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.