The west is sleeping on Tollywood movies.
Indian cinema has its own rich history that can honestly rival Hollywood’s. Bollywood is known for its lengthy films that incorporate traditional song and dance into epic romances and action movies. Stars like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra Jonas have occasionally crossed over to Hollywood films, as well.
While most westerners have probably heard of Bollywood, most probably haven’t heard of Tollywood. Well, until recently, that is. RRR won for the Oscar for Best Original Song at 2023’s Academy Awards, and now Tollywood might finally get the recognition it deserves.
It’s about time, too. Tollywood has been staking its claim in cinematic history by churning out good movie after good movie. Plus, Tollywood’s recognition isn’t limited just to the west. In 2022, for the first time, Tollywood movies brought in more revenue than did Bollywood movies.
Tollywood Movies Are Not Bollywood MoviesYes, Tollywood. Not Bollywood, Jimmy Kimmel and newspapers all across America.
Bollywood comes from Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay (hence, the “B”). Bollywood makes Hindi movies. Tollywood is India’s second-largest film industry, and its movies are made in Telugu (hence, the “T.”) Telugu is a language spoken in Southern India and is the official state languages of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Fun fact: India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. Its film industry reflects this. Hindi is much more common in northern India. Southern Indian languages are from a completely different language family. Actually, Hindi has more in common with English, since they both come from the same language family, than it does with many South Indian languages!
Bollywood has somewhat broken into the western market, but a lot of other Indian film industries aren’t given the same respect (or are just called “Bollywood”). Yet there are many different film industries with traditions all on their own even beyond Bolly and Tollywood.
For example, there’s also Ollywood (movies in Odiya), Kollywood (Tamil), Mollywood (Malayalam, and also Marathi), Pollywood (Punjabi), Chhollywood (Chhatisgarhi), Gollywood (Gujarati), Sollywood (Sindhi), Jollywood (Assamese), Coastalwood (Tulu), and Sandalwood (Kannada). Oh, and Tollywood is also the name of Bengali cinema.
This list isn’t exhaustive, either.
The First Oscar-Winner Among Tollywood Movies: RRROf course, RRR leads the list. S.S. Rajamouli, a renowned director, filmed this Tollywood movie over three years. (Thanks, Covid.) The result was more than worth it, however.
“RRR” stands for “Rage, Roar, Revolt” in English. Inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s somewhat ahistorical Inglorious Bastards, Rajamouli used the lives of real-life heroes of Indian independence, Khomaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju, as basis for the story.
In real life, neither lived to see Indian independence. However, they remain “superheroes” to modern Indians. The superhero influence saturates the film, too. Stunning action sequences and daring stunts at worst compete with and at best outshine even Marvel movies!
Of course, the breakout moment from the film is its song and dance “Naatu Naatu.” The song cleverly uses wordplay to comment on British colonialism. “Naatu Naatu” won not only the Oscar, but awards at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes, and Satellite Awards, among others. (RRR also won “Best Foreign Language Film” at the CCAs.)
RRR also has interesting commentary on modern politics, both intentional and unintentional. For example, Bheem was from the modern-day state of Telangana, and Raju from Andhra Pradesh. Up until 2014, Telangana and Andhra were one state. The split was somewhat acrimonious. Rajamouli himself stated:
I had this thought that Komaram Bheem is from the Telangana region and Alluri Sitarama Raju is from the Andhra region. So, if I can bring those two heroes together, it’s my way of saying we are one, we are not separate.
The film also filmed its famous “Naatu Naatu” dance sequence outside of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s palace. Although filmed before the Russian invasion, it certainly lends weight to the film’s message of freedom fighting.
The First Sci-Fi Among Tollywood Movies: Aditya 369
Aditya 369 is older than all the other Tollywood movies on this list, but it stands the test of time. Made in 1991, Aditya 369 loosely retells H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine.
In fact, it’s actually the first Indian movie ever to delve into time travel as a concept. For that reason alone, Aditya 369 earned its place in history.
Aditya 369 might remind some of the classic Back to the Future, but the similarities are pretty limited to tone and the existence of a time machine. The story adopts a comedic tone that satirizes modern society, and the challenges facing the heroes are fairly unique. That is, if you can call them heroes. Antiheroes might fit better.
Baahubali 1 & 2S.S. Rajamouli’s success with Tollywood movies doesn’t begin or end with RRR. Prior to RRR, he found massive success with a set of two films: Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017).
Actually, Baahubali: The Conclusion remains the highest-grossing domestic film in India. Yes, not even RRR outperformed it.
Baahubali is a story that combines action and epic fantasy in an Indian setting. A fictional language called Kilikki was invented for the films. (Now Kilikki has learners all over the world, much like languages like Klingon and Dothraki!)
Although loosely based on part of the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata, one does not have to be familiar with any part of the Mahabharata to find themselves obsessed with the story. It’s a gripping tale about a rivalry between two brothers with cosmic stakes. The characters undergo powerful arcs. Plus, Baahubali handles its themes of revenge and redemption with complexity and care, which resonates across cultures.
The Fabulous and Fun Julayi2012’s Julayi mixes poignancy in a story that flirts with a noir premise. Although, Julayi is ultimately too lighthearted to really fit into this genre. This Tollywood movie’s themes address antiheroes, fathers and sons, and redemption.
Allu Arjun stars as Ravi Narayan, a ne’er-do-weller. Ravi looks at his father’s hard-working, respectable lifestyle and says, “Nah.” He prefers robbing and scheming to get what he wants in life. Of course, this eventually comes back to bite Ravi. By the time he wants to change, it might be too late.
Far from a dark, brooding contemplation of guilt, though, Julayi uses a blackly comedic tone to set the viewer at ease. Moments pass with hilarity and laughter. Then consequences hit the characters and the viewer realizes what the movie was actually saying. Yet it never swerves from its “heist” premise; Ravi’s less-than-honorable methods come in handy when he has to rescue his kidnapped sister and save his own life from a vengeful ex-partner.
Fans of “Naatu Naatu” might also find themselves bopping along to the hit song “Chakkani Bike Undi.”
An Epic Fantasy Tollywood Movie: MagadheeraMagadheera is another must-see among Tollywood movies by S.S. Rajamouli. The 2009 film stars Ram Charan (yes, the same actor who plays Raju in RRR) and Kajal Aggarwal.
Magadheera was not only directed by Rajamouli, but it had the same writer as RRR and both Baahubali movies: V. Vijayendra Prasad. Prasad is actually Rajamouli’s father, and the duo collaborate on movies.
Like all of Rajamouli’s films, it offers complex characters, themes, and absolutely breathtaking cinematography. Every shot looks like it could be individually framed as art. For proof, watch this song and dance sequence for “Dheera Dheera.”
Magadheera takes place in two timelines. In medieval India, Princess Mithravinda Devi and Kala Bhairava meet a tragic end, undone by a cruel villain. In present-day Hyderabad, Indu and Harsha meet unaware that they are the reincarnations of this legendary couple. Except, of course, the villain has reincarnated as well.
Indu and Harsha have to fight not only their enemy, but their own selves. Magadheera offers interesting commentary on what makes a hero heroic, what separates reality from fantasy, and free will versus fate.
In fact, production company Geetha Arts has made the entire movie—with English subtitles—available for free on YouTube.
A Romantic Comedy: AaryaFor fans of romantic comedies, fear not. Tollywood movies include those as well. Arya came out in 2004 and received a sort-of sequel in 2009. Aarya stars Allu Arjun, the same actor as in Julayi.
However, Aarya is really the story of Geetha (Anuradha Mehta). It packs in all the romantic comedy tropes—the rich rival, the poet who secretly loves the heroine, the fairy tale ending. Yet Aarya‘s charms keep it from seeming stale. Instead of being tiresome and predictable, the tropes feel like welcome friends.
Aarya was highly successful critically and commercially upon its release. The film has also gone on to develop a cult following.
A WWII Tollywood Movie: KancheKanche represents another “first” among Tollywood movies: the first war film. Set during World War II, Kanche explores serious themes like trauma and India’s the caste system through the lives of two friends.
India was a part of the Allies in WWII. The bulk of the story takes place during the Italian Campaign to liberate Italy from fascist and Nazi forces. Kanche (which means “fence” in Telugu) draws daring parallels between the Nazi oppression and casteism in India. Yet the movie never preaches, instead illustrating its points through characters that feel very human.
Audiences don’t need to be very familiar with the caste system to understand this story. Watching the film is less likely to provoke patronization and a lot more likely to provoke self-introspection. Everyone puts up fences in their lives. Kanche asks its audience to consider what the value of a life is, and where and when fences should be torn down.
Kanche won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Telugu. It deserves all the awards it received and more.