There are two major problems with the Telugu industry.
One is the toxic heroes.
What does this mean?
It means that heroes in many commercial Telugu movies routinely display toxic behavior. Harassment, abuse and stalking have been normalized in the movies.
For example, the protagonist of Arjun Reddy not only slaps his girlfriend but threatens a woman with a knife when she refuses to have sex with him. And this scene is not presented as disturbing, but it has a tinge of humor. When the movie directors are questioned about this issue, they say that ‘they’re representing what’s true in real life.’ ‘As it’s normal for a man to slap a woman in our society, they’re depicting that in the movie.
For example, the director of Arjun Reddy said that by slapping Preety, Arjun is expressing his love for her. The issue isn’t what is being depicted in the movie.
The main issue is the way it’s depicted. Let me give you an example. This is a Telugu movie, iSmart Shankar. In this movie, the protagonist stalks a woman and objectifies her. He chases her home one night and forcefully enters it against her wishes. Then he grabs her with both hands and threatens to r*** her.
The woman calls the police, but by the time they arrive, she has changed her mind and “falls in love” with him.But the scene is very disturbing in reality.
Let’s take another example. This is a scene from a Malayalam film Annayum Rasoolum. In the scene, Rasool stalks Anna from the boat to her house. The depiction of the scene itself makes it look disturbing.
This is not to say that Malayalam films are better than Telugu films. But it shows how a disturbing scene involving stalking can be portrayed in different ways. The portrayal affects a viewer. If a youngster watches this scene from Arjun Reddy, he would see no flaw in it as the background music makes it that way and he would also get the wrong idea that a girl would comply after being threatened.
This is the downside of Telugu movies —some obscene acts are depicted as if they’re normal. And these movies manage to earn crores. Telugu movies are major contributors to the financial success of the Indian film industry.
The Indian movie industry, including the Telugu movie industry, is worth INR 90,000 crores.
The second major problem with Tollywood is the representation of women characters.
There are three issues with this.
The first is that the women are shown to have little agency in their lives. They have no agency over the decisions they make.
For example, in the movie Pushpa, women act the way men want them to. When the protagonist tries to kiss a woman, even though she feels uncomfortable with it. she’s shown to be secretly enjoying the act. The only woman in the film with a little bit of a gutsy attitude is Dakshayani.
But she doesn’t have much screen presence in the movie. Pushpa’s mother doesn’t have any role other than to be a weeping widow dependent on her son.
She is shamed and called names for having an extra-marital affair. Preety from Arjun Reddy has no say over her life.
She barely gets to talk, and after the first scene, everyone forgets she too is a student of medicine. Ironically in films that are supposedly female-centric, like Vakeel Saab, the protagonist is a male character.
In commercial Telugu movies, sensitive issues such as r*** are depicted in a funny manner or used as a trope to glorify the male hero. Before we move ahead,
The second is the sexualization of actresses in Telugu movies.
This is K Raghavendra Rao, one of Telugu cinema’s most celebrated directors, who has launched several popular actresses.
One of the signature moves of his movies is to sexualize the heroines by throwing fruits and flowers on their navels.
Similar sexualization can be seen in many movies. For example, the movie Ala Vaikunthapuram Lo. In the movie, the male lead falls in love with his boss because he likes her legs. Every time Pooja Hegde comes on screen, the director ensures that the audience watches and enjoys how the “hero” keeps ogling at the actress’ legs. Interconnected with these two points is the third issue—the lack of screen time for female characters. If women are depicted as if they’re to be saved by men and sexualized, it’s pretty obvious they’ll have less time on screen.
So, while Vijay Deverekonda is present in almost every scene, Shalini Pandey appears on the screen as a supplement. The situation is so bad that if you take out the songs, women might have a screen time of half an hour in a two-and-a-half-hour movie. This doesn’t mean every Telugu movie is unpleasant.
Some Telugu movies are very responsible in how they depict women characters. For example, the movies of filmmaker Sekhar Kammula—be it Anand or Godavari. Or the movie Arundhati, in which Anushka Shetty kills a sorcerer. Moreover, the movie depicts the female character in a responsible manner.
Unfortunately, the most popular Telugu movies either sexualize women characters or portray them as helpless and dependent on men. Why do these problems exist? It’s due to three reasons. The first is business. This is Nandini Reddy, one of the few successful women filmmakers in Tollywood. When asked why Telugu films appear to be insensitive to women characters, she said it’s down to one metric: business. More than half of the Telugu cinema audience comprises men under 35.
Unless women go to theatres to watch movies, the content of the movies would keep revolving around men. According to her, the objectification of women is not a new phenomenon and can be seen in other industries too. Because young men identify with characters like Arjun Reddy and Shankar, Telugu film writers create heroes like them.
Hopefully, the overwhelming success of films like Arundhati has shown that the audience has an appetite for films with strong women characters. Another explanation could be: as these issues exist in our society, they’ll keep getting reflected in the movies. Until we bring a change in society, we can’t hope for the movies to change. Major filmmakers and actors routinely make derogatory comments regarding women.
For example, producer Chalapathi Rao once said that “women are useful to sleep with.” Actor and MLA Nandamuri Balakrishna once said: Another major actor, Ali, who is a senior comic in the Telugu industry, once said: If the filmmakers and actors hold such a mindset, what more can we expect from the movies they create? The final reason is that many Telugu actors don’t want to change the kind of roles they play.
In one interview, Nagarjuna said Telugu fans were the best in the world. He compared them to football fans in the UK. According to him, Telugu male actors have a dedicated fan following who follow each move made by the actor. So, once a character portrayed by a male actor is loved by fans, the actors come under pressure to repeat the feat. This is why fewer male actors experiment with their roles and continue to act the same.
So, if Chiranjeevi does a song where the lyrics celebrate stalking behavior, it’s likely that he’ll do the same in his next movies too as this is what his fans expect him to do. Some fans might appreciate such content. But the success of movies like Godavari and Arundhathi has shown that not every fan is alike. We should also keep in mind that people’s tastes keep changing.
Thus, Telugu movies have a prospect of change. But it’ll depend heavily on the responsibility the actors and filmmakers take. Some of them might believe that it’s their responsibility to offer the audience the content they like –be it sexist scenes or sexualized songs. On the other hand, some of them would take it as their responsibility to show the audience what’s just and ethical.
Hopefully, this mindset will bring a change. But the change here depends primarily on one factor–the money. The Telugu film industry will take the direction in which the audience spends its money.
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