Director Trivikram Srinivas loves his Hindu mythology. In Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, the family-run business is the modern-day stand-in for the mythological kingdom — trouble brews here, and the hero must be called upon to save it. However, this grafting of mythological tropes onto a modern-day family drama leads to some unconventional class politics. In the moral framing of the film, the characters who come off positively happen to be the richest — Ramchandra (Jayaram), Bantu’s (Allu Arjun) biological father and CEO of the family business; the Founder ARK (Sachin Khedkar); and, much later, Bantu himself. They are confident, discerning and powerful. The film’s real antagonist is also economically the weakest — Valmiki (Murli Sharma) a self-effacing, superstitious, self-loathing, and envious attendant working for the ARK family. This framing is decidedly at odds with commercial cinema’s convention of championing the underdog.
The closest philosophical echoes for this kind of framing seems to be 19th Century German philosopher Nietzsche’s controversial concepts of Master and Slave Morality.
“While the aristocratic man lives confidently and is open to himself, the man of resentment, on the other hand, is not sincere or naive, neither honest nor candid with himself. His soul squints; his mind loves dark corners, secret passages and hidden doors, everything covert appeals to him as his world, his security, his comfort; he is a past master of silence, of not forgetting, of patience, of assuming a mode of self-deprecation and humility for a while. A race of such resentful men will eventually prove more cunning than any aristocratic race…”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)
In his 1887 work On The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche attempts to find the historical origins of our ideas of good, bad, and evil. He posits that society is divided into the powerful and the weak, or in his words — masters and slaves. The masters (traditionally, the aristocrats) value power, wealth, glory, and ambition. They would view these values as “good” and their subjects’ (the slaves) weakness and subservience as “bad” — not maliciously, or with hatred, but rather as a way to label what they do not wish to be. (As a predator views its weak prey, Nietzsche elucidates) This worldview, he calls master morality.
The “slaves”, while initially indulging in self-hatred due to their internalisation of master morality, eventually engineer a “slave’s revolt in morality” — creating new values romanticising meekness — ideas such as piety, non-violence, and chastity. They would then frame the masters’ values as “evil”. This worldview, Nietzsche says, stems from and is steeped in envy and resentment of the masters.
Nietzsche himself seems to prefer master morality over slave morality, arguing that it is life-affirming and that the “will to power” is healthy for the human race’s progress. Like most Nietzschean ideas, these ideas have historically met with a lot of controversy and debate.
The class politics of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo seems to filter through the lens of Nietzschean master morality. It places the rich and powerful family at the centre, and frames Valmiki as the real antagonist of the film by making him the architect of the film’s most egregious sin — the baby-switching; an act of pure resentment and envy.
(Samuthirakani’s Appala Naidu is hardly the main villain as evidenced by the breezy way in which the film deals with him and his abduction of Nivetha Pethuraj’s character.) Valmiki walks around with a limp (a physical manifestation of his crookedness, reminiscent of Richard III), willfully deprives Bantu of a potentially life-altering scholarship, blaming it instead on his horoscope — while outwardly appearing to be god-fearing and meek.
The film also lets us in on Ramchandra’s rise — that he started alongside Valmiki as a clerk in ARK’s company, and went on to become the heir by marrying ARK’s daughter (Tabu). A painful secret has rendered their marriage bitter — Ramchandra cheated on her with another woman of lesser social and economic privilege, possibly, he admits, due to an inferiority complex. Both Ramchandra and Valmiki act immorally due to their sense of inferiority in the face of the rich. And these acts — Ramchandra’s infidelity and Valmiki’s baby-switching, both performed against the rich — are the only character actions which the film treats with some dramatic weight. (It is also notable that these “sins” are met with relative grace by the ARK family — or, perhaps, as Parasite‘s Park Chung-soo would put it — they have the privilege of being graceful. )
The film also brings in genetic implications by framing Valmiki’s biological son Raj (Sushanth) as incompetent and weak, despite his wealthy upbringing, and Bantu as strong, confident, and therefore, more “worthy” of the ARK family’s riches despite his subaltern conditioning.
Hindu epics such as The Mahabharata deal with royal families and the qualities that make one worthy of the throne. These intersect with the preoccupations of Nietzsche, who wrote when European Imperialism was at a critical juncture. The equivalence of the royals of old to the modern-day corporates (also made in Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug) seems, in this film’s case, to throw up anachronistic implications when compared to a film such as Parasite, which dissects contemporary social inequalities without borrowing older frames of reference.
Is the gist of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo’s class politics to be found in Nietzsche, in the name of its fatefully switched sons, Raj and Bantu (which means Servant in Telugu), or in that Rajendra Prasad line in his cameo midway through the film — “All that rich people are, is just lucky, really.”