Directed by: Koratala Siva , Sandeep Vanga , Trivikram Srinivas  || Produced by: Naveen Yerneni, Y. Ravi Shankar, C. V. Mohan , Pranay Reddy Vanga , Allu Aravind, S. Radha Krishna 
Screenplay by: Koratala Siva , Sandeep Vanga , Trivikram Srinivas  || Starring: Mohanlal Viswanathan, N. T. Rama Rao Jr., Samantha Akkineni, Nithya Menen , Vijay Deverakonda, Shalini Pandey , Allu Arjun, Pooja Hedge, Tabassum Fatima Hashmi, Jayaram Subramaniam, Navdeep Pallapolu, Nivetha Pethuraj, Samuthirakani, Murali Sharma, Rajendra Prasad 
Music by: Devi Sri Prasad , Radhan, Harshavardhan Rameshwar , S. Thaman  || Cinematography: S. Thirunavukarasu , Raj Thota , P. S. Vinod  || Edited by: Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao , Shashank Mali , Naveen Nooli  || Country: India || Language: Telugu
Running Time: 162 minutes , 186 minutes , 165 minutes  || 1 = Janatha Garage, 2 = Arjun Reddy, 3 = Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo
No cinephile will ever see all the movies there are to see regardless of how deep their viewing history may be; even amidst the current (year 2020) slowdown of theatrical filmmaking, plenty of novel viewing options exist for the curious movie buff. Case in point are the sizable regional language studios of India beyond the internationally recognized production houses of Bollywood, the latter group of which is based in Mumbai (“Bombay” + “Hollywood” = “Bollywood,” as the portmanteau goes) and produces films primarily for northern Indian and/or Hindi-speaking audiences. Bollywood, also known as Hindi Cinema, is arguably the most well known of India’s filmmaking subcultures. South Indian Cinema (SIC), by contrast, referring to the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Tulu film industries as a collective, is less well known outside the Indian subcontinent despite generating revenue on par with that of Hindi Cinema.
I’ve written before about the subtle yet distinct stylistic differences between Bollywood and South Indian filmmaking, how the latter tend to have better, more flippant senses of humor, are less preachy and serious, and flaunt cartoonish, over-the-top special FX and action sequences over the former’s intricate dance numbers. To be sure, many SIC movies are musicals and most Bollywood action films are over-the-top — these industry distinctions are matters of degree rather than reactionary opposites — but to paint all of Indian cinema, even just mainstream Indian cinema, as a single entity would be reductive in the extreme. Even Hollywood, alone, cannot be summarized as just (A) summer blockbusters plus (B) Oscar-bait.
In light of this, I watched a handful of contemporary Telugu films recently that all turned a significant profit at the box office: Sandeep Vanga’s semi-autobiographical drama, Arjun Reddy, Trivikram Srinivas’ wacky situational comedy, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, and Koratala Siva’s bizarre crime drama, Janatha Garage. These are not the full extent of my introduction to modern Telugu cinema (I was an early convert to S. S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali [2015, 2017] and have seen at least half a dozen more Telugu features since those three), but they represent a satisfying introduction to one of the Indian subcontinent’s more profitable and influential film industries. By satisfying, I mean warranting educational merit and cultural exchange, especially from an ethnic “outsider” such as myself, as I hold only one of these three spotlighted films in high regard.
Starting from worst to best, Kortala Siva’s Janatha Garage is a nonsensical, tonally confusing, and incoherent picture that preaches as much as any Hindi political drama and whose visual style feels as empty as it is arrogant. The film describes two somewhat unrelated stories of a Hyderabadi mechanical crew (Mohanlal Viswanathan, Rashin Rahman, et al.) transforming into a local street mafia (the titular Janatha Garage), and a sort of prodigal son (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) subplot where a character claims his birthright leadership of said crew after a convoluted, unnecessary origin story in Mumbai. Perhaps the worst elements of this misguided picture are (1) Rao Jr.’s flatline of a protagonist and (2) its pointless spectacle, the latter of which include its verbose musical numbers and tension-free action sequences. Rao Jr.’s most memorable “character trait” is his inexplicable, heavy-handed environmentalism, which disappears by the narrative’s halfway mark, while his stilted performance is as forgettable as the action sequences’ gratuitous slow-motion.
Next up is Arjun Reddy, the directorial debut of one Sandeep Vanga. Vanga, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, later wrote and directed the Hindi remake of his debut picture, Kabir Singh (2019), starring longtime Bollywood star, Shahid Kapoor. The man shows promise with his acting direction of star and title character, Vijay Deverakonda, female lead Shalini Pandey, and a colorful supporting cast, as well as his commitment to an abrasive and distinctly non-family friendly character study. Deverakonda’s lead is brash, rude, self-destructive, and a poster-child for toxic masculinity, but unlike many lesser films, Vanga’s portrayal of his arc and romance with Pandey treats his character with respect without excusing his behavior. While bloated as much as any Indian melodrama, Arjun Reddy’s length allows its eponymous character time to develop in realistic ways without being too indulgent. What kneecaps the film is its rough opening act in which Deverakonda feels more like a 1980s Hollywood bully stereotype than a relatable protagonist, as well as the movie’s repetitive and unnecessary slow-motion photography.
Sporting as much slow-motion camerawork and cartoony action as any mainstream South Indian film is veteran filmmaker Trivikram Srinivas’ Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo. This action-comedy drama is the strongest of this group of films given its deft combination of genre styles, its self-aware and often visual humor, as well as its memorable lead in Allu Arjun. The movie’s premise revolves around a comical newborn switcheroo in a hospital between a working-class family and a much, much richer one. The film’s ending is predictable but its execution, satisfying, as writer-director Srinivas takes his characters seriously while having fun with their cartoonish situations and embellished genre spectacle (re: the coquettish song numbers and super, super slo-mo action choreography). Prolific multilingual character actor Murali Sharma providing oddball comic relief and sardonic commentary is just a cherry on top.
To summarize, I find Janatha Garage representative of the broad screenwriting, empty style, and bland characterizations common to blockbuster filmmaking the world over, while Arjun Reddy’s ambitious, melodramatic romance is comparable to guilty pleasures I enjoy from Bollywood (e.g. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jeyenge , Ghajini , Krrish [2003, 2006, 2013], etc.), but without the spectacle of musical numbers or bizarre action scenes. Ala Vaikunthapurramloo is the lone film of this trio I would recommend without caveats, as its likable cast, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and creative premise outweigh its long running-time. Certain trends are worth complimenting or criticizing across multiple films, such as the throwaway romantic sideplots of Garage and Vaikunthapuramuloo, the unlikable lead characters of Garage and Arjun Reddy, and the high production-values, slick editing, and excessive slow-motion photography of all three films. Long story short, if you consider yourself a fan of either the big-budget musicals of Bollywood or the smaller, independently produced Hindi dramas most well known outside of India, you owe it to yourself to dive into the cinema of the South, and the Telugu industry is as good as any place to start.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Janatha Garage is no great shakes of a movie, but its directorial flaws and narrative composition make a useful example of how not to construct an action crime saga; Arjun Reddy has far more heart and feels much more ambitious despite its smaller scale, summarized best through its memorable yet flawed title character. Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is the strongest of the bunch, with likable, charismatic characters that take advantage of a cute family drama without taking themselves or the film’s genre flourishes too seriously.
—> I DON’T RECOMMEND Janatha Garage for casual viewing, am ON THE FENCE with regards to Arjun Reddy, and RECCOMEND Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo.
? How do those bad guys bounce off the ground so high when the heroes hit them? Is the ground made of trampolines?