Sekhar Kammula's Anand arrived at a time when gender dynamics in Telugu cinema were undergoing an interesting flux. It was when the "boy next door" hero image was thriving, with the likes of Uday Kiran and Tarun essaying roles that were close to their age. These men were not physically "macho", and dare I say, were even powerless- whether it was Uday Kiran in Manasantha Nuvve, Nithiin in Jayam, or even Tarun in Nuvve Kavali. The box office record of these films stood testimony to how the audience embraced this relatable brand of heroism. Even the "big heroes" of that time like Nagarjuna, Venkatesh and Chiranjeevi essayed roles of non- macho men- the kind who could even be outright stupid and unmotivated. Venkatesh's Nuvvu Naku Nacchav, Vasu, and Mallishwari; Chiranjeevi's Shankar Dada MBBS (which is the best ever Munna Bhai spinoff and performance, in my opinion); and Nagarjuna's Manmadhudu remain etched as evergreen classics.
In films like these where men didn't have to bear the burden of a rather performative brand of "macho" masculinity, the reciprocal quality of roles written for women improved. In each of the aforementioned films, women were anything but a decorative presence that needed rescuing- they had their character arcs and conflicts in equal measure. However, they did not go too far in subverting the male-centric, hero-driven locus of (Telugu) cinema and storytelling. The image of these male leads still preceded their choice of roles.
On the other hand, we see even star heroes unlearn their brand of heroism and enter his universe where women have always enjoyed equal footing. Anand was a gamechanger in that sense. For starters, the only thing male centric in the film was its title. Otherwise, it literally began and ended with Rupa's journey and decisions. With Anand, Kammula perhaps became the first director to seamlessly dissolve the long established contrast between a "traditional" and "modern" woman. Rupa, like most of his other heroines, wears western clothes with long braids, and even slips into sarees with ease. She teaches Tyagaraja Kritis in her music class before heading off to office. Rupa's characterisation in Anand was revolutionary not only for the depth and sensitivity that went into creating it, but also for how Rupa was central to the film's universe.
It is not uncommon to see "strong female characters" written in worlds that are conspicuously laden with conflict- either their family, or society at large do not enable such women to thrive. These archetypical "strong women" are singled out, and also end up carrying the burden of idealism that is crafted by patriarchal standards of morality. This was a major reservation I had with the much celebrated film Oh! Baby, which became an ode to the sacrificial brand of motherhood. The conflict was almost entirely between women, while Baby's purpose was centered around her son and grandson. Even though Baby was flawed, we were constantly shown that she was at least better off than other eccentric women in the film (such as her best friend's flirtatious cousin, or the house owner's daughter). Her struggle too was based off a rather trite trope- that of a widowed, poor mother raising her child in a big bad world.
But Kammula gets the hang of what it truly means to flesh out relatable female characters, because he does not attempt to deify "strong women". Rather, their resilience, maturity, and even flaws are normalised through feminist allies, who are a staple presence in his films. In Anand, we got a whiff of what a healthy female friendship looks like when we saw how Anita supports and defends Rupa in every decision she takes – even when she chooses to walk away from her wedding with Rahul at the last moment. Rupa's boss refuses to offer her sympathy when she goes back to office after calling off her wedding, stating he believes that she a mature woman capable of making her own decisions. In the evergreen Godavari, a rather temperamental Seethamahalakshmi decisively falls for Ram after he defends her professional ambitions against his uncle who is mansplaining to her about what she should do with her life. In Happy Days too, Madhu's parents do not question her morality after her father overhears Chandu asking her for a kiss. Chandu too gives up plans of going abroad for his higher education, because he does not wish to confuse Madhu by separating her from family, and uproot her from her world.
In Kammula's world, the hero is a "hero" because he is an ally who respects the boundaries and aspirations of the woman. He also does not misappropriate this to reinforce the masculinity of these men. In Anand, for instance, there is a scene where Anand stops an inebriated Rahul (Rupa's ex fiancé) from assaulting Rupa. Given the prevailing sensibilities, the scene could have been milked for its commercial potential- after all, Anand divulges his full name and economic inheritance to prove to Rahul that he cannot win women over with his money power. But in the same flow, Anand declares that he is capable of employing a number of Rahuls as Rupa's servants "if Rupa agrees"- this was a responsible way to steer clear of the protectionism that is intrinsic to the masculinity discourse in cinema. It also reaffirms Rupa's agency in the whole situation. Even after Rahul leaves, Rupa is not impressed or grateful to Anand for protecting her. She is in fact disappointed with Anand's inability to understand her emotions. Even earlier in the film, she firmly tells Anand to not develop a sense of ownership over her.
These allies strengthen the feminist core of Kammula's cinema, more so because conflict resolution in Kammula's films always happens on the woman's terms- Anand waits for Rupa's decision about their relationship. Ram apologises to Seethamahalakshmi for his lapse before she accepts his proposal in Godavari. In Leader, Archana reconciles with Arjun Prasad only when she is convinced sufficiently about his noble political intentions. And in Fidaa, Varun relocates to rural Telangana from USA to marry Bhanu (a delightful subversion of the patrilocal nature of marriage). Most importantly, Kammula's feminism does not end with simply creating wholesome, realistic female characters. Rather, his feminism extends to the elegance with which he shatters notions of masculinity through the character traits of his male leads. Varun and Bhanu's dynamic in Fidaa clearly establishes the idea that "no means no", and the importance of respecting a woman's choice. Varun also cries while confiding to his sister-in-law about his inability to cope with Bhanu's lack of communication. In earlier glimpses of Love Story, we saw Naga Chaitanya's character cry in a metro rail and do typically feminine tasks like sweeping floors and drawing a rangoli. By using a universally appealing theme such as romance to weave in these intricacies, Kammula has, over the years, expanded the critical discourse on skewed gender dynamics in relationships.
With films like Leader, Fidaa, and his latest outing Love Story, we see Kammula actively shifting to the intersectional space, discussing gender along with class and caste politics. Also, given that he has engaged rigorously with educating male students about responsible behaviour post the Nirbhaya case, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Kammula has been effectively leveraging the cinema centric culture of the Telugu states as a tool for consciousness-raising. To have stars like Naga Chaitanya unlearn their craft which has always been suited to a rather commercial brand of heroism in itself is Kammula's major feminist victory. When this is potently combined with his ability to weave in a social commentary and reflection within the trappings of entertainment, we can be hopeful and certain that this is one director who is effectively catalysing social change through cinema.