The refrain of Chandrabose’s lyrics in ‘Ranga Ranga Rangasthalaana’ from Sukumar’s Rangasthalam (which means ‘theatre’ in Telugu) ends with the words “ aatabommalam anta, manamantha tholubommalam anta”, which would roughly translate to “we are all dancing puppets, it is said”. Outwardly, this is an ‘All the world’s a stage’ metaphor about the insignificance of humans whose lives are at the mercy of Gods and fate—but the word “anta” complicates matters.
At first glance, it is benign—anta, which means “it is said”, is a flavorful word, part of the folk fabric of the song. Without the word, the song would be a straightforward endorsement of the message of insignificance and powerlessness of the residents of Rangasthalam; with it, the song assumes a peculiar distance from this message. It hints that their insignificance is not a self-evident truth, but a tale whispered to them by someone else that they have come to believe, a fiction that now shapes the reality of those who live in Rangasthalam.
Aatabommalam anta: We are dancing puppets, it is said.
Dancing puppets imply the existence of a puppet-master and ’Ranga Ranga Rangasthalaana’ takes place during a religious procession in which the village celebrates the election of the Society President, in which he is the sole nominee. The President, Phanindra Bhupati is a brahmin feudal despot who exercises power over the village through the myth of his own superiority—a myth that percolates through the power of narrative and ritual. They are forbidden to speak his name, and entering his compound requires undergoing a series of humiliations. Here, caste is the means of subjugation, but Rangasthalam’s primary obsession is with the psychological mechanisms by which this tyranny operates.
One of the markers of a tyrannical regime is the implosion of the connection between cause and effect—the “2 + 2 = 5” in Orwell’s 1984. When the president’s henchmen harass a farmer, his son raises his voice, only to be found dead the next day. The President arrives at his funeral and attributes the death to God’s mysterious ways, but the farmer pays obeisance to him, unquestioning, in conditioned ignorance. Though outwardly festive, the song whispers to us surreptitiously, prompting us to look deeper into what is really going on—the drumming up of religious fervor to irrationalize their subjugation and the status quo dominance of a tyrant.
Hence the words “kanapadani seyyedo aadisthunna aatabommalam anta”, (“we are dancing puppets manipulated by an invisible hand” )—the villagers believe this is the hand of God, but as the film moves into its third act, they realize that the strings that control their lives and material conditions don’t stretch as far as the heavens.
When a leftist leader enters the fray, the villagers find the courage to call the President by his name and nominate another candidate to contest against him. But the film has another trick up its sleeve—it turns out the progressive leftist leader is just as casteist, and more insidious than the late President of Rangasthalam—he commissions the murder of the protagonist, Chittibabu’s (Ram Charan) brother for being in a relationship with his daughter. The residents of the village have been manipulated again; caste has persisted through the democratic revolution. “Inapadani paatake sindaadestuna tholubommalam anta”. It is the silent song animating their movements.
Rangasthalam is set in the 80s and in its aesthetics, emulates the mainstream 80s village blockbuster, but its narrative is a retrospective commentary on the dark areas that democracy has failed to penetrate. Its progressive politics is sheathed in its songs, but pervasive—in how ‘Yentha Sakkagunnave’ consciously avoids objectification unlike the songs of the era the movie is set in, in Aa Gattununtava’s call for urgent political involvement, and in the way ‘Ranga Ranga Rangasthalaana’ exposes the way narrative shapes our lives, what we believe we are free to do, and who we think is responsible for our woes.