Cinema is the most accessible art form in India and it has also become the most accommodating. It's perhaps this flexibility that has allowed Indian film industries to hone some of the most creative minds apart from a few simplistic thinkers. The same fluidity can also be the reason why filmmakers are asked to adapt to the market, rather than create a market that's open to all forms of expression.
The Telugu film industry is now known as one that's driven by pre-determined formulaic subjects and star power. Yet this wasn't always the case. A quick Google search will reveal a list of Telugu films that went beyond the mainstream in pursuit of artistic expression without compromising on entertainment. Unfortunately, such a list would feature an overwhelming number of films that belong to the years before the 2000s.
While Raghavendra Rao and his brand of cinema is commonly blamed for the path the industry has now taken, one feels this would be an unfair charge on a director who made engaging films such as Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari(1990) and Annamayya(1997).
That said, one can argue that the objectification of the female body, with the camera lingering over fragmented portions, is a definitive byproduct of his films. Even the trope of portraying a man as the upholder of traditions and culture, while objectifying women in other scenes is a tradition that has continued even till the recent Geetha Govindham(2018), in which the woman is taught about privacy by the same man who violates her space.
The Hero At The Centre
The concept of hero-centric cinema—the kind that's interested in portraying flawless heroes over humanizing them—saw a resurgence when the Paruchuri brothers became the most sought after screenwriters in the industry. Alongside them were directors like B. Gopal, who made films set in Rayalaseema, often showing factionalism in a hyperbolic manner with films like Samarasimha Reddy(1999) and Indra(2002). This period can also be seen as a time when masculine energy took over everything else—the heroine, the story and its relevance.
None of this is to say that they were bad. They were formulaic, yes, but they were engrossing for a wide section of the audience.
The same period of time saw the emergence of directors such as V.V.Vinayak, Puri Jagannadh, and S.S.Rajamouli. Understandably, they followed the same path of hero-centrism with an overdose of testosterone. Actors like Ravi Teja, Prabhas, and Jr. N.T.R flourished and so did the industry. Films like Pokiri (2006) and Chatrapathi (2005) generated never-before returns at the box-office even when critically-acclaimed films like Allari(2002), Aa Naluguru(2003), Aithe(2003), Anand(2004), Grahanam(2004), Anukokunda Oka Roju(2005), Amma Cheppindi(2006), and Gamyam(2008) were seen as happy detours.
Another reason for the decline in quality content can be attributed to existing and aspiring writer/directors emulating the success of the aforementioned films. In many cases, a filmmaker's initial films feel more superior and edgier when compared to their later works; Krishna Vamsi's filmography is an example of this having started his career with National Award-winners such as Sindhooram and Ninne Pelladutha.
So when a director proves himself/herself, producers choose to give them limitless budget, instead of limitless freedom. And instead of trying to recreate the cinematic experience, they are asked to recreate its box-office collections.
This is not to say that an art form cannot have a working business model. Usha Kiran Movies was a production house that championed fresh content and new filmmakers like Teja (Chitram) and Srinu Vytla (Anandham). Suresh Productions too has been a constant support for new content. When I asked Venkat Siddareddy, one of the executive producers of the recent hit C/o Kancharapalem about this, he said, "A new producer can release [a film] on his own, but he has to handle several factors and individuals. It can become a laborious process. But when there's a good film in our hands, it is easy to approach big production/distribution houses. They may approach you for collaboration as well. The problem is with producers who make mediocre products."
Clearly, a film's quality has a lot to do with the people who are funding it. It's the producers and their concerns that decide a film's fate. When I asked Krishna Prasad Sivalenka, the producer of the first Telugu sci-fi film, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao's Aditya 369(1991), about the risks of producing a big-budget film such as this, he said it was the script's uniqueness that attracted him to it. He added that Singeetham's clarity and control over the way he wanted to make the film, without any CGI or graphics to speak of, made the decision easy. He feels things are looking up for Telugu cinema now and believes we need to create a space for indie cinema to thrive like it has in other industries.
From what I could deduce, the equation between a director and a producer is more vital to a film than the one between a director and his/her actors. Popular filmmakers of the past seemed to find producers who respected the medium more, a bunch that was willing to choose stories that are introspective and rooted in reality. As a result, filmmakers of the 80s and 90s made it a point to create films that had something important to say about the society.
Let us look at how cinema has evolved, or rather the opposite, by comparing the movies that released before the 2000s to those that released after.
A Social Awareness
Viswanath's Sapthapadi(1981) is, like his many movies, set around an orthodox and Brahminical background. It ends with the Brahmin husband giving away his wife to her lover who belongs to a lower caste. One can argue that this film comes from a place of privilege, continuing the portrayal of Brahmin men as deciders of other people's fate. But it managed to question the caste system and if it should ever be allowed to consume us. The film also discussed women and their desires without ostracising them.
Narasinga Rao too made films like Maa Bhoomi(1980) and Daasi(1988), which discussed the Telangana peasant rebellion and the plight of the region's bonded women respectively. Other filmmakers like Bapu—along with Ramana, Dasari Narayana, T. Krishna, and Madala Ranga Rao tried to bring pressing issues to the forefront.
Even Tamil filmmakers like P. Bharathiraja and K. Balachander made issue-based cinema ranging from inter-religion relationships, societal hierarchies to people in power bringing about positive change. But the one that still stands tall is Rudraveena (1988).
In comparison, we now face a scarcity of films that try to hold up a mirror to society, at least not in a way that feels earnest. Most commercial films today use social evils like rape and dowry as tropes to either move the screenplay forward or, worse yet, to elicit laughter. The only filmmaker who has tried to talk about the marginalized—Gamyam(2008) and Vedham(2010)—and societal injustices perpetrated in the name of caste—Kanche(2015)—is Krish Jagarlamudi.
Jagarlamundi's characters such as Gaali Seenu (Gamyam) and Cable Raju (Vedham) aren't heroes. They are flawed with skewered moralities, but they are certainly human. We aren't blind to their plight and are able to empathise with them even if they are characters that live on fringe of what is considered 'acceptable'.
Woman as the 'hero'
The portrayal of women in our cinema too has seen several changes. First, let's talk about films where women play the protagonist. Needless to say, Telugu cinema has produced many great films that are "female-oriented", going all the way back to the Savitri era. Even in the later years, actresses like Sharada, Vijayashanthi, Ramya Krishna and Revathi carried many successful films on their shoulders, with a little help from directors like T. Krishna, Kodi Rama Krishna, and Dasari.
Notice the way Vijayashanti's character in Prathighatana(1985) takes things into her hands, while her husband stands back. Or the way Anthuleni Katha(1976) makes it mostly about the woman, even if there are stars like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth in the mix. Now compare this to the way Rudhramadevi(2015) loses its plot while trying to elevate Allu Arjun's character.
Also, when a film stars a popular actress playing a strong and invincible character, it isn't too different from a male-centric film, except that it is much rarer.
The second discussion is about women in films where they are not the focus. These films can either be potboilers or rom-coms or thrillers. Any good filmmaker would make sure the heroine is one among the characters that drive the plot. It works if her character is evil or nice, strong or weak, as long she has a motive to be there and a reason to be the way she is.
Take a film like Aapadbandhavudu (1992) for example. Meenakshi Seshadri plays a sexual assault survivor, someone who suffers from trauma and pain. Even through the savior complex (Christ complex) displayed by Chiranjeevi's character, we never see her being sidelined. She is fragile and helpless, but she isn't invisible. The only time we see the hero and the heroine sharing relatively equal responsibility nowadays is when it's a romantic comedy— Tharun's Pelli Choopulu(2016) comes to mind, and even then things aren't always fair.
How women have been portrayed in the films of director duo Bapu-Ramana is certainly interesting to note here. Their Mr. Pellam(1993) goes the openly feminist way with a child-like husband acting out over the loss of privileges and a wife who knows a thing or two about diplomacy and dealing with petulance. Then there is Pelli Pusthakam(1991), where the leads are made to deal with lies and jealousy. The beauty of these films is the way the equality is evident…it happens naturally and over a period of time. The women do not expect medals for being strong and the men don't shy away from looking weak and ignorant in front of them. Feminism not requiring underlining is feminism at its best. The exceptions are the films of Shekar Kammula and Mohan Krishna Indraganti, where both men and women are allowed to make mistakes and just be. Unfortunately, the female filmmakers are yet to make a mark in this matter, expect for Nandini Reddy's debut film, nothing good comes to mind.
The second part of this article will be published next week.