Through a blanket of dust, through shattered pieces of glass, a splash of water and a shower of red chillis; the quintessential Tollywood hero makes his entry in the middle of an action sequence, exhibiting his machismo to the goons and, through the screen, to the audience.
He beats up the bad guy and his army, protects the victims, seeks revenge, slaps the female lead character when he thinks she is being stupid and delivers a page long dialogue about being manly. That’s it. There is no more to his character. Wait, let’s rewind, he slaps women. He has no character.
The female lead, on the other hand, might as well sit at home in the comfort of an AC. But no, she comes on the screen every time the male audience is bored of ‘pants and shirts’ and the female audience wants to connect with the dumbness and dependency she epitomizes. Oh, more importantly, she turns up to be a part of the most redundant yet unavoidable sections of a film – song and dance.
Boy meets girl, boy stalks girl, girl feels uncomfortable, boy makes sexist jokes about her, the whole cast makes sexist comments about women, then boy ignores girl and girl falls in love with the boy. The stalking could be the other way round also, but the sexist comments are a constant.
I’ve grown up watching mainstream Telugu films. Don’t jump to conclusions, I was exposed to my fair share of international films, songs and other pop culture as well. I mean, I did have Hi TV and SS Music, Pogo and Cartoon Network and the legendary Skyline theatre in Hyderabad for my monthly fix of good English films. But the truth is, our cinema provides such high decibel entertainment value that it is extremely difficult to sit at home, shut your ears and ignore its existence. So week after week, we flocked to the nearby RTC Crossroads, stared in awe at the god-sized posters of our heroes, enjoyed the hooting in the theatre, and immersed ourselves in the storyline or the lack of it, while increasing the occupancy levels of an already highly occupied south Indian cinema hall.
Being a 90s kids, Telugu cinema for us has been synonymous with Mahesh Babu and Pawan Kalyan. Of course, there was ‘Indra’, ‘Narasimha Naidu’, ‘Manmadhudu’ and ‘Samarasimha Reddy’, but Obul Reddy, pata basti (Old City), kabbadi, Pandu Gadu, vayyari bhama nee hamsa nadaka, made in Andhra Kurrollu and Siddu Siddhartha Roy will forever be fresh in our memory. These landmarks in Telugu cinema came at a point when Bollywood had stopped sexist portrayal of women and started exploring the sensitivity of a man behind the macho. Bollywood produced “Dil Chahta Hai”, “Rang De Basanti” and “Fashion”. It produced some good love stories as well. Stories where the girl and the boy and the relationship was built from a genuine connection. Sex also became an easy thing. But Tollywood couldn’t say sex, they still had to jump into song and dance. The 2014 Mahesh Babu starrer “1 Nenokkadine” is probably the only film where you feel that the girl and the boy might have a sexual relationship as well but it leaves no clues, because honestly, the film could have done away with the female lead character if given a choice.
Mahesh Babu and Pawan Kalyan thus churned out a million films with chauvinism and sexism sprinkled all over them – with love stories with no emotions and female characters with no importance. Tollywood simultaneously boasts of SS Rajamouli. The guy is a great director, he has never had a flop in his career, agreed. But Kajal Aggarwal plays an extremely dependent, insecure and suspicious character who falls for a stalker in “Magadheera”, Genelia D’Souza exists in “Sye” to cheerlead and let’s not even get to Tamannah’s character in “Bahubali: The Beginning”. Again, I don’t blame the actors, I blame most of the directors who probably still think that women belong in the kitchen.
I shamelessly watched Mahesh Babu and Pawan Kalyan portray such sexist characters again and again. I adore Mahesh Babu, so I watched each of his films 10 times in the theatre (including some highly sexist films such as “Dookudu”), knowing full well the influence they had on public while trying to ignore the offensive content, because the punch dialogues and forced comedy were too entertaining. I watched and I watched and I watched until I got tired and saturated and couldn’t take the sexism anymore. I saw “Aagadu” once and cringed at the idea of watching another Telugu film ever again. I had had enough. Just because you grew up with something doesn’t mean you let it disrespect you for the rest of your life.
Almost 10 months went by and I didn’t dare watch a single Telugu film, not even on TV. Then came “Bahubali: The Beginning” in 2015, dragging me to the cinema hall. Apart from the magnum opus that it was, the emotions in the film were disappointing. While it had Tamannah and her immature love story on one side, it had Ramya Krishna roaring the screen on the other. It gave me hope. But avoiding sexism is not about making female-dominated films. It’s about writing an equally strong female character even in a male-dominated film. But that sounded funny and Tollywood producing something like that was impossible.
It was August 7, 2015 and my deep-rooted love for Mahesh Babu drove me to a nearby cinema hall in New Delhi, where I live now. Higher taxes and costlier popcorn, “Srimanthudu” better be worth it, I thought before entering the screen. The film got over and I walked out realising that I hardly ever noticed Mahesh Babu in the 2 hours and 43 minutes. My eyes were on Shruti Haasan and all my heart was with the writer and director Koratala Siva. I went back to the screen the next day hoping to feast my eyes with Mahesh Babu, but I saw Shruti Haasan yet again and fell in love with Harsha (the name of Mahesh Babu’s character).
I watched every single film of Mahesh Babu’s a thousand times over. But I don’t remember falling in love with the character he portrays in any of the films. I read a lot of books and watch a lot of films in other languages and I’ve fallen in love with some fictitious characters before. But never one played by Mahesh Babu. Harsha was different, Harsha was acceptable and Harsha was respectful. He treats Charuseela (Shruti Haasan’s character) with immense respect and thinks she is beautiful on the inside. He doesn’t stalk her, he doesn’t pass any comments on her. He values conversations over coffee and he acts on the little things Charuseela says and accepts with dignity when she rejects his love.
Charuseela, on the other hand, is a strong independent character. She doesn’t fall for a stalker, she doesn’t encourage bullshit. She is smart and does anything to stick to her ideals, including rejecting the man she loves. She shows a confused Harsha the right path in life and he, finds his passion there. And the relationship between them is love, the real, genuine one. I don’t think I ever felt the love between the male and the female lead characters in a mainstream Telugu film before, as much as I did in the scene where Charuseela and Harsha see each other after 3 months, in the second half of the film. It is not a high school (fight with each other type) equation, it is not a damsel in distress falls for the shining knight equation, and it is definitely not a love story made for the songs. It is, simply put, the light at the end of a long tunnel. A long dark tunnel full of Tollywood films.
Today, I don’t write this post to appreciate the fact that my favourite hero’s film managed to portray what was deemed to be hopeless and impossible in Telugu Cinema. Today, I write this post because I am genuinely happy as a woman. I am genuinely happy that an industry I grew up watching and giving so much of my time, mind and love to, has finally started to respect me back.
Here’s hoping that “Srimanthudu” doesn’t remain as a one of a kind film but sets example and standards to all Telugu films in the future and marks the beginning of a much-needed change in this industry that we love like no other.