Cinema is a powerful medium that not merely reflects the state of affairs in society but one that also harbours the potential to transform the attitudes and perceptions of the audience. Multiple critically acclaimed Indian films from different regions have revolved around complex issues such as inequalities, oppression, aspirations, everyday experiences, love and many more. However, a quick look at the Telugu Film Industry, or Tollywood as it is popularly known, throws light on glorifying everything wrong with society.
The actors carry on the beauty of the film through their performances on screen, which enhance the movie’s essence. Well, this is at least an ideal image of a good cinema. The massive volume of commercial movies catering to the existing popular beliefs and stereotypes with the intent to profit has been ever-increasing.
This is graver than it appears, especially for a society where misogyny, caste evasiveness, class privilege, queerphobia, and religious orthodoxy are the norms. If a movie is produced with the only aim of minting money and not questioning the audience’s preconceived notions, it is compelled to glorify what the people already believe in.
I have grown up watching Telugu movies since the early 2000s, and now in 2022, I am at a point where I cannot enjoy any mainstream Tollywood film anymore. What is the problem, one may ask? And I would say, “I do not know where to begin”.
The first thought that comes to my mind is about how women are portrayed in almost every film. A female protagonist can only fit into two stereotypical depictions—a damsel in distress who needs to be saved or a good-for-nothing brat who needs to be tamed by a powerful male protagonist.
An additional purpose that all female characters serve is to entertain the male gaze of the audience, which strongly believes that women are no more than objects of sex, props that exist only to serve the male gaze—sexualised, lifeless, and subservient. As if this is not enough, actresses barely appear in the movies and can be seen for a straight five minutes only when they dance next to the “heroes” in the item and romantic songs.
Telugu audience enjoys this, and all the superhit movies which performed well at the box office prove that the audience likes a subservient woman waiting for the command of a man.
Bahubali, the biggest blockbuster in the Telugu film industry, perfectly reduces characters played by Anushka Shetty and Tamanna Bhatia to the tropes of a damsel in distress and a wild woman who needs to be disciplined, respectively.
In many other movies, the characterisation of the female lead is so vague that it does not have any connection to the plot. For instance, Bharat Ane Nenu, a superhit film, stars Kiara Advani in one of the lead roles. It is a movie about a young chief minister who faces multiple challenges in his struggle to establish good governance. What does the female protagonist do, then? Absolutely nothing other than being a romantic interest of the “hero”.
A stunning example of how Tollywood filmmakers can degrade good cinema is the remake of Pink. The movie’s name is ‘Vakeel Saab’ (Lawyer Sir), and the protagonist is the much-hyped “hero” Pawan Kalyan. The entire film revolves around the noble quest of a lawyer who tries to save three innocent girls. The film does nothing to challenge the false dichotomy of good woman/bad woman. Instead, it just builds the entire plot around it, suggesting that the women who got into trouble for no fault of theirs need saving from a man strong enough to hit the goons violently and rational enough to argue for their cause in a court.
Another movie that comes to mind is Ala Vaikunthapuram Lo, which stars Allu Arjun and Pooja Hegde. The male lead falls in love with his boss, the female lead, because he likes her legs. Every time Hegde comes on screen, the director ensures that the audience watches and enjoys how the “hero” keeps ogling at the actress’s legs. The thought that women can be more than their legs and thighs does not seem alluring to the filmmakers.
In Mahesh Babu’s Sarileru Nikevvaru, Rashmika plays the role of a young woman who falls in love with the “hero” and keeps pestering him till the end of the movie to marry her.
What about her ambitions or her personal life apart from the love story? Well, it is a vacuum. Arjun Reddy’s Preety has no say over her life and continues to give her all for a man who traumatises her multiple times. These are just a few examples illustrating Tollywood’s caricaturisation of female characters. Pick any mainstream commercial movie, and all, or at least most, of the stereotypes will present themselves in the most disgusting forms.
Furthermore, an alarming trend that has always been in Tollywood (and in many other film industries as well) is the blatant age gap between the “hero” and “heroine”. Tollywood is not unknown to this. Sridevi was just 15 years old when she was paired up with 33-year-old Chandra Mohan in the 1978 film Padaharella Vayasu. Telugu audiences should have grown out of their pedophilic obsession with underage actresses over time. It should have become more accepting that women do not lose glamour as they age.
The audience certainly has no qualms with watching older actors such as Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna, who continue to deliver superhit films despite being 60 years old. So, there is no logical explanation for Tollywood’s double standards unless it is deeply rooted in sexism and misogyny.
Tollywood filmmakers did nothing to break the stereotypes around a woman’s age; they conveniently continued to appease the audience by casting underage women in lead roles with actors double their age. For instance, Keerthy Shetty was 17 when she debuted in Uppena, a 2021 film, as the female lead against Vaishnav Tej, who is at least ten years older than her. Balakrishna and Chiranjeevi are endlessly characterised as young 30-year-olds in their films. Casting younger women is necessary to de-age these old actors; however, the point is that the de-ageing of men comes at the cost of women.
On another front, the sexist portrayal of women in these films fuels Telugu men’s misogyny. For instance, the failure of a movie is attributed many a time to the actresses by blaming them for being the harbingers of misfortune. Viewers blame the actresses for their bad acting but never criticise the directors for portraying shallow and poorly written characters in the film.
The thousands of meme pages on social media platforms dedicated to chivalrous banter over and around cinema are the most toxic of all social spaces for women. The portrayal of women as naive idiots significantly impacts how audiences perceive female actors in real life.
Men ridicule most female actors for being fools who do not know what they are supposed to say or do. Keerthy Shetty, Rashmika Mandana, Pooja Hegde and many others have taken the heat of the online trolls. The extravagant celebrations before and after the release of a commercial film have become hotspots for ridiculing actresses. They are made fun of for their comments, accents, linguistic ability, and appearance.
By making these films, Tollywood filmmakers and the Telugu audience, by entertaining such films, give us a loud and clear message that women exist only to be protected by a man, to humanise a stone-hearted protagonist, or just as a romantic interest of the “hero”. The radical idea that women can be full humans in themselves, having agency, rationality, and the will to lead their independent lives as dignified individuals, cannot make it to the big screens anytime soon in Andhra and Telangana.
The age-old stereotype that women are inherently irrational and emotional by nature is actively fostered by the star actors and directors of Tollywood. Not to put the onus on the female actors, but their silent acceptance of the status quo to not hurt the ego of powerful men in the industry, which would jeopardise their career chances, is disappointing. And this is the sorry state of affairs in 21st-century Telugu-speaking states.
Featured image source: Bollywood Life