This week's big Telugu release, Junior NTR-Mohanlal combo 'Janatha Garage' is a good movie or a bad movie, depending on who you speak to. The NTR camp will tell you how it is minting dollars while the critics (well, who cares for them, unless you are silly enough to be Ajay Devgn to think KRK of two rupees notoriety is the God of Film Criticism) have found it to be a Garage that badly needs a mechanic.
But even while 'Janatha Garage' continues to hold the theatres in the Ganesh Chaturthi's extended weekend, another film despite being five weeks old, is still going strong. This is low-budget Pelli Choopulu (Matchmaking), the season's sleeper hit. While a lot has been written about how NTR wants to "shed his star image'', it is the success of 'Pelli Choopulu' that released on 29 July and offers hope to the future of the kind of cinema that Tollywood dishes out.
This is not a belated review of Pelli Choopulu. It is to list out how the movie, which otherwise would have been an also-ran at the box-office, was nurtured and made into a superhit.
Pelli Choopulu centres around the tradition of matchmaking, the arranged marriage system and the stories of the lead pair. But with no known names to sell the movie with, Pelli Choopulu faced the serious threat of the matchmaking with the audience going kaput.
In stepped D Suresh Babu, producer and owner of Suresh Productions, one of the movie moghuls of Telugu cinema. He liked the movie and was convinced it was an effort that needed to be backed. Realising a conventional approach won't work, he started by inviting `film tasters' to see the movie.
So as many as 15 special preview shows were held in Hyderabad, cajoling people to come in to watch the film. In the weeks leading to release day, roughly 2100 people saw the movie in Hyderabad and Vijayawada. Their posts on social media - 99 per cent of them positive - began to create a buzz about the movie.
Pelli Choopulu was like David taking on Goliath, coming just a week after the Baap of all south Indian movies - Rajinikanth's Kabali - had released. Given a choice between a Rajini film and a newbie film, most would plump for the former. Which is probably why the first day first morning show registered only 30 per cent occupancy. By evening, it had increased only marginally to 40 per cent.
"It was tough convincing the exhibitors to hold the film, telling them that it will pick up. In some cases, I had to actually shout at them to stay with the movie,'' says Suresh Babu.
Though the movie released in about 400 theatres in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the real moolah came from about 60 theatres where it did phenomenal business once the Kabali effect petered off and the good word about Pelli Choopulu started spreading.
The movie was made at a budget of just over a crore but in five weeks, it has grossed over Rs 30 crore, with some 30 lakh people watching it so far. Of this, 75 per cent has come from multiplexes in seven cities in the two Telugu-speaking states.
The movie's theatre rights in the US had been bought for $200,000 and it went on to gross over $700,000, making it the biggest overseas hit in terms of return on investment. And now Salman Khan wants to produce the Hindi remake of the film.
"It had to be distributed and marketed very carefully otherwise it would have done 30 per business of what it has done so far,'' says Suresh Babu.
It helped of course, that the product was a high quality film. It was not a cheesy youngster film, which the crowd in the 45 plus age bracket cannot relate to. Pelli Choopulu, in a nutshell, is a feel-good movie in the classical Chakrapani or Singeetam Srinivasa Rao style of movie making, that is both modern and traditional at the same time. It touches upon the subjects of start-ups, women empowerment while being rooted in typical Telugu value systems.
Tollywood films fall broadly into three categories : Mythologicals, Balaji Telefilms-like joint family movies set in large mansions or typical masala films with crude humour. The star system is extremely overpowering making it very tough for newcomers to break in.
It is not given to experimenting with more realistic cinema, the kind Malayalam and Tamil do. Occasionally a Bahubali or an Eega comes from the stable, that wows the audience with its superlative technical gloss. Which is why a movie like Pelli Choopulu is like a breath of fresh air, the kind that needs to be encouraged.
The last time, a low budget Telugu film with new faces received such a response was `Anand' in 2004. It was a film that propelled director Shekar Kammula into the limelight with his brand of realistic cinema. In fact, its tagline 'Manchi coffee lanti cinema' (a movie that is as good as a cup of fresh coffee) helped pull in the crowds that time.
"Since the success of Pelli Choopulu, I am bombarded with invites to see more such movies, many of them quite bad,'' chuckles Suresh Babu, relieved that his gut feeling to invest in the movie had paid off.
2017 will see several big movies like 'Bahubali 2', Chiranjeevi's comeback film 'Khaidi no. 150', Balakrishna's 100th film Gautamiputra Satakarni and Mahesh Babu's Telugu-Tamil bilingual. One can only hope there are a few Pelli Choopulu like movies as well to make the buffet spread more interesting, besides spreading hope and cheer for small-budget quality cinema.
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