From urban love stories to village conflicts, Sukumar’s protégés follow his lead

Inspired by their guru, three of director Sukumar's protégés chose rustic tales to debut as filmmakers in Tollywood.

ByPrabhatha Rigobertha

Published May 07, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Aug 10, 2023 | 4:37 PM

Director Sukumar and his protégées (Top left to right) Sukumar Buchi Babu Sana Srikanth Odela and Karthik Varma Dandu

Director Sukumar is popular for his films which are usually set in urban scenarios. But he seems to have developed a fantasy for rustic tales now.

Right from his debut film, Allu Arjun’s Arya (2004) to Naga Chaitanya’s 100% Love (2011), Mahesh Babu’s 1: Nenokkadine (I Am the Only One, 2014), and NTR Jr’s Nannaku Prematho (To Father, With Love, 2016), the filmmaker delivered back-to-back hits that had an urban background.

Little did we know then that he would also successfully helm two rustic dramas — Rangasthalam (2018) and Pushpa (2021) — that would make the audience sit up and take notice.

Telugu director sukumar

Telugu director Sukumar. (Facebook)

Rangasthalam and Pushpa have two mainstream heroes who are not particularly known for their rustiness; more so, Ram Charan. But the director’s gamble paid off in both cases.

Protégés follow in his path

Over the years, Sukumar has also nurtured some young filmmakers. Interestingly, three of them — Buchi Babu Sana (Uppena, 2021), Srikanth Odela (Dasara, 2023), and Karthik Varma Dandu (Virupaksha, 2023) — made their debut films in rustic scenarios with village issues.

Caste might not have been mentioned explicitly in their films, but it is obvious that the heroes in these movies are from lower castes. Only in Uppena (Tiday Surge), the protagonist’s caste is specifically mentioned. Viasshnav Tej plays a Dalit Christian belonging to the fishermen’s community.

In Virupaksha, Sai Dharam Tej plays an outsider who visits his ancestral village and tries to address the local issues.

But first, let us look into Sukumar’s Rangasthalam and Pushpa.

Also Read: The Kerala Story Malayalam movie review

Rangasthalam

Sukumar directing Ramcharan

Sukumar explains a scene to Ram Charan Tej on the sets of ‘Rangastalam’. (Facebook)

The story of Rangasthalam is set in a village of the same name. The theme is exploitation and feudalism.

A ruthless president runs the village like a tyrant. The concept of a landlord/village president treating villagers as slaves is of course not new.  There are many films with that theme.

One of Chiranjeevi’s (Ram Charan‘s father) earlier films, Ma Voori Pandavulu (1978), also dealt with the struggles against the feudal system.

However, Sukumar’s treatment made Rangasthalam much more engaging, particularly for the new generation audience.

Ramcharan as Chitti Babu

Ramcharan and Samantha in Rangasthalam

Ramcharan and Samantha in a still from ‘Rangasthalam’. (Facebook)

Ram Charan’s character (Chitti Babu) in Rangasthalam not only comes from a lower caste but is also partially deaf.

Sukumar dealt with this disability in a sensitive manner. He never used it to generate crude comedy.

Ram Charan Tej as Chitti Babu was adorable right from the first frame.

Rough and rustic is not something that the viewers associate with the actor. But under the guidance of Sukumar, the actor delivered his career-best performance.

The actor also got the nuances of Chitti Babu spot on, both in his body language and accent.

Related: Ram Charan teams up with Uppena director for a pan-Indian flick

Pushpa

Allu Arjun and Sukumar on the sets of Pushpa

Allu Arjun and Sukumar on the sets of ‘Pushpa’. (Facebook)

Following the success of Rangasthalam, Sukumar once again teamed with his Allu Arjun. But this time, in a very different zone.

Just like Rangasthalam, Pushpa also featured a protagonist who is not only rustic but also an underdog.

In Pushpa, Sukumar majorly looked at the entire syndicate of the red Sandalwood business and the politics involved. It also briefly touched upon the dangers faced by the coolies from the police.

Pushpa is not as heart-touching as Rangasthalam. But still, there is a lot to enjoy here, too.

Allu Arjun as Pushpa

Chief among them is Pushpa’s characterisation and how Allu Arjun performed it.

Sukumar giving directions to Allu Arjun

Director Sukumar with Allu Arjun on the sets of ‘Pushpa’. (Facebook)

Pushpa is one of the many coolies in the Seshachalam area, hired to chop down red sandalwood trees illegally. He is also an illegitimate son.

Despite being a coolie, there is an inherent swag in Pushpa which comes from his determination to climb up the social ladder to get over that stigma.

Beneath all the roughness, there is vulnerability whenever he is reminded of his birth status, which is brought up at various points in the film. Allu Arjun particularly shined in these moments.

He previously played a non-urban character in Gunasekhar’s Rudramdevi (2015), but that was a warrior role.

Also Read: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 review

Pathbreaking films

These two films are significant in many ways.

After a long time, the viewer is taken back to the villages not to see the natural beauty or innocence of the people, the love or conflict among joint families, and the faction-based stories of Rayalaseema. But, the audience got to see some real conflict themes and exploitation in different forms.

The story of Rangasthalam might look a little outdated in comparison to Pushpa because the subject in the latter is an ongoing problem.

But as a hero, Ram Charan’s Chitti Babu is more relatable than Allu Arjun’s Pushpa because his macho image keeps growing every minute.

Now let’s look at some of the films made by Sukumar’s protégés who have also directed hinterland stories.

Related: Virupaksha is four years of my labour and love: Karthik Varma Dandu

Uppena by Buchi Babu Sana 

Uppena poster

A poster of Buchi Babu Sana’s ‘Uppena’. (Facebook)

A protégé of Sukumar, Buchi Babu Sana took the route of his master.

In Uppena, Vaisshnav Tej’s character (Aasi) belongs to the fishermen’s community. Here, the caste of Aasi is directly mentioned as Dalit Christian.

Buchi Babu needs to be credited for making a film like Uppena with a debutant; Vaisshnav Tej comes from the Mega (actor Chiranjeevi’s family) family though.

The first-time director did a wonderful job of exploring the bond that a fisherman shares with the sea.

Vaisshnav Tej’s Aasi also suffers from a stuttering problem. He cannot pronounce the heroine’s name properly however much he tries. Instead of Sangeetha, he calls her Santha.

However, this disability is also dealt with with a certain amount of sensitivity by Buchi Babu Sana, just like Ram Charan’s partial deafness in Rangasthalam.

Vaisshnav Tej also deserves appreciation for how he portrayed the rusticness and vulnerability of Aasi.

Related: Nani didn’t know I was Sukumar’s assistant: Srikanth Odela

Dasara by Srikanth Odela 

Dasara poster

A poster of Srikanth Odela’s ‘Dasara’. (Twitter)

Dasara is set against the backdrop of Singareni Coal Mines.

Nani’s Dharani is a ruffian who steals coal for a living. The influence of Sukumar is pretty visible in terms of how Srikanth Odela builds up the village’s atmospherics.

The caste politics are quite reminiscent of Rangasthalam. However, there is no denying that Srikanth has his voice, too. This can be seen in how the director built up the character of Nani.

Nani’s Dharani is timid when he doesn’t consume alcohol. But when on a high, he is altogether a different person. This trait was well used by Srikanth Odela, particularly in the later portions when Dharani decides to get over his alcoholism.

There is a local bar called Silk Bar which has a looming presence throughout the film. The director used this bar to highlight the caste dynamics, as the liquor here is reserved for upper-class men.

Related: Srikanth Odela’s Dasara movie review

Virupaksha by Karthik Varma Dandu 

Virupaksha poster

A poster of Karthik Varma Dandu’s ‘Virupaksha’. (Facebook)

Much like Dasara and Uppena, Virupaksha is also directed by a first-time filmmaker, Karthik Varma Dandu who assisted Sukumar.

Sukumar himself wrote the screenplay for this film.

Virupaksha is a paranormal thriller set in the fictional village of Rudravaram. The director, along with writer Sukumar, made some valid arguments against prejudices and superstitious beliefs that stem from ignorance.

Unlike the heroes in the above-mentioned films, Sai Dharam Tej’s Surya is an outsider to Rudravaram. However, the issues addressed in the film are much rooted.

Related: Karthik Varma Dandu’s Virupaksha movie review

Nevertheless, if we compare the above-mentioned movies to the Tamil ones, there is a significant difference in how the issue of caste is portrayed.

There it is not just about the protagonist being rustic in overall demeanour; in Tamil movies, filmmakers like Vetri Maraan and Pa Ranjith are not afraid to take the name of the caste. Asuran (2019) and Kaala (2018) are the best examples.

Having said that, for Telugu audiences, the likes of Rangasthalam and others are a definite step forward in the genre of caste-based films.