audience back to the theatres. Pushpa – the Rise, KGF: Chapter Two and RRR were cited as examples. Balagam, Baby and Samajavaragamana are exceptions to that perception. 

2023 opened with Chiranjeevi’s Waltair Veerayya and Balakrishna’s Veera Simha Reddy, benefitting from the Sankranti festive mood. Other films drew a blank after that. Balagam, reportedly made with a budget of ₹5 crore, raked in more than ₹25 crore (worldwide gross, according to IMDB).

Gauging BO potential

Harshith Reddy, one of the producers of Balagam, says they sensed the theatrical potential during a few pre-release private screenings. While his father Dil Raju’s production house Sri Venkateswara Creations (SVC) is known for its big-budget releases, he and his sister Hanshita Reddy, with the help of his father, decided to produce Balagam as a small-budget indie film under the newly established Dil Raju Productions (DRP). “SVC was producing big films and we were moving away from new talent. We established DRP to produce offbeat films by new directors,” says Harshith. 

A screening of Balagam to 25 reputed Telugu writers and a few focussed screenings in Telangana villages gave them the confidence to market the film for a theatrical release. “The right marketing is extremely crucial. Director Venu Yeldandi’s depiction of life, death and relationships had a universal connection, and the narrative was rooted in Telangana’s cultural traditions. We were confident that the film would fetch us a good name and international film awards, but we never anticipated such a huge box office response,” adds Harshith.

Sai Dharam Tej in a still from ‘Virupaksha’

Sai Dharam Tej in a still from ‘Virupaksha’

Mythri Movie Makers that produced Waltair Veerayya, Veera Simha Reddy and this week’s release Kushi state that it’s important to gauge the changing taste of the audience and not dish out repetitive content, to avoid fatigue. “Going by the response to the teaser, trailer and other promotional material, usually we can gauge the film’s outcome at the box office. Occasionally, there will be a film like Virupaksha that will become a surprise hit, surpassing expectations,” says Ravi Shankar Yalamanchili, one of Mythri’s producers. 

When the trend was inclined towards larger-than-life action entertainers, they sensed the absence of romance dramas and greenlit Kushi. “We had an inkling that after Liger, people would want to see Vijay Deverakonda as a handsome romantic hero. Shiva Nirvana came to us with a good story, and we backed it. The chemistry between Vijay and Samantha and the film’s music has generated a buzz and we are confident that Kushi will work.” 

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