Relatability, Middle-class, and Telugu Cinema

In 2014, Ira Glass, an American public radio personality, called Shakespear ‘not relatable’ making the word ‘relatability’ a subject of debate among American journalists, with Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker, Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post, and Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, among others who wrote elaborate pieces on why our response to a piece of art based its relatability is a double-edged sword. To me, relatability has always remained a crucial factor in judging a film, while I abide that art should be treated objectively. Somehow, our personality overpowers objectivity considering our reaction to art is a mere emotional response stemming from our life and personality. So why do we like certain films more than others? Why do young men cherish Tharun Bhascker’s Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi while young women give two hoots about it? Why does Tamasha work for grown-ups more than teenagers? Perhaps, relatability is the judge, although Rebecca Meaden vehemently disagrees with me.

Coming to the film business, the target audience is a crucial term in determining the success or failure of a movie, not just on the business front, but it directly influences the making of the film as well. It is the audience demographic the filmmakers try to capture. Every movie has its target audience and its success depends on the proportion of its target audience who turned up to watch the film. Before talking about the Telugu films in specific, allow me to elucidate the universal concept of the target audience. Tyler Perry’s Madea Family Reunion, a 2006 film that has an elderly black woman in its center, was made and marketed for the black community in the US. Consequently, its success was attributed to the footfalls of 52% of black women. On the other hand, Jordan Peele’s Get Out had a healthier audience split with 39% black, 36% white, and 17% Latino on its opening day. If you notice, both the films have a black protagonist, but Get Out, despite its social commentary that the blacks can empathize with, is more accessible as a story, and a near-equal proportion of blacks and whites among the audience proves this. While India is yet to adopt the western metrics to calculate how the audience of a movie is split, we do have the A, B, and C centers based on the regions to paint a picture of where a film found more takers. 

This categorization, in one way or another, is a device to distinguish audiences based on their spending power and viewing taste. A person working in a city is more likely to earn more and subsequently spend on leisure as compared to a person in a village. However, prominent till the 80s, Telugu cinema doesn’t really have a ‘rural film’ culture anymore, and going by the categorization, the success of a few films contradicts the pre-set rules of the film business. Recent films such as C/o Kancharapalem and Rajavaru Ranigaru, which are both set in villages, were branded multiplex films and have found more takers in the urban regions of the Telugu-speaking states. But does that mean the people from a rural background empathize any less with the aforementioned films? On the other hand, Rangasthalam, arguably the most popular rural film of the previous decade was a ubiquitous success, majorly attributed to the star cast. Viewing tastes and regions one hails from may vary, but if there is one thing that binds the majority of movie-going audiences, that is the economic background. According to a recent survey conducted by the economists of the Mumbai University, more than half of India’s 1.3 Bn population falls under the middle class, thereby rendering it the largest demographic of movie-goers. That reinforces questions like: Are films accurately representing them, err, us? What does the working-class population, the target audience, feel when they see these films? Does it offend them? Will people, whose lives a film is shedding light on, even see the film? Did people of Kancharapalem see their film? 

Recently, in a webinar organized by MAMI, I had the chance to ask filmmaker Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, whether her films – which tell stories of simple working-class people – reached those whom they are representing, as I always felt they were branded multiplex films. The filmmaker took the case of Nil Battey Sannata being screened across NGOs to say that her films reach the people they are talking about, in one way or another. Although I was far from convinced, I can understand her point. On this premise, two films in 2020, Middle Class Melodies by Vinod Anantoju and Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopsya by Venkatesh Maha have cleansed the portrayal of the middle-class and youth to an extent, and let me explain how.

Before jumping on to the good part, this is how it should not be done.

Early this year, we had Trivikram-directorial Ala Vaikuntapuramulo (AVPL) led by Allu Arjun, marking their third collaboration. The three films in the actor-director combination – Julayi (2012), S/o Sathyamurthy (2015), and AVPL (2020) can be proclaimed The Class (or classist) Trilogy, as class acts a conflict and plot point in all the three films. In Julayi, the least problematic of the three, the protagonist Ravi loathes his humdrum middle-class life and wants to make it big overnight. The repercussions of one such action make him realize the ill-effects of quick money, and he chooses to lead an honest, hardworking life in the end. 

In S/o Satyamurthy the issues of class-representation are evident. Unlike Ravi, the hero in this case, Viraj, is a rich man, whose family loses their fortune after the untimely death of his father. The problem starts in the scene in which a money-minded Paida Sambasiva Rao (played by Rajendra Prasad) compares ‘rich life’ and ‘poor life’ by drawing an analogy from a Mercedes Benz & share auto, star hotel & sambar idly, etc. Isn’t that outright classist? Imagine what someone who commuted to the theatre to watch this film in a share auto might think of his/her economic background. After losing their ‘bungalow’ Viraj and family move to a poor household, which looks anything but poor. It was either a poor choice by the location-scouting and production design teams or the filmmaker’s misapprehension of the poor. This is when I questioned why is the film looking down on its viewers in the process of saluting its hero? And most importantly, who is the target audience of this film? Isn’t it the working-class population, who hails from the ‘poor’ background as underlined by the filmmaker?

Furthermore, in AVPL, which weaves its story around class difference, the problems are glaring. The protagonist Bantu is a blend of Viraj and Ravi: A rich kid raised in a poor household unaware of his rich identity. In a scene, when a person passes a derogatory remark on the appearance of his sister, Bantu tells the person that his comment made him happy that her good looks may reduce the dowry when she gets married. He doesn’t stop there, he ends the dialogue with “that’s the thought process of our middle-class people,” speaking for the entire demographic. What’s more dangerous about the film is its message: Regardless of what may transpire, people will return to where they belong, i.e. the rich will remain the rich and the poor will remain the poor. If we look back, Julayi did the same, but it cautioned the protagonist to let go of his urge for taking shortcuts to success and instead asked him to work hard. In a way, Julayi too tells people to stick to the monotony of life. It does politely, though. AVPL, on the other hand, offends the viewers to throw a spotlight on its hero, and insulting your core audience demographic is far from what a wise filmmaker would do.

Pressure Cooker by Sujoi Karampuri and Sushil Karampuri, makes a potent point by bringing the well-known American obsession among the Telugu population to the foreground. The American dream (or the dream of pursuing higher education in the US) is the norm across Telugu-speaking states. As per the American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau in 2016, Telugu is the third most common Indian language spoken in the US, with the number of Telugu people residing in the nation surging past 4,00,000 in 2017. So a film that spoke about the obsession was long-pending. Shekhar Kammula’s 2000-film Dollar Dreams was a subtler, broader representation of the dream that had much more than American pursuit, while Pressure Cooker plays with the caricaturish pride among parents as protagonist Kishore tries to navigate through the American goal to fulfil his parents’ wish. In the first scene, we know how it’s going to end. 

The moment you see Anand Rao (played by Tanikalla Bharani) vaunt his sons’ lives in the US, we know how his perception is going to change, and every character in the film exists only to underscore the same point over and again. Yet there is honesty in its attempt to voice a subject that’s more of a running gag in Telugu films, although it lacks the conviction and maturity of Venu Udugula’s Needi Naadi Oke Katha (NNOK). The 2018-film NNOK ends by addressing an over-discussed topic of differentiating materialistic-happiness and spiritual-happiness. What sets the film stand-out from other films that preach the same – while characters go on a pursuit of self-discovery in exotic foreign locales – is that its characters belong to the working-class environment, and their challenges are majorly materialistic; they cannot afford a foreign trip, but they find happiness in their life. NNOK practices what it preaches. The protagonist Sagar is content being a taxi driver, and the film doesn’t look down on him. Instead, the film tells it doesn’t matter what one does for a living. That is what I call representation; this is the kind of film that makes common people, i.e the target audience, feel represented. If we pit the protagonists of NNOK and Pressure Cooker, Sagar and Kishore, respectively, against each other, the object of privilege to the former – a software job in Hyderabad – is a compromise to the latter, but neither of their aspirations is made a joke of. 

Now, coming to the good part, Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya (UMUR) and Middle-Class Melodies (MCM) by address the aspirations of the youth and challenges of middle-class life neither by romanticizing nor by making a mockery of them. 

UMUR beautifully explores the ‘normality’ of everyday life, by also being a love letter to life far from concrete jungles. The film brings a sense of comforting laid-backness through its portrayal of rural life. In UMUR, the protagonist Mahesh is a photographer who lives a simple yet beautiful life that makes us appreciate our own lives more than we usually do. He neither wants to go to the US nor mint money; he goes on tours with his friends and family, bathes by the riverside, and is content with his life. At a point, he realizes that he can hone his craft of photography, but that is devoid of monetary influence. The screenplay, even if you remove the core revenge plot point, will make for a wholesome self-discovery arc. That relatability emanates from normality.

Somewhere between the Ranbir Kapoor-ish zone of discovery and UMUR exists Krishna and His Leela, a pure rom-com devoid of unnecessary commercial fillings. Unlike UMUR, the privilege of the characters is acknowledged here and it doesn’t try to be an enlightening tale of self-discovery for the most part, although takes a generic and pretentious turn towards the end as the protagonist Krishna (played by Siddhu Jonnalagadda)  goes on a road-trip to write a book on his love life. In a scene, Sathya (played by Shraddha Srinath) advises Krishna to quit his job if he feels it’s a burden. But it’s a film that knows who its target audience are, the Netflix-binging 20-something demographic who grew up adoring Ranbir Kapoor come of age, and it delivers what they want. Neither does it degrade the under-privileged nor does it aggrandize the privileged.

In a similar vein, Middle Class Memories (MCM) is a heartfelt ode to small-town life, with Guntur being a character of its own (and also has a lovely song dedicated to the town). Another film that shared two words from this film’s title, Middle Class Abbayi (MCA), had nothing with the middle class in the first place. In MCA, Nani (that’s the name of his character as well) is confronted with the challenge to save his sister-in-law, an honest government officer, from the claws of a ruthless gangster. On the other hand, the challenges faced by Raghava (played by Anandh Devarakonda) in MCM to establish a hotel are more real. Financial constraints faced by Ragahava’s family and everyone around them remain their biggest adversaries. In the film’s most tense sequence, Raghava’s father Kondal Rao is tricked into transfering the ownership of their land to a relative and Sandhya, Raghava’s girlfriend, tries to get on call and inform him about the expoitation. The hurdle in this sequence is that she runs out of calling balance, setting things in motion for funny yet strong repercussions. 

In another sequence, Raghava and his father take the marriage proposal to Sandhya’s father, and the conversation ends with Raghava saying he doesn’t need dowry, a claim his father refuses, but there is a stark contrast between how the term dowry is used in this context, as opposed to in the case of AVPL.

MCM

Although it’s a funny film, we are not laughing at the characters, we are laughing with them. In a scene, Kondal Rao is pressing a stone against toothpaste tube, but it’s not painted as misery. However, AVPL draws a clear distinction between the rich and poor using a toothbrush and mirror. In a dream sequence, a rich Bantu brushes his teeth looking at a clean mirror, while in reality, he is facing a dusted one. Unlike AVPL, MCM doesn’t degrade the demography.

A still from MCM
AVPL

Had it been released in theatres, MCM would have been branded a multiplex film (akin to the works of Ashwini Iyer Tiwari), attributed to the lack of conventional commercial facets, while it is, in fact, the most relatable movie of the target audience. Telugu filmmakers believe they have to cater to all the sections of the audience to ensure that their film strikes gold at the box-office and in the process, they either lose the roots or end up taking the audience for granted, lampooning the characters which are supposed to represent us. Empathy and relatability will always remain major influencers of consumption of art, and I wish masala filmmakers start respecting it. We are gradually getting there, the existence of Middle Class Melodies and Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya is a testament to that. I wish Prime Video releases the viewer analytics of the film, so we can know what proportion of viewers were from Guntur.

***

Special mention for misrepresentation: This line from Bharath Ane Nenu by Koratala Siva

Further reading:

Alyssa Rosenberg’s What does it mean for art to be ‘relatable’?

Rebecca Meaden’s The Scourge of “Relatability

Derek Thompson’s The Power of Relatability

Links to other articles/podcast:

Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya: Beauty in Normality

Podcast episode: Discussing UMUR

Podcast episode: The Futile Podcast #5: Relatability, Sekhar Kammula, Schindler’s List, Martin Scorsese, and a Lot of Tiny Musings

Middle Class Melodies and Uma Maheshwara… are streaming on Prime Video and Netflix, respectively.

3 thoughts on “Relatability, Middle-class, and Telugu Cinema

  1. Hey, just came across your blog and I really liked this article and thoroughly agree with it. It gave me an insight into why I can’t seem to like Trivikram’s films that much.
    However, I got a little confused near the end of the article, you mentioned that the line from “Bharat Ane Nenu” is a misrepresentation, how is it a case of misrepresentation? As far as I have noticed, middle-class families are highly sensitive about how they are perceived in society.

    Please elaborate on that point, if possible. Thank you.

    Like

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