The term ‘girl next door’ has been overused and abused in the film industry. It has been coined for the purpose of explaining certain characteristics which were meant to make the heroine of the film seem ‘relatable’.
The irony is only exacerbated when we think about the woeful lack of ‘meaty’ roles for women in Telugu films. In most films, they appear only as love interests and serve as the ‘victims’. This enables the story to shift focus to the dynamics between the hero and villain, which eventually turns into a snoozefest ending in the glorification of the hero.
If I were to deconstruct the heroines who are depicted as ‘girls next door’ in mainstream Telugu cinema, I would point out how they end up as stereotypical victims in order to draw crowds. They are generally shown to be restricted by the orders of their fathers and have no say in choosing their partners. Moreover, the character of the mother has no role to play in all this.
Either the story-line, or the execution of the character – often a mix of both – results in the portrayal of the ‘girl next door’ failing miserably. Very often, this notion is reduced to the mere ‘physicality’ of the character, which ends up being extremely classist and completely non-relatable. This includes aspects ranging from the designer costumes these women wear to the ‘flawless’ hair and make-up, which they sport throughout the film, irrespective of what the situation may be.
Furthermore, they are either shown to be of impeccable character, or are chastised into becoming the ‘ideal woman’ during the course of the film. This is why I believe that ‘girl next door’ is a sexist term to use. It seems to me that the women characters in these films are ruthlessly stereotyped so that the movies can sell. On the other hand, the popularity of the male hero rises in proportion to the character’s ‘machismo’ in the film, which also depends on stereotyping and victimising the heroine.
In such a sad state of affairs, very few directors of Telugu cinema have actually managed to portray womanhood. In a visual medium like cinema, there is only a thin line between attempting to embody womanhood, and ending up blatantly objectifying them.
Sekhar Kammula is one of those very few directors (like Bapu and K Vishwanath) who have managed to capture feminity and womanhood, without resorting to stereotypes. Whether it was Rupa in “Anand” (2004) or Seetha Mahalakshmi in “Godavari” (2006), Kammula has always managed to portray multiple (often conflicting) characteristics of the women in these stories.
Rupa in “Anand” is a fiercely independent woman, who is orphaned in her teens and decides to live without the help of her relatives. She is only supported by her neighbour-friend Anita and Anita’s grandmother. Because she values her own decision the most when it comes to choosing her man, she walks out of her marriage on the day of her wedding. Furthermore, she prioritises her self-respect over conceding to an orthodox family’s demands of dictating her fashion and way of life. She is also troubled by the constant sympathy that people shower on her after the cancelled wedding. She fights for her dignity and does not want the hero to ‘protect’ her from her estranged fiancé who, despite her rejection, repeatedly attempts to win her back.
The feisty and independent Seetha Mahalakshmi in “Godavari” is caught up in the failure of her boutique business. She decides to take a cruise by herself over the Godavari to Bhadrachalam to spend some time away from all the pressure to be married. She has faced sexual advances from men during her business meetings. However, she refuses to be blamed by her parents when she confesses having faced such incidents. Her parents respect her choices and business decisions. She is cranky, short tempered, moody and bites her nails when she is angry. But she is also vulnerable and sensitive. She is aware of having been pampered by her father since childhood. Ultimately, she chooses a man who accepts her for the way she is.
Kammula has also captured the womanhood of multiple characters in his stories. In the cult hit “Happy Days” (2007), there are four female leads, all of whom have different characteristics. Madhu refuses the advance of a senior in college who repeatedly attempts to woo her. She also refuses the advances of her friend Chandu, when she realizes that he is making her uncomfortable.
The ‘boyish’ Appu agrees to marry her estranged boyfriend only when he apologizes to her for not valuing her feelings, and agrees to accept her the way she is – with her small eyes, spectacles and haircut. Shravs is a senior student of the college who slaps her boyfriend for using her as a bait in a bet with a junior.
Sangeetha cheats on her boyfriend, and juggles between men simultaneously. Though questions are raised about her character in the tiffs between the men in the movie, not once does Kammula pass a moral judgement about her character or label her in the movie.
In “Leader” (2010), Archana walks away from her powerful boyfriend, who is the chief minister, when she realizes that he has been using her to forge ties with her father, who is a prominent member of the Opposition. There’s also Ratna Prabha, a journalist who always sticks to her choices. In the process, she also defies her mother who is constantly worried about society’s perceptions of her independent-minded daughter.
Then there is the slice-of-life movie, “Life Is Beautiful” (2012), which portrays the journeys of different women, both young and old. One of these women is Lakshmi, who hails from a poor background and wants to study and work to ‘come up in life’ respectably, as she puts it. There is also Parvati/Paru, a rich aspiring supermodel, who is having a tough time overruling the decisions of the men in her economic strata (including her boyfriend) who always decide whom she should or should not meet.
Most significantly, Sekhar Kammula always strikes the right mix between believable storytelling and portraying characters in a ‘relatable’ manner. For this purpose, he has always chosen a canvas on which he can also portray the importance of ‘peripheral’ characters in the movies. Sometimes, he portrays multiple protagonists in his movies (like in “Happy Days” and “Life Is Beautiful”). In others, he has ensured that the characters have ‘meaty’ roles.In Sekhar Kammula’s movies, mothers, sisters and their friends play very significant roles. They advise and reprimand their children (Rajeshwari Devi in “Leader”). They are protective of their siblings and also constantly annoy them (Sathya in “Life is Beautiful” and Madhu in “Godavari”). More importantly, they always lend a helping hand to their friends and are always by the side of their friends (Anita in “Anand” and Ratna Prabha in “Leader”).
It is noteworthy that despite all this, Kammula’s films are never explicitly called ‘female-centric’ (except for his remake of “Kahaani” – “Anamikaa”). There is never an ‘aspirational’ standard for womanhood that his movies advocate. He portrays women as they are – flawed, insecure and vulnerable, yet, strong and zealous in their love.
Similarly, there is never a ‘particular’ standard of beauty that the women in his movies possess. It could be the dusky, curly-haired Shravs of “Happy Days”, or it could be the long-haired, sari-clad Rupa in “Anand”.
Sekhar Kammula has always shown women the way they are. They wear the traditional langa vonis on sankrantis. They also party with their college friends. They get their mothers and grandmothers to dry their hairs using the traditional sambrani. They also visit beauty parlours to get makeovers. They enjoy dancing in the rain and refuse to see potential bridegrooms that their parents bring for them. They may be single working women, working mothers, housewives, widows, students or entrepreneurs. Most importantly, they can even be you and me.
Kammula focusses on qualities of womanhood, rather than their physical attributes. This is evident from the fact that there never is an extra attempt to groom the heroines with glamorous costumes, makeup that covers their flaws, or flattering camera angles. His stories create ample space for the female characters to make their presence strongly felt. Every female character in Kammula’s movies strikes a chord with the viewers. His movies show us that the portrayal of women in movies needs to be ‘simple’ and not overtly ‘simplistic’.
The women in Sekhar Kammula’s movies are appreciated for what they are. This should be a lesson not just for other directors, but also for the society at large.