This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Durga Punyamurthula. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

What I Learnt About Telugu And Culture From The Newly Released ‘Sammohanam’

More from Durga Punyamurthula

This summer, I started reading literature in my mother tongue, Telugu. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself into the worlds of the characters and engaging with diverse narrative stylistics. I have always had qualms about reading Telugu, only because, growing up in Madras, I did not have enough practice with it outside my house. And that made my reading pace abysmally slow. It was only after watching this prolific Ted Talk by seasoned Telugu director Mohana Krishna Indraganti, that I took a conscious decision to at least start out with it.

The Ted Talk gave me an insight into his cognition as a filmmaker who seeks to converge his deep engagement with literature and the stories he brings forth on screen as a writer-director. What stood out for me was Indraganti’s problematization of the monolithic idea of “culture” that both the makers and audience who consume these films operate with. With references to subaltern literature that is oft ignored in our cultural consciousness, he talked about multiplicities even within what we might broadly define and sell as a single culture. Thus, if we were to pick on Telugu films that market themselves to bring out ‘Telugutanam’ or the Telugu-ness, we see that there are some fixtures – villages, Sankranti, happy joint families, and cross-cousin love stories.

Indraganti’s films, on the other hand, while never drawing from these clichés, have always piqued my interest. I have come to understand that it is the power of this writer director’s story writing that incorporates culture(s) even without having to subscribe to archetypically ‘Telugu’ storylines. Indraganti’s films are set in a plethora of worlds that range from neurotic – in the rib-tickling comedies “Ashta Chamma” and “Ami Thumi” – to the more poised ones like “Gentleman” or “Golkonda High School“. The diversity of stories in his repertoire gives one the idea that he has always exercised great reflexivity in understanding culture.

As a Social Sciences graduate pursuing my Master’s in Women’s Studies, it is a delight to see such engagement by a filmmaker, because it is a fact that society uses women’s bodies as sites of cultural preservation, which even cinema is guilty of doing. In addressing ‘culture’, then, Indraganti also balances the gender equation in his films, because they all give qualitatively equal importance to the female characters, without ever essentializing their gender roles.

It was particularly for these reasons that I was looking forward to “Sammohanam“, Indraganti’s latest film. It is a romantic tale between Sameera Rathod (Aditi Rao Hydari) as a North Indian heroine rising to the top in Telugu cinema, and Vijay (Sudheer Babu), as a children’s book illustrator who does not hold a high opinion of the film world. Vijay’s father Sarvesh (Naresh) is obsessed with cinema and even allows a film crew use his house as the setting for Sameera’s upcoming film. Upon being ridiculed for her poor Telugu, Sameera sets out to improve her diction and requests Vijay to be her tutor.

Just as the teaser and trailer released, there was a lot of conjecture about “Sammohanam” being a rip off of “Notting Hill”, and “My Week With Marilyn”, among other films. Indraganti does mention and duly credit their influence at the beginning of the film. However, his films, which have mostly been adapted from literature, tell us why being influenced by other films/literature to suit one’s own sensibilities is never a bad idea.

“Sammohanam”, for me, was like Indraganti’s Ted Talk coming alive – if Naresh’s character stood for the love of cinema, Sudheer Babu’s Vijay represented the importance of literature. Amidst its many layers, “Sammohanam” also takes us into the subtleties of a father and son relationship- they are not on the same page about cinema, but the storyline brings a confluence of the two characters and their beliefs through their bourgeoning camaraderie. The dynamics between members of Vijay’s family add another beautiful layer to the story. Vijay’s sister and mother are not merely peripheral characters- they exercise great influence on his life and thought process.

It was a delight to watch the ease with which the egalitarian gender ethos of Vijay’s family was set up, and this normalizes the possibilities of gender equality within the household. Right in the beginning, Vijay’s mother (Pavitra Lokesh) is shown running a snack business. She dines with the entire family – this was the much-needed deviation from the servile maternal figures we are used to seeing in movies. She calls her husband by his name, and is even openly expresses her sexual desire to him in a hilariously suggestive scene.

Later in the films, when the entire family goes through a crisis – the siblings have fought (Vijay’s sister screams back at him in equal measure), and the father is disillusioned – she brings lunch all the way to Vijay’s room. What stood out for me was the fact that she articulates the extra effort she has put into doing the ‘room service’, being the only one in a sane mood after the day’s events. Her act of feeding her children and husband is not taken for granted. She then goes on to explain to Vijay about handling rejection in love. I found myself clapping after each dialogue, not just because she talked about consent and rejection, but because it even addressed toxic masculinity that society and cinema tend to condone (and even celebrate) these days.

I find it heartening that movies like “Fidaa” and “Sammohanam” are able to function wonderfully with male protagonists who are honest, expressive, and do not subscribe to the stereotypical notions of masculinity. There is a song that brings out “Viraham”, the emotion of separation, from Vijay’s perspective. This was refreshing because the lyrics convey only that he misses her company. There is no cliched reference to her beauty at all. In another scene, Vijay pithily refuses a glass of alcohol that his friend offers as succour for Sameera’s rejection of his proposal. He also bares his heart out to Sameera about why girls don’t find him attractive, and about his idea of romance, which Indraganti constructs so beautifully.

The shot of two coffee cups that Vijay holds while walking towards Sameera’s vanity van to begin the Telugu tutoring sessions remains etched in my memory. It conveyed to me, the essence of how romance in the movie was going to unfold – over conversations, on rainy evenings, and under the starry skies on the terrace. The numerous close up shots of the faces of Vijay and Sameera, while they converse, are delightful because we see Indraganti’s faith in his actors and his ability to extract subtle emotions through their eyes.

Sameera’s characterization challenges the notion of a ‘strong woman’, which has time and again been misappropriated and misrepresented in our cinema. In ‘Sammohanam’, her strength lies in her vulnerability. Sameera’s body or personality is not meant to pander to any cultural or personal transformation. In the first tutoring session, we see Sameera clad in a churidaar (she plays a typical, helpless Telugu heroine in the movie that she is shooting for). But, as she begins to master the language, we see the real Sameera wearing more of western attire. I may be extrapolating here, but I found this symbolism very interesting, given that this subverts how cinema has always dealt with women becoming ‘cultured’ – a classic case in point being the problematic transition of Anjali in “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” into a more ‘feminine’ woman. Here, however, Vijay tells her that she looks stunning when he sees her in a churidaar, and later, even when she dons a short floral dress while staying over at Vijay’s house post shooting. There is also a rhetoric value in Indraganti’s engagement with the gender politics behind questions that arise about Sameera’s (sexual) morality as a rising superstar.

The ease with which “Sammohanam” brings forth these representations into its storyline has taught me a lot more about why we need a more nuanced understanding of culture. Culture is also about taking care to pronounce your language properly. In a hilarious scene, Naresh talks about the ‘stress-free’ enunciation of actors these days, devoid of the “ha” syllable (in the very first shot in the trailer, I was delirious to hear Sudheer Babu pronounce “Abaddham” perfectly).

Culture is about being proud of one’s language without necessarily having to be ethnocentric. Representing culture in cinema means a director taking interest in presenting good lyrics and raagas that are seldom used these days. It is about invoking curiosity about the vastness of the Telugu lexicon. “Sammohanam”, true to its title was enchanting. Indraganti has shown us that culture is neither unitary nor frozen in time and that it can be adapted to different epochs. He has brought back the much-needed academic rigour into filmmaking.

Image source: Facebook
You must be to comment.

More from Durga Punyamurthula

Similar Posts

By Mallika Khosla

By Prabhanu Kumar Das

By Charkha features

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below