'Daako Daako Meka, Pullochi Korukuddhi Peeka.'
(Hide, Hide, goat. The tiger will tear out your throat)
-Chandrabose, Daako Daako Meka
You're at a restaurant, digging into your meal when you hear a man yell at the staff. Something has gone wrong: the order is late, or wrong, someone has managed to mess up somewhere in the delivery chain. But the man continues to tear into the staff, and you cringe internally, realizing that this has ceased to be about a grievance, and more about the flexing of power: the man knows that the staff cannot retaliate.
On the way back, you're on a two-wheeler and the police pull you over. Payment is due— a fine, a bribe. But there is another price you'll very likely be forced to pay, particularly if you don't come from the kind of privilege that intimidates officers. The price of self-respect.
You're taught to submit early. Your "college tradition"—a distinct, college-specific code of behaviour for the first-year student often involves a subordination of the self to a senior: wake up your senior at 5 AM, clean their room, and do their assignment. This is also where you'll run into that particularly sadistic college lecturer. The one you're expected to flatter. At a local university in my city, I know stories of PhD guides who expect students to carry groceries to their houses. Think also of that manager who expects you to stay at ungodly hours and weekends in the office, the one who treats you like you're worthless, dispensable, and needs to learn humility. At all times, with every interaction, you need to be cognisant of your station in life.
These kinds of interactions become grievously exaggerated when social structures like caste, gender, or religion are involved. There is a reason aukaat is such a popular word in India—its implicit rebuke is also often made explicit: where do you come from? What do you think of yourself? Or rather, How dare you think yourself worth more than what I have decided your worth to be?
Pushpa's first song opens with these words:
'Veluthuru thintadi aaku, Aaku ni thintadi meka
Meka ni thintadi puli, Idi kadaraa aakali'
(The leaf eats the light, as the goat eats the leaf
The tiger eats the goat, isn't this what hunger is?)
This is, at first glance, a specific invitation to the smuggling world of the Seshachalam forest, where everyone is placed somewhere on a hierarchical food chain (Note how the first line refers to the leaf eating the light—a suggestion that we are now in a literal Area of Darkness).
But this specific context gives Sukumar the leeway to leverage what we all contend with in daily Indian life; the catchphrase 'Thaggedhe Le', or 'Jhukega Nahin', with its accompanying gesture—Pushpa's hand slicing under his neck, waylaying his beard, is a "mass" movie repudiation of this very culture. And it has caught on—one sees it everywhere from the IPL and international sport to politicians asserting their subaltern status.
Every culture's coercive structures are derivatives of historical power structures. This essay by Matthew Desmond in the New York Times argues that many of the coercive practices at American workplaces, (and ultimately, global MNCs) evolved in the slave labour camps in the American south. William Dalrymple, in this piece in the Financial Times, builds the case that the British East India Company's colonialist project was the precursor to modern financial conglomerates.
Much of everyday engagement between people on different rungs of the social ladder in India is informed by the ghosts of rural feudalism. And caste-based feudalism was the predominant preoccupation of the film Sukumar made before Pushpa: The Rise—the Ram Charan-Samantha starrer Rangasthalam.
In Rangasthalam, Phanindra Bhupati has been society president of the eponymous village for over 30 years. When the farmers don't give his henchmen the portion of the yield they demand, they are killed or vanish mysteriously. The villagers, however, believe that Phanindra holds power over them because of his superior status (much to do with his caste), and going against him invites some sort of divine retribution.
Rangasthalam is about the mechanisms of this kind of localised totalitarianism where the villagers accept their inherently subordinate status. Entering Phanindra Bhupati's compound requires undergoing a series of subjugations such as taking off your footwear and "purifying" the glass you drink from—real casteist practices that the film makes sure to single out.
Pushpa shares many of Rangasthalam's preoccupations, though its targets are less specific, and its politics hazier. Rangasthalam is about caste and Brahmanism; Pushpa is about privilege built upon caste, but it is more reluctant to be as specific about the foundational structure.
Early on in Pushpa: The Rise, a moneylender reminds Pushpa Raj and his mother about their dues in the way it's often done in the informal economy—through public shaming. When Pushpa repays the loan, he drags the moneylender through the streets, asking him to tell everyone that the loan is repaid.
Half of India's working population, according to this CIC report is in debt. Pushpa is an escapist masala film, the kind Salim-Javed used to write in the 70s, and Pushpa Raj, much like Amitabh in the Salim-Javed films, offers the audience the vicarious pleasure of transcending the material conditions and power structures that oppress them. 'Thaggedhe Le' is just a compact, condensed version of that scene in Deewar where Amitabh Bachchan refuses to pick up money thrown at him.
How many films feature protagonists dealing with the indignities of moneylenders and collection agents—a reality that too many Indians have to contend with today? (Sarkaaru Vaari Paata seems to be about this, but clearly, it seems to have misspoke) Over time, the working-class protagonist seems to have disappeared from mainstream Hindi cinema, and even Telugu cinema which seems to increasingly feature rich, prince-like protagonists who come to inherit large fortunes.
When Pushpa begins smuggling, he refuses a fee and asks for a share in the profits. "Partner Pushpa", he declares. (You might remember a company that has renamed designated drivers to "partner", for exactly the same reason) . Pushpa Raj faces an assembly line of antagonists, but the antagonisms share a common theme—those of status. This is why, Pushpa Raj's dramatic need is that of societal status, money is only a means to this end.
Here too, like with Rajamouli and Trivikram Srinivas, we see the influence of mythology (though Sukumar is subtler and more subversive). Pushpa, born out of wedlock to a man of "high status", is haunted by his "illegitimacy"—something society constantly reminds him of, and his primary motivation is to overcome. His relationship with the antagonist, Fahadh Fazil's Bhanwar Singh Shekawat is defined on this precise axis—Pushpa Raj is self-made and comes from nothing, while Bhanwar's success comes from his privilege. This is, after all, the story of Karna in the Mahabharata.
In the Mahabharata, Karna has a figurative Achilles' heel—when reminded of his birth, he becomes emotionally vulnerable and seeks to compensate for it. The quest to overcome this "deficiency" becomes a driving force behind his relentless pursuit of heroic glory. Adaptations of Karna, from NTR's Daana Veera Soora Karna to Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi feature scenes where Karna is heartbroken when reminded of his "status", and the irony of the situation—that this is really a man of "high birth" bemoaning the fate of a "lowly birth" is a primary dramatic clutch of pathos.
There are, however, implications when this ironic part of Karna's story is uncritically adapted—something Mari Selvaraj's Karnan is aware of and consciously rejects. The dramatic irony of Karna's story carries the implicit implication that we are supposed to feel pathos only for someone of biological high birth being subjected to the indignities of "low birth" and not for any human of "low birth" facing systemic injustice. Selvaraj's Karnan, in contrast, embodies immanence, he is of his people, and not "above" them: there is no ironical pathos arising out of "higher" birth.
Despite this, Sukumar is not entirely uncritical in adopting tropes from mythology. While Baahubali is preoccupied with the traits which define a "good Kshatriya", Pushpa ends with the stripping of the markers of the privilege of Bhanwar Singh Shekawat, a man who uses his class-and-caste status as a weapon to berate Pushpa. Sukumar is conscious of how casteist feudal engagement persists in society—note how both Rangasthalam and Pushpa: The Rise end with a scene in which the protagonist sits on the floor in the presence of a privileged caste antagonist, only to "dethrone" him in the end.
Pushpa's unwillingness to bend is also what leads to the film's murky gender politics—his relationship with Srivalli. From the PoV of his character, the writing makes sense—Pushpa hopes to gain Srivalli's attention by any means other than approaching her directly and being vulnerable with her because he is insecure about his "status"—he is, again, abiding by his catchphrase. This is why he feels the only way to reach her is to "buy" her affections. Again, Chandrabose verbalises this internal monologue in the song named after her:
'Evvariki Eppudu Thalavanchani Nenu, Nee Patti Choosetandhuku Thalane Vanchaanu'
(I, who have never bowed down to anyone, have lowered my head to see your anklet)
Srivalli is written like a Shakespearean soliloquy in which Pushpa goes from talking about his affections for her to his frustration with the lack of reciprocity, and finally resorting to a sort of "sour grapes" bitterness—that she isn't worth it because she isn't that pretty after all. However, this subplot is where the film almost comes undone.
Though it is consistent with the traits and weaknesses of Pushpa's character, the subplot is written at the expense of another character—the woman—and though her character confesses affections for him later, it seems that she is given little choice by both Pushpa and the villainous Jaali Reddy, and one comes away with the impression that in a world with better men, she would not resort to settling with someone like Pushpa.
The longer this subplot goes on, the more disappointing it gets. The film submerges itself neck-deep in patriarchy when Pushpa rescues her from a Draupadi-like disrobing by a villain—saddening, because of how equal and progressive the Ramalakshmi-Chittibabu relationship was in Rangasthalam.
Pushpa: The Rule will have to resolve a fundamental tension: if Pushpa achieves his goal of becoming "legitimised", of inheriting the last name and becoming a part of the family that disowns him—he will have achieved his goal, but the film will inadvertently be championing the fact that identity is only valid within the conservative construct of patriarchy. This is, for me, the "Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali" of Pushpa: how will Pushpa: The Rule resolve the Karna story within the framework of its unique masala blend of ruthless Darwinism, Scarface-like crime shenanigans, and mythological pathos?
In resolving this, Sukumar will have to make a choice between the safe, satisfying, family-oriented patriarchal resolution, a Karna-esque tragedy where Pushpa dies tragically without receiving a surname, or a third alternative where Pushpa is just that: Pushpa Raj, a mass hero who doesn't need patriarchal validation, transcending the social systems that oppressed him. Following up a blockbuster, especially to complete its story, is an unenviable task.