Tollywood, Travancore, & The Times



The New York Times launched an India focused blog some time ago called “India Ink”, which recently featured two interesting entries. One was on Tollywood (mana Telugu phillim industry) and the other was a tribute to the uncrowned Maharaja of Travancore (Thirvananthapuram in Kerala).

Some of you may be thinking, “Come on Nripathi, these two topics are hardly related.” But hold on, my dear fellow, there is indeed a connection in there: The clash of two ideals.

On the one hand, we have our ever busy, rarely classy, all masala Telugu film industry that idolizes crass and brash “heroes” and on the other, the very epitome of class and kingship, and heir to Marthanda Varma (of Colachel fame),

Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore.

Maharaja of Travancore

The putative Maharaja passed away last month, yet the encomiums continue to be lavished upon one of the rare living Royals who exemplified much of our ancient standards for kingship and kshatriyahood. He styled himself as less a demanding King and more a servant of Padmanabhaswamy (a form of Lord Vishnu)–who is the presiding deity of the region. Figures like him a truly worthy of the word “elite”. Indeed, when the vaults of the eponymous temple were opened, the Royal family of Travancore demonstrated their integrity as custodians of its immense wealth (estimated at $122 Billion, in gold coins and other treasures). 

The sprawling Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, with its inestimable wealth, was at his command, but he was only its main caretaker and devotee. He respected the tradition of the maharajas visiting the temple every day, not only to worship, but also to ensure that the property and the staff were taken care of.

Meanwhile, in Hyderabad

Despite Tollywood’s prolific output and its passionate fans, the industry is facing its worst financial slump in a decade.

One of predominant exceptions to this has been the chart-topping success of Megastar Chiranjeevi’s younger brother, Kalyan Babu Konidela–better known as Pawan Kalyan. And yet, despite his sky high film success and training in Martial Arts (karate), “Gabbar Singh” has yet to make the transition from mass entertainer to cinematic artiste.

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Pawan Kalyan

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a banner year (or decade really) for Pawan Kalyan. He should be feted for being among the first to raise the profile of the industry (he apparently almost got American pop star Jennifer Lopez for an item number), and he has churned out hits like Tholi Prema and Thammadu, and more recently, box office monsters like Gabbar Singh and Attarintiki Daredi. But in an industry full of financial catastrophes, it would be nice to see a star of his stature occasionally mix masala films with genuine, high culture cinema.  Popcornfare is well and good, but there can only be so many each year or decade. With Tollywood now out producing Bollywood in sheer volume, perhaps Telugu producers will see the point of this New York Times blog and focus more on quality than quantity. 

Based in Hyderabad, the Telugu-language film sector, also known as Tollywood, releases an average of 135 to 150 titles annually, at times topping over 160, more than the average of 100 to 110 coming out of mainstream Bollywood.

The piece goes on to say that

It is not unusual for fans to worship stars, washing their statues with milk and making offerings of flowers, incense stick and camphor, rituals usually reserved for Hindu gods.”

Despite Tollywood’s prolific output and its passionate fans, the industry is facing its worst financial slump in a decade. and that

 “No good scripts, repeat of boring plot formulas, rehash of hits from other languages, an insipid mash of songs, fights and comedy. Small-budget movies by debutant directors don’t get screened. Near-monopoly of a handful of businessmen, who control studios, production, distribution and theater-screens, but are not passionate about movies as an art, has created this drought for a hit.”

It’s clear that by creating and recreating the Rowdy Alludus, Gangleaders, and Pokiris of yesteryear, the industry has become stale, and even kitschy as we lamented elsewhere. Indeed, there is a lesson for the people as well. Rather than doing abhisekham for their favorite movie stars, they should plug back into reality after the phillim credits roll and follow the example of the Travancore Raja, who instead presided over abhisekham for Lord Vishnu and served as a role model for society. The Raja’s ancestor, Marthanda Varma was famous for defeating both the Dutch imperialists as well as Tipu Sultan, who may not have been as “secular” and nationalist as our Eminent Historians had advertised.

The Pawan Kalyans, Mahesh Babus, Ravi Tejas, etc. of the world, are ultimately only movie actors. They do not change the fate of nations, like the elder Marthanda Varma, or that of mankind, like Padmanabhaswamy. Rather than performing milk bath for them, the people of Andhra should request them to make movies that will uplift them. Indeed, perhaps the best service these wealthy and talented artistes can do is to use their success to make movies that matter. Fictional rowdies make for great escapes for our masses, but historical figures (both past and present) serve to inspire and elevate the people. Here’s a good first step.  Whether it’s the elder or younger Marthanda Varma, and Bollywood or Tollywood, one hopes that Indian cinema will one day do such inspirational and dignified personalities justice as well.


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The Surrender of the Dutch at Colachel


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