Tollywood Is A Graveyard For Tragic Endings, But The Incandescent Palasa 1978 Heralds A New Vision

పోరాటాల పురిటి గడ్డే ఇది.. చైతన్య గీతాల  గొంతే ఇది

(This is the birthplace of struggles.. this is the voice of revolutionary songs)

Thus ends the tale of brothers Mohan Rao and Ranga Rao, locked in a lethal struggle with Peddha Shavukaru and Chinna Shavukaru, in Palasa 1978. The former are folk artistes; the latter upper caste landlords, with their own running feud, who control the local cashew fields. The narrative gives one the image of a spider web overlaid with more spider webs, each wanting to gain the upper hand, a high stakes game where you win power or die social death. The movie begins with the literal slaying of a deity — the slaying of a man dancing in a goddess avatar as part of festivities in Palasa. It could be a metaphor for the movie disregarding existing norms and heralding a new vision. Building on the likes of Mallesham and C/o Kancharapalem, it could be the harbinger of Telugu Cinema’s own Pa Ranjith moment. Palasa has its own songs and struggles to sing for us.

The encores can wait

Palasa 1978 is a revenge saga, crime drama, village folklore and a tale of Dalit resistance, all rolled into one. Director Karuna Kumar, who has also written the dialogues and screenplay, places Dalit power, anger and agency front and centre. The settings are authentic, the ‘colony’ homes of the characters feel lived-in, the accents spot-on, and it is refreshing to hear popular Uttarandhra folk songs on the big screen (Nakkileesu Golusu and Bavochhadu).

They follow in the footsteps of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloos sensationally shot ‘Sittharala Sirapadu‘, also sung and written in the Srikakulam dialect. In Ala… and Sarileru Neekevvaru, the heroes were protecting the borders, saving the family or the business empire. But here, the stakes start small yet feel more real. By the time they become big, the transition feels inorganic. During a conversation with me, Karuna Kumar lamented this obsession with ‘lag’ — the need to never slow down — forcing him to cut some scenes giving context. Even if these scenes had been added, the audience would have rooted for the return of the Hero, dishing out justice and riding into the sunset. We demanded an encore. What we got instead was something honest and eye-opening. The encores can wait, the enlightenment about Andhra’s post-Karamchedu history is more urgent. The Karamchedu massacre (July 1985) was the denouement of the simmering Madiga-Kamma conflicts there, Andhra’s equivalent of Tamil Nadu’s Keezhvenmani massacre in its political impact. It sparked the formation of the Dalit Mahasabha, fostering a new Dalit consciousness, and new caste lynchings across the State in the succeeding years.

 It is 2018 and a storm is approaching (the characters watch news of real-life cyclone Titli approaching). Our hero-in-exile returns on the eve of the storm and listens to his story being recounted in a police station. It’s fast-paced, with enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. By the end, we realise Mohan Rao has come, not to exact revenge but to save his Ambusoli colony, a Dalit neighborhood in Palasa. It’s this very desire that comes across as tacked-on. But it feels necessary; there needs to be light at the end of this tunnel. 

Made on a small budget, the film broke even. But I still wondered why it ended up an average grosser despite being critically acclaimed, having enough masala elements overlaid on a story of subaltern authenticity. Probably, due to its tragic third act that is true to its narrative integrity, but out of character for a Telugu movie. It ends as Asuran does with our man in jail, but without anything like Asuran’s rousing climactic fight. The director’s vision breaks the shackles of commercial movie grammar that dictates that conflicts be resolved with a climactic fight. 

Does the Telugu audience dislike tragedies?

Not many tragedies in Telugu cinema have gone on to become commercial hits even if they won critical acclaim. However, gaining the acclaim and acceptance of the audience is a much-tougher proposition. Which is probably why Gautham Vasudev Menon’s tale of Jessie and Karthik had a different ending in Telugu to suit our seemingly touchy sensibilities, or why Kaakha Kaakha’s Telugu remake Gharshana saw the female lead being rescued, the villain vanquished, and the couple living happily ever after, like all on-screen couples are supposed to. In real life, most Telugu youth are like Telugu heroes and heroines stuck in a Tamil film such as Kadhal or Pariyerum Perumal — where they fall in love and are loved back; and there’s romance and adventure, before caste pride cuts this story short. So we expect mainstream Telugu movies to dream our dreams, replay our mad romance on-screen, make us soar.

Telugu Cinema Is A Graveyard For Tragic Endings, But The Incandescent Palasa 1978 Heralds A New Vision Then again, some of Tollywood’s landmark movies such as ANR’s Devadasu (or its modern iteration Arjun Reddy), Maro Charitra, Premabhishekam (where ANR dies.. again), Sagara Sangamam (where Kamal Haasan dies… again), and Geethanjali have been tragedies. Just over the last three years, Telugu cinema had several hits that were tragedies at heart. Majili and Jersey, released in 2019, portray the hero’s personal and professional dreams being crushed and how they deal with life after. Rangasthalam, one of Telugu cinema’s biggest hits ever, is a tragic story despite the elements of revenge and joy. The killing of an important character in the final act comes as a punch in the gut. The deeply poignant funeral song that follows casts a huge shadow on the final 20 minutes of the movie. RX 100, one of 2018’s biggest blockbusters, is a tragedy with a twist, but the movie is clear from the very beginning about the hero’s agony. The same goes with Nani’s superhit Ninnu Kori in 2017, the beginning of which shows us the heroine living happily with her (non-Nani) husband. Conversely, C/o Kancharapalem, despite its instant classic status and mainstream release, had average collections that could be due to the multiple tragedies that overtake its protagonists in the final 30 minutes of the movie. 

My theory is that the Telugu audience do not necessarily hate tragedies. They just hate movies that show triumph and love requited in the first two hours of the movie, only to end in tragedy. There’s a sense of betrayal, having invested so much in the hero’s or heroine’s journey, only to be told that the journey does not end well. We see enough betrayals and heartbreaks in life, with external factors related to caste and class cutting romances short, so why do we want to see them playing out on screen too? But if the movie makes it clear to the Telugu audience that this is going to be a tragedy, and if it doesn’t ‘deceive’ them with a triumphant hero arc or saccharine love only to end it sour, it will have better luck at the box office. 

Palasa 1978 released on March 6 and was out of most theatres much before they stopped operations in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What sets the movie apart is the final act. The first half is breezy and has a large but intimate canvas, packing in a variety of characters and plot points. And then come the tragedies in the latter part of the second half, when our hero Mohan Rao who wins till then, doesn’t anymore. His opponents finally get the better of him, and his revenge is stymied by an inspector who believes in the system. He might have had his song and dance, his romance and mass moments, but Chinna Shavukaru has the last laugh — living a good full life in the following decades.  Most theatres did not play the movie for more than a week, even in Srikakulam district, EVEN in Palasa. Maybe, Mohan Rao had to die too; nobody likes the leading man punished, not in Tollywood. The Hero dies in glory or rides away in glory, caste structures and realities of a dysfunctional judiciary be damned.

 Vigilante justice in top-down and bottom-up narratives

Notwithstanding its fate, the movie’s depiction of the Palasa region, the lives, loves, and songs of a folk-artiste community makes for riveting social history. The subaltern here is shown romancing, body-building, monopolising violence, unafraid of its identity and history. Also watch out for some pithy dialogues of Peddha Shavukaru that bring the house down, delivered in a deadpan style like only an old fox can. The movie never flinches in its portrayal of politics and violence at the grassroots and how caste hierarchy is practised and subverted. It feels real, and pegs its narrative on actual events happening in the background, be it elections, popular movies or terrible cyclones. A major event in the protagonists’ lives happens the day when NTR’s blockbuster Bobbili Puli releases. It’s also the day when the legend himself comes to Palasa as part of his historic 1982 election campaign. As a huge wave is about to upend Andhra politics for real, a smaller wave is going to realign local hierarchies in Palasa on-screen. 

Interestingly, Bobbili Puli involved the upper-caste protagonist setting up a parallel justice system when he fails to get justice from the courts. It had a moving courtroom climax where NTR goes post-modern on the judge. He questions his Maha Veera Chakra award for bravery in killing enemy soldiers — ‘heroes of another nation’ in his words. He claims his real bravery lay in killing enemies of the nation within — the greedy, the corrupt, and the power-hungry. In an inversion of this top-down vigilante justice narrative, Palasa 1978 involved the protagonists actually keeping faith in the courts for more than two decades. This echoes the reality of cases involving atrocities against Dalits where convictions rates under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are abysmally low. By showing this in its tragic third act, it might not have made it big at the box office but in the movie’s universe, the people of Ambusoli will sleep easy. Land is their only resource and Mohan Rao has finally spilled blood, ensuring you will not covet what is theirs anymore. You don’t want a storm coming again, do you?

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