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Every conversation about Telugu cinema and its representation of gender issues will make its way to the super hit 2009 fantasy-drama, Arundhati. It is the story of a mythological queen, killing a sorcerer who’s the embodiment of patriarchy and sexism. The plot is about the strong, independent and powerful queen Arundhati, who faces adversity from Pashupati, a rapist, domestically violent and abusive husband, played by Sonu Sood, who is also the king’s son-in-law.

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Arundhati caused an uproar across the southern states, and it was a huge commercial success.
Anushka Shetty, a fairly successful actor played the roles of both Queen Jejamma and her great-granddaughter Arundhati. This movie made her the biggest female actor in the Telugu industry, and like the queen on the elephant in Arundhati, she reigned her success gracefully. This role brought Anushka many similar roles in movies like Panchakshari and Rudhramadevi, where directors tried to recreate the success of Arundhati but failed.

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Anushka diversified the roles she played by taking up as many characters that came her way. She played a prostitute in Vedam (2010). This role got her critical acclaim and her second Film Fare Award for the Best Actress category. The same year, she played Kavya, girlfriend and wife (in the sequels) of Durai Singam played by Surya. In the sequels, she’s seen climbing the corporate ladder at the cycle manufacturing company her father owns. In 2010, she had eight movies releasing at the theaters. Her success wavered with time, but she stayed afloat and then Baahubali (2015) came her way. It triggered many memes that Anushka was busy picking up sticks and had no time for other movies. Her movie Rudhramadevi (2015) was a period drama based on Queen Rudhramadevi from the Deccan region.

Director Kodi Ramakrishna stayed relevant for four decades of his directorial career. He discovered the market for devotional movies and the lines between fantasy and religious movies were blurring for him. His first directorial venture Intlo Ramayya Veedhilo Krishnayya (1982) starring Chiranjeevi, was a hit family drama. His first devotional movie was the super hit Ammoru (1995) which made actor Ramya Krishnan, the face of all characters of goddesses in south Indian cinema. He made many more devotional and fantasy movies, and his 2009 hit Arundhati, restarted devotional and fantasy films again. Kodi Ramakrishna continued to stay relevant in the new millennia via the projection of goddesses in movies.

In the hundred years of Telugu cinema, there aren’t even ten women directors who’ve made over two movies.

In the hundred years of Telugu cinema, there aren’t even ten women directors who’ve made over two movies. Notable women directors in the last two decades would be B. V. Nandini Reddy, director of Oh! Baby and Jeevitha Rajasheker who has directed four movies with her husband Rajasheker, as the hero of her films. In the biopic, Mahanati, actor Savitri Garu finds it troublesome to establish herself as a director and the industry cripples her instead of supporting her in times of trouble.

Telugu movies always need a saviour: a strong, smart, fair and handsome man to defend the “damsel in distress”—the heroine. This continued into the 2000s, and women had fewer lines, every minute into a movie. However, the success that Arundhati received boosted the market for movies with stronger women characters. This revival included Vedam (2010), Rudhramadevi (2015), Size Zero (2015), Bhaagamathie (2018), Mahanati (2018), and Oh! Baby (2019) among others.

Telugu movies always need a saviour: a strong, smart, fair and handsome man to defend the “damsel in distress”—the heroine. This continued into the 2000s, and women had fewer lines, every minute into a movie. However, the success that Arundhati received boosted the market for movies with stronger women characters.

Then movies like Attarintiki Daredi (2013) where Sunanda played by Nadhiya, is the atta (aunt) who is key to the plot but has very few lines, came into the picture of Telegu cinema industry. The movie builds her up to be a strong, dynamic and a powerful woman, but she hasn’t gotten enough dialogues or lines to live up to the hype, other than looking the part. Like the title Attarintiki Daredi (What’s the way to my Aunt’s house?) suggests, women’s roles are limited to the relationship they have with the hero. Due to such callous representation, she too could have been simply replaced by a lamp in most parts of this movie!

Also read: 4 South Indian Movies That Start A Conversation About Caste

Ramya Krishnan in Baahubali plays a powerful queen Sivagami who screws up big time, and the other two women are just waiting to be rescued. It still doesn’t settle well with me that both Devasena and Avantika played by Anushka and Tamanna respectively, just give up and wait for ‘the man’ to save them. Despite the fact that they’ve been raising to the occasion, Baahubali came into the picture and pushed them over and insisted he’d do everything. Both parts of the movie did nothing for better judgment despite their power-packed casting of women.

Director Kodi Ramakrishna was clear that he wouldn’t make a sequel to Arundhati, but after he passed away, talks of a sequel have surfaced. Actress Vijay Shanti who was often cast in ‘women-centric’ action movies took a thirteen-year break to focus on her political career. She’s reportedly playing a major role in Sarileru Neekevvaru releasing in January 2020.

Also read: How Have Women Been Portrayed In Telugu Cinema

Biopics being all the rage, everyone has been lapping to make J Jayalalitha’s biopic, churning out two feature films and now a web series. The Kangana Ranaut cast Thalaivi received a strong lash back while the Ramya Krishnan cast Queen is being received better. 2020 is the year to reclaim more movies with better roles and stories for women, and hopefully, it will also be the year for more women telling women’s stories.


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