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RRR+Sita Ramam=Telugu Cinema's Smashing 2022

Recapping the Telugu film industry's vertiginous highs (and infrequent lows) from 2022.

RRR+Sita Ramam=Telugu Cinema's Smashing 2022
What worked, what didn't, for Telugu cinema in 2022?
  • Rohini Nair

Last Updated: 08.36 AM, Dec 28, 2022

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We're recapping a year in entertainment with a series of '2022: The Year In...' essays. Join us on the journey!

And ICYMI, catch up with our Hollywood, Bollywood, Hindi streaming, and Mollywood rewinds.


2022 PROVED TO BE a watershed year for Telugu cinema, as movies — big-budget or otherwise — found discerning audiences returning to the theatres after nearly two pandemic-struck years. In the Telugu states, movies are almost a way of life for the masses; they led the way for the rest of India in re-embracing big screen magic.

RRR was the year’s undisputed tentpole event, but there were several other memorable films as well, including Sita Ramam (which brought love stories back in vogue), DJ Tillu (which showed that original content always works), Karthikeya 2 (a sleeper hit with a national imprint), comedy caper Ante Sundaraniki, 26/11 hero Sandeep Unnikrishnan biopic Major, and Masooda (that gave the horror genre a fresh infusion of blood).

Gems like Virata Parvam found their niche, even as lazy endeavours like F3 and Bangarraju proved that the success of its original may not carry over to a sequel — big openings notwithstanding.

Across actors, genres and budgets, 2022 showed the variety and virtuosity available in the Telugu film industry. Despite big-budget misses — think Ghost, Acharya and Radhe Shyam — Tollywood’s takeaway from 2022 was that they do have the right recipe to draw moviegoers. Banking on edgy action sequences, charismatic heroes and mass appeal, filmmakers and producers have also assimilated the vital need for presenting something entirely new to the audience, in every outing.

MALLIDI VASISHTA, director of the larger-than-life Bimbisara — a critical and commercial success — observed that post-COVID, the idea was to rethink the wheel. “People got used to watching interesting content on OTT across languages and countries,” Vasishta notes. “So we had to ensure that everything we did captured their attention. Bimbisara was a period movie whose premise was original, and struck a chord with the audience.”

In looking over the broad trends and themes of the year, it becomes evident that genres which worked in the past needed a rejig to succeed in 2022. Apart from the action-dramas mounted on a massive scale, event films, and big stars, one witnessed a small-budget DJ Tillu winning over audiences with its quirky protagonist. Or take Ante Sundaraniki, which turned a serious medical issue into a crowd-pleasing comedy. From biopics to period films, there was a lot to choose from.

Producer Hemanth Kumar told OTTplay that the audiences are discerning today, and social media ensures that a middling film will see a drop in footfalls even on the opening weekend. “We are witnessing a phase where we are renegotiating the relationship between movies and movie-goers. There is a lot of awareness and expectations from the audience. Movies like DJ Tillu and Love Today scored because they were inspired stories and were treated differently,” he noted.

There is a gap in what film industries across India are offering and what the audience is seeking. The patterns will take more time to crystallise, but this much is clear: romance is risky, heroes must be larger-than-life, and remakes may no longer meet requirements. We see this in the eclectic range of films that hit their mark: the thriller Hit 2, family-friendly romance Ashoka Vanamlo Arjuna Kalyanam, sci-fi drama Oke Oka Jeevitham — dark horses all.

One movie that sprang a surprise this year was Sita Ramam. Even as big-ticket romances had been all but written off, the Dulquer Salmaan-starrer’s massive success showed that no trend is set in stone. A fresh lead pair (Mrunal Thakur is cast alongside Dulquer), mellifluous music, and its period setting charmed unequivocally. “People said that there was no space for love stories, but Sita Ramam showed that the genre is alive and kicking. What worked for it was that such a story was never shown before. Its novelty ensured its success,” said its director, Hanu Raghavapudi.

Mrunal Thakur and Dulquer Salmaan in Sita Ramam
Mrunal Thakur and Dulquer Salmaan in Sita Ramam

AS THE WINDOW between a movie’s theatrical release and its OTT premiere grows narrower, the onus falls on filmmakers to create novel experiences for the audience. And few understand this better than SS Rajamouli, whose RRR became a bona fide phenomenon both at home and abroad.

“Telugu films brought Indian cinema into the limelight this year,” trade analyst Taran Adarsh opined. Everyone thought [only] Bollywood would put us on the world map, but with its talented storytellers, directors and actors, Tollywood has proved its mastery. Telugu films have not forgotten their roots unlike Bollywood, which is making films only for audiences from Bandra to Versova.”

With their “masala” elements and actors who aren’t afraid to experiment (think of Allu Arjun in 2021's Pushpa), Telugu movies have blurred the categories of “regional” and “national” cinema. For instance, Karthikeya 2, actually did better box office business in Hindi than in Telugu. Actors like Adivi Sesh, Nikhil Siddhartha and Viswak Sen are torchbearers for a new generation that promises to bolster the industry’s achievements thus far.

For film critic Anupama Chopra, Tollywood’s 2022 was defined by RRR and Sita Ramam. “RRR is my favourite film of the year. It had such audacity and ambition… and an incredible world built by Rajamouli. It’s an exhilarating rollercoaster ride that I’ve seen many times — and was equally excited by, each time. I enjoyed watching Sita Ramam, because ‘the great, swoony love story’ was almost done as a genre, and this bittersweet, epic story, spanning decades, was very beautiful and moving.”

Box office trends show that family audiences are yet to make a full comeback and that high ticket prices deter youngsters from multiple theatrical viewings of a film. But if 2022 has shown anything, it is that the Telugu film industry has the ability to meet these challenges head-on.