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best movies, yet box office failures

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by Srinivas Kanchibhotla

Here is the start of a series that throws light on some of the box-office failures that deserve to be ranked as some of the best movies of Telugu industry. With it, want to highlight the efforts that went into the making of the movie, so that our current generation would never ever forget these long and forgotten gems.


Follow up is the most difficult act after the initial foray. There is an inherent paradox with the follow up act. It has to adhere to the original path so much that any slight deviation from the original is instantly rejected and yet it has to stand out on its own to be treated, graded and rated on its own merits, lest it is judged as an encore to the original. On the lines of showbiz's famous saying "Dying is easy, but comedy is hard", it can said that "original is a breeze but follow up is a gale". Sighting of the Haley's comet, occurrence of the blue moon, following a stupendously successful Siva with an equally brilliant Kshana Kshanam are some of those that are usually held either in high regard or are treated with awe. That somebody could conjure up such an completely varied but equally entertaining act, was a testament to Varma's penchant for variety and willingness to go against the grain.

Road movies do not conform with the usual telugu film formula. The period within which the events take place, the rapidity in the plot and nature of urgency in the storytelling flies in the face of the standard Telugu film period where events transpire over years and conclusions are usually causal, over long intervals of time. The fact this genre wasn't attempted after Bapu's Bangaru Pichika (1968), until Kshana Kshanam, (with a little exception to Andala Ramudu (1973) by Bapu again) alone was indicative that Telugu audience wasn't quite receptive of this expedited mindset. The timeline, or lackthereof, which is often real life like and not ala reel life in a typical road movie, has events happening at break-neck pace with not much time splices allocated for real character development, which throws it in a boon/bane dilemma. The positive side being, the audience is more interested in the events that transpire around the characters and the situation that the characters are thrown than the characters themselves, and the flip side - the characters tend to remain one-dimensional with a aim-apparatus-procedure-conclusion modus operandi.

Borrowing the setup and the mood from Robert Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone, Kshana Kshanam had the same lead characters' mannerisms and approaches, funny, yet dangerous villain, his bumbling henchmen, the comic cops and its share of colorful peripheral characters. Treating these interesting characters in a straight-faced and a deadpan way, Varma lends enough credibility to the characters' motivations and prevents them from slipping fast into a typical comedy fare with an utterly ridiculous premise. The rapid but seamless transition between the action and the comic moods, the pacing of the movie - deliberately slow at parts in the jungle to establish the interplay and moving at break neck speeds while it hurries to a conclusion to heighten the tension, brings to sharp relief Varma's clarity in vision and command in execution. The age old clichés of Telugu cinema that beg to be mocked viz., hero's standard introduction via a fight sequence, his causes for choosing his lifestyle, his switch from rescuing the heroine from goons one moment to kidnapping her the very next moment, his pointing the gun at the villain threatening to slash heroine's throat and the like were turned on their heads and given delightful spins, making the audience consciously self-aware for having patronized those for so long. Subtlety was another key aspect of the screenplay. The characters were written so delightfully subtle that it was more a case of downplaying the usual heavy-handed emotions than underplaying the same. Where most of the Telugu movies indulge in some kind of morality play, Kshana Kshanam has roles that tread either side of the good/bad demarcation with equal ease, which make them more identifiable and endearing - the hero trying to make good of a once in a life-time score, the villain's distaste for an unnecessary loss of life, the villain trying to be more compassionate and understanding than violent and stubborn.

Technical aspects, the bar of which was raised to great heights with Siva, were unobtrusively brilliant through out Kshana Kshanam - be it as highly visible as S.Gopal Reddy's (who also co-produced) photography or as subliminal as Arun Bose's audiography. Gopal Reddy who had a great deal of success with Siva honed his craft even sharper with Kshana Kshanam. If the mood was somber, dark and menacing in Siva, it couldn't be anymore contrasting in Kshana Kshanam - cheerful, bright and normal. If he played with lighting a lot in Siva, he chose angling and thus framing in Kshana Kshanam. The other stand out aspect of Kshana Kshanam was the excellent background score of Keeravani. Brushing the equally fantastic tunes aside, Keeravani's carefully orchestrated re-recording was brought into full for(c)e within the first 15 dialogue-less minutes of the movie. The score for the climax sequence on the train which was grand, elaborate and rich, marked the successful passing of the mantle from Illayaraja, a peerless re-recordist in his era, to Keeravani.

Siva at first and Kshana Kshanam following suite, marked the beginning of auteuristic film making in telugu movies and Kshana Kshanam remained one of the best screenplays ever written in telugu. Though it can never be determined if this movie was way ahead of its time, Kshana Kshanam remained one of the best that could sustain the passage of time - the irony on the timeline notwithstanding!

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