Every hero has a mission to accomplish, conflict to overcome, a journey to take, and a destination to reach. While sometimes the journey is figurative, it can be literal too. For instance, films like The Puff Chair, Into the Wild, Yevade Subramanyam, and Brahmotsavam seamlessly amalgamate the character’s coming-of-age facet with the aspect of traveling, which drives the narrative. These aforementioned films are the epitome of using traveling as a metaphor for the character’s journey, which in other words can be termed THE HERO’S JOURNEY, as observed and proposed by Otto Rank, a psychologist, Lord Raglan, an anthropologist, and popularized by Joseph Campbell, a literature professor.
Regardless of our lack of acknowledgment, almost every character abides by the concept of the hero’s journey. Here is one such iconic character that you have known, admired, and stanned for years but never quite comprehend or care to study thoroughly. It is Gajala in Sreenu Vytla’s Venky written by Kona Venkat and Gopi Mohan. On the surface, he is plainly comic relief; a great one, undoubtedly. But on the inside, Gajala’s character is a masterclass in writing character arcs, and it’s majorly attributed to the layered writing and the terrific performance by Brahmanandam that brought Gajala to life. So what is the hero’s journey composed of? Well, according to Joseph Campbell, a hero’s journey is as follows:
Call to Adventure
Revelation (which includes death & rebirth)
Let’s now see how this fits in the case of Gajala.
1. Call to adventure
As Gajala boards Godavari Express in Visakhapatnam to travel to Hyderabad, there begins his adventure.
2. Supernatural aid or mentor
He meets Bokka Subba Rao, who instantly becomes his close aid and stays by his side through the rest of the journey, taking part in his quest to insult Venky.
This beginning of the transformation phase. Although Venky is arrogant right from the start, Gajala maintains decency and politeness. But over time, he observes Venky’s desperate attempts to woo Sravani, and this acts as a catalyst to the change in his behavior. When Venky claims his utmost respect for elders, Gajala, backed by Bokka, uses Venky’s words as an opportunity to humiliate him and gains high ground.
4. Challenges and Tempations
During this period, Gajala goes overboard with his new-found superiority and keeps taking digs Gajala continues to ridicule Venky for the most part of the journey, questioning the latter’s understanding of software and mocking Venky when he mistakes Scorpio sign to a vehicle. This can be categorized into tempation – the craving for more and more exhibition of superioty. This phase comes to a culmination with Gajala’s arc reaching a high when he ends up in a physical altercation with Venky.
Then comes the revelation. As a heart-broken Venky seeks to avenge his earlier insult, this is when Gajala’s character graph reaches its zenith, thus bursting the myth of the moral and physical superiority that he . By this point, a clearly overpowered Gajala is left with no other option but to conform to Venky and his friends. He accepts his position and sings along. If you notice, his dominance which has persisted for the most part of the journey is shattered and he is rendered helpless.
While many of us believed this is where his character ends. What happens next brings closure to his arc. This phase is called atonement – which means accepting, forgiving, and making up for one’s mistakes. As in this case, it is revealed that Gajala wasn’t the CEO of Sonic Solutions as he claimed to be, but in fact, a thief. Symbolically, this makes the entire phase of misfortune and misery, his punishment for his lies. Moreover, he ends up accepting his lies and apologizing for his deeds. But turns out, this was a lie as well.
And finally, he is thrashed by the film’s antagonist and he returns to his original state and identity as that of a thief with little to no success.
Akin to Rishi Kumar, the CEO of Origin and a farmer, Joseph Campbell also argues that the hero’s character arc is not a destination, but a journey that’s ought to repeat itself, which means that Gajala will once again receive a call for adventure – and we can’t wait to see more of him.
In BV Nandini Reddy’s Oh Baby! there is a beautiful line pertaining to the passing of the elderly that goes — “When they die, they take away a part of our childhood”. This is true in the sense of an artiste’s death too, and all of us have experienced this at one point or the other. We may have never met an artiste in person. We exist as one among the millions of their fans, not not as an individual being. Contrarily, the artiste holds a unique place in our lives, oftentimes associated with personal memories. While the loss of life is always tragic, the sorrow only deepens when we lose a person who forged an identity making people laugh.
When MS Narayana breathed his last in 2015, it was more than a piece of breaking news for a generation that grew up laughing at the late comedian’s antics. Narayana’s career took off in the late 90’s — 1997 to be precise. His birth as a comedian coincided with the beginning of generation Z, which is arguably his biggest fanbase. Unlike Brahmanandam, whose breakthrough debut Aha Naa Pellanta bestowed him instant fame in 1987, Narayana’s popularity burgeoned hand-in-hand with this generation. He has over 750 acting credits to his name.
Beginning with EVV Satyanarayana’s Maa Naannaku Pelli in 1997 (for which he won the state government’s Nandi Award), his fame kept soaring until his untimely death on January 23, 2015. Pattas, a film that he had a prominent and well-received role in, released that day too.
Known for playing nameless, trivial characters like the protagonist’s mama or the villain’s sidekick, Narayana struck gold when he was cast as a lecturer in Nuvve Kavali. Post the tremendous success of the film, the comedian became synonymous with a college professor, the butt of the jokes the hero cracks. In films such as Nuvve Kavali and Nuvvu Nenu, the funniest scenes have the late Dharamavarapu Subramanyam complementing Narayana in a college setting. One particular scene from Nuvvu Nenu, where Dharamavarapu Subramanyam translates Narayana’s speech from English to Telugu, remains comic gold. His comedy was never farce — even the loudest of them — and the humour relied on light mockery.
Similarly, the actor shared a terrific bond with actor Sunil, who often played the role of a funny student. While the main plot involving the primary characters of Sontham have been obliterated from memory, the comedy track with Bhogeswar Rao and Sesham, played by the late comedian, and Sunil, respectively, have been imprinted in the memories of most 20-somethings. When Bhogeswar Rao accompanies his college students on a trip to Kullu Manali, the lecturer finds himself in desperate need of alcohol to tackle the cold. As he and Sesham plan on procuring alcohol, they are told by one of the students to travel to a valley (presumably, the border) and yell ‘Jihad’, ensuring the liquor would be delivered to them in person. They implement this, and the repercussion leaves the audience in splits.
Sunil and MS Narayana in Kushi Kushiga, Athade Oka Sainyam, and Nuvve Nuvve. Source: YouTube
These two comedians in their prime have gifted us comedy gems, where even tiny, overlooked scenes will make you smile. For instance, in Kushi Kushiga, Narayana plays a thief named Thirumala who uses his lungi to wrap the stolen items, and he runs into Sunil, who breaks into the same house to kidnap someone. The thief, who, by now, has memorised the blueprint of the residence, aiding the kidnapper in his mission is a very well done scene. And, it evokes great laughter.
There is another underseen comic sequence involving the duo in Athade Oka Sainyam, in which Sunil, now a thief, is caught by Narayana, the landlord, who agrees to let him go if he answers his questions correctly. The exchange of dialogues between a canny Narayana and a timid Sunil, who is stumped by the questions and is unable to figure an answer, is brilliant.
The comedians have appeared together in numerous memorable films and Narayana has plays a range of roles — such as an obsessed poker player in Nuvvu Naaku Nacchavu, a police officer who listens to Sunil’s made-up childhood story in Nuvve Nuvve, the man in the restaurant who mistakenly dips his dosa in water and complains it lacks spice in Athadu, and Mr Pithapuram, a body-builder, in Kalyana Ramudu.
In films he was not complemented by other comedians, Narayana singularly found a way to make things funnier. For instance, the myriad facial expressions Bhogeswar Rao puts on for a photoshoot in Sontham, or another similar set of expressions Fire Star Salman Raj carries in Dubai Seenu are unforgettable and stand-alone. It is worthy to note that filmmakers such as Puri Jagannadh, VV Vinayak and Srinu Vytla catapulted the comedian to the big league with films such as Shivamani, Bunny and Sontham, respectively. His role of Bokka Venkateshwar Rao, an aspiring actor who is fooled by the protagonist in Srinu Vytla’s Dookudu, was a rage among the audience, and it yielded the comedian his fifth and final Nandi Award, tying him with Brahmanandam in the number of awards won.
Photoshoot during the shoot of Sontham and Dubai Seenu Source: YouTube
Looking back at Narayana’s comedy scenes, you feel they belong to a bygone era — actors such as Dharmavarapu Subramanyam, Venu Madhav and AVS have passed on, and artistes such as LB Sriram and Sunil have moved on from their comedian spots to play a wider range of characters. When we revisit these tiny scenes, it’s a throwback to childhood. To watching comedy clips on TV just before the school bus arrived. To a time when we’d recite lines such as “Soda kottadam ante PG pass ayinantha eeji kaadhu ra! (Opening a goli-soda bottle is not as easy as finishing post-graduation) at lunch-hour in school.
Comedy scenes featuring Narayana are a documentation of a time that will never return. Years after he has passed, he’s also meme gold. This piece is barely a page in the book called MS NARAYANA: The Man Who Made Us All Laugh. For, despite his absence, he’s still very much around.
Ten minutes into David Cronenberg’s Scanners comes a defining moment that changes the way we look at the film. ConSec, a private military organization, is known to produce individuals with telepathic abilities, branded as ‘scanners.’ At an event to demonstrate the company’s forte to VIPs, a ConSec representative asks the attendees to volunteer for a scan, which would allow the scanner to gain control over the person volunteering. While the hesitant visitors choose to remain in the audience, Darryl Revok, the antagonist, raises his hand. The ConSec scanner and Revok sit down in front of unevenly seated, eager spectators. So far so good, but there is an ominous sensation in the air. The scanning process commences, and an escalating high-pitch noise augurs the impending doom. By the time the visitors – and the viewer – discern things are getting out of hand, Revok makes the scanner’s head explode, and the ruptured flesh strews all over. This is not mind-boggling in 2021, but when Scanners was released in 1981, this was unimaginable in a film. As ironic as it may sound, the head-explosion scene became the film’s face over the years.
Cronenberg’s films never flinched from depicting bloodshed. In fact, his films thrived in it, with Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979) shocking the viewers upon their releases. Shivers had a grotesque parasite attacking the residents of an apartment on an island and triggering a sexual assault epidemic; in Rabid, a blood-sucking stinger pierces from the lead’s arm-pit; and the unnatural, deformed killer-babies of The Brood send a shiver down our spines. Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks – which he both wrote and directed – toy with wicked ideas that make us wonder whether they emanated from the mind of a compos mentis writer trying to pen a screenplay, or were the residuals of his hazy nightmares.
Midway through Dick Johnson is Dead, Richard “Dick” Johnson asks his daughter Kristen why she aspired to become a documentarian in lieu of fiction films, which are generally associated with higher fame and financial substance. Kristen responds by saying real life is relatively more entrancing than what someone can fabricate in fiction. She’s right. In fiction films, the characters and circumstances are created to instigate a specific emotion; they are not pre-existing. Conversely, in documentaries, the vehemence of reality is longing to be captured. Documentary filmmaking is more about seizing the existing emotion and ensuring its immaculate transference to the viewer than the replication of moments. That’s precisely what two of the most humanistic and intimate documentaries of the year, Dick Johnson is Dead by Kristen Johnson and Circus of Books by Rachel Mason, gloriously effectuate.
Dick Johnson is a lovable father and cuddly human. However, he might not be the same anymore; dementia is consuming him piecemeal. Memories, perhaps, deserve more appraisal, since they are the facets distinguishing the otherwise structurally homogeneous human bodies. Kristen arbitrates to face up to her father’s imminent death by preserving his memory in the form of a movie, recreating the possible ways the endearing person meets his end, and she goes on to ‘enact’ fatal accidents, ranging from tripping over the stairs to a bloody puncture in the neck. All the deaths are designed to be violent and macabre in an everyday sense; something that can be the cause of his death in the very near future. Kristen’s love for her father doesn’t let her stop with death – she organizes a funeral in the presence of friends, family, and Dick himself. As Dick walks through the aisle greeting people who are in attendance to pay their last respects, it is the most stimulating moment of the film, since we know this event will recur in due course, but Dick won’t be present then.
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.
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.
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
“Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can’t be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious,” said Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. The quote beautifully articulates the meaning and objective of horror. By drawing an analogy with a serpent, Argento acknowledges that horror continues to evolve in conflux with the supernatural, while the next line elucidates how horror’s influence on one traces back to one’s psyche, thereby inferring what constitutes horror on both a wider and personal level. For those unfamiliar with Argento’s work, the filmmaker’s most renowned work is Suspiria, the first in The Three Mothers trilogy, which also includes the lesser-known Inferno and The Mother of Tears.
While each film in Argento’s The Three Mothers trilogy is dedicated to a witch – an explicit representation of a female indulging in the dark side of mystics – Bhaskar Hazarika‘s Kothanodi (The River of Fables), on the other hand, is an eldritch take on motherhood that tells the stories of four women, and it can and must be proclaimed ‘The Four Mothers’. Produced four years before his sophomore effort Aamis brought him into the limelight, it is the convergence of the supernatural and the real, which seamlessly delves into tenebrous depths of convoluted human nature.
October is observed as LGBTQ History month across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Greenland, Hungary, and the city of Berlin. But that shouldn’t stop people of different nationality or sexuality from celebrating it, because at the end of the day, everything condenses down to love, a feeling that’s truly universal in every sense. Which is precisely the objective of this piece – to summarize how the films in discussion treat sexual orientation as a differentiating factor, transcending constraints imposed by humans.
Over the years, several documentaries, ranging from Arthur J. Bressan Jr’s Gay USA (1978) to The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) by David France, have conjured the anger of the unheard voices in a repressive world. Similarly, narrative films ranging from Desert Hearts (1985) by Donna Deitch to the recent Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins are equally important.
Moreover, Fire (1996)by Deepa Mehta, Aligarh (2016) by Hansal Mehta, My Brother Nikhil by Onir have tried to instigate the much-needed conversation through cinema in India. While the crowd-pleasing nature and lack of complexity of Shub Mangal Zyaada Saavdhaan have left viewers polarised, it is indeed a welcome change, bringing the dialogue to the mainstream.
However, documentaries always have an edge over narrative films, because they are unconditional, unfiltered, unreserved, and most importantly unequivocally real. Whether they give voice to hate, anger, or love, the impact squares when we know that people and stories in front of our eyes are real. On these lines, two recent Netflix documentaries, Circus of Books and A Secret Love, tell different stories concerning a singular theme, simultaneously echoing the changing perception towards homosexuality over decades.
I know what she loves and hates, which aspects of life agitate or calm her, where her thoughts are, whom she looks up to and disregards, and how she reacts to the tiniest of the aspects. Spend 23 years with a person and one can foretell every minuscule move of theirs. I know my mother, I assumed. My belief was only partially right. Little did I know ‘why’ certain things angered her, or ‘why’ she prefers certain things over others. The most important facet of all – the why – is something I never pondered on, and that differentiates everything. There are 23 years of her life, which I was not a part of, and those years have answers to the why-s. This conversation is an attempt to discern my mother, not as how I know her, but as who she is.
Amma is a fun person – or at least tries to be. She is as lucid as a glass. Not a person to conceal her feelings, one can intelligibly notice when she is fumed. The aspect of her personality that I find the most fascinating is how extreme her kindness and anger are. When she is happy, she is the loveliest human to ever exist. When angered, it’s the end of Wakanda. I call her an extremist to nudge this very facet. So I begin the dialogue by asking has she always been this extreme. “Not exactly,” she said, sitting beside me, looking at the TV but not watching it, as I scrolled through an endless Netflix’s library, “I think the anger springs from the end of tolerance level after a point,” and she curtly changes the conversation to “why don’t you mute and scroll, the sound is annoying,” I acknowledge and switch off the TV. “See, now I’ll like to talk. How can one talk with the TV playing in the background?” she questions. Fair enough. I go back to the question and she resumes, “No. I was not as angry, or even expressive, for that matter back in the college days.”
Picking from there, I ask her which has been the best time of her life. I knew the answer would be “College days,” she replied without taking a second. “’88 to ’95,” she goes on and I imagine memories must be hovering in her mind as she transmutes them into words, “During graduation and post-graduation, I was independent. Can’t say the same now,” she stops, as her voice gives a sense of gloom that is likely to ensue. I ask her why she doesn’t feel so, knowing that I’m complicit of her dependent-state. “Down the line, priorities changed. Journalism and social work, fields in which I aspired to pursue a career in, remains only partially fulfilled. Family became my priority, and it’s great. Not that it’s bad, but I would be lying if I say the disappointment doesn’t exist”. I countered her answer, asking whether she was compelled to deprioritize her aspirations or did she choose the life she settled for.
She took two seconds to answer, the longest gap to any question.
“It was a gradual transformation. A certain kind of conditioning by circumstances around me. I did my PG after marriage because your father has been supportive. I even worked until you were 13. You remember, right? Then, there was a point when I realized I was sailing on two boats and I had to resort to the family boat. Was I given a choice? No. There was no choice. Would I have done anything differently if given a choice? I don’t think so. The time was such.”
I’m quite familiar with this boat analogy. She always asked me to center my efforts on only one thing to warrant the most conducive results. I now understand where that emanates from.
Realizing the conversation was getting somber question by question. I decided to lighten up her mood, converging back to her college days.
“‘88 to ‘95, from Intermediate to Post Graduation, are what I’d call golden days.”
It’s to be noted that she got married in ‘94.
“A senior of mine while studying at Osmania University College for Women went on to pursue journalism in Sri Padmavati Mahila Visvavidyalayam located in Tirupathi and this urged me to get in as well. Plus, I was always interested in jobs that would make a difference in the real world, unlike a conventional desk job. Not that the others don’t make a difference, but in journalism, the impact is visible. And yes. I did crack the entrance exam and I topped merit lists of all the five programs they offered. Still one of the bigger achievements of my life.”
Here comes the setback.
“But I wasn’t allowed by your grandmother to go for journalism because an old fag (read: musali vedhava), a family friend of ours sowed the idea in her mind that journalism is not the ideal profession for women, as it involves a lot of ground reporting and travel. Funny how months of study to crack the entrance exam went down the gutter because of one man’s words,”
Again, I counter her asking why she didn’t take a stand, especially considering how big of an impact this decision is going to have on her life.
“I was weak and young. There was no way I could fight my mother. I was privileged enough to pursue PG at a time when many of my friends from UG were confined to homes in the pretext of marriage. And PG in Master of Social Work is equally significant. I could still make real-world consequences,”
I’m glad to know she wasn’t heartbroken.
“We saved several homeless children and disabled, from bus-stands, railway stations, and temples. We sent them to homes, where they are taken care of, provided education, and are even adopted by foreigners.”
I’m floored by listening to this at a time when compassion – as small a gesture as offering water or fruit – is being capitalized by individuals desperately seeking fame in the form of pictures and other mediums to boast. I ask her how she felt doing all the good deeds, making a difference.
“To be honest, it didn’t feel like we were making much of a difference. There was so much more to be done, and all of this was only a part of it. For us, at 22, bunking college to watch films was more exciting and felt like a bigger deal than saving children’s lives!,”
It’s surprising how easygoing she is with the notion of saving a life, not knowing how big of a deal it is. She goes on with the little delights,
“Watching an FDFS in Tirupathi was unlike anything else. They’d play songs twice, you know?”
“And the lights around the screen would go zig-zag. It was a mayhem in the theatre! My best friend, Radhi, would carry those pink slips in her purse and hurl them around! We watched a countless number of films together as a group – Criminal, Bobbili Simham, Yama Leela, Baazigar Gandeevam, Hello Brother, Govinda Govinda, Bangaru Bollodu, Gaayam, and many more. I vividly remember bunking a field visit to a leprosy home to watch Yama Leela and were caught by the HoD, who threatened to cut internal marks,”
I realize cutting internal marks has been the HoD cliche for 3 decades. You need to up your game, HoDs.
“Yes. The best times comprised watching films, walking up to Tirumala every weekend, and hostel,”
Did it all end after marriage?
Hard-hitting. I ask whether my father is a patriarch?
“That’s a big word. He’s the man of the house, that says something, right? But he has been supportive through my education and career post-marriage. But there were elders at home to take care of, your father’s job didn’t allow us to stay in one place, and they all held my career back. I saw no point in stretching beyond a point. I wish I was strong enough to pull it together. I should have argued with my mother and gone for journalism. But hey, this is the strength that I gained in the last 23 years. It didn’t exist 23 years ago! I have everything now. Compared to all the joys in life, the regrets pale in comparison.”
My mother should be very proud. She saved many homeless children from the grim world. She worked for 11 years counseling women saved from trafficking, helping children with special abilities, patients with severe diseases instilling hope in them, and even as a teacher. Moreover, she worked as a family counselor for a year, which my father and I tease her job description as something similar to what’s done in the cringy, over-the-top family panchayat TV shows.
Best and worst part: She never considered any of those as achievements. This, in turn, made her feel incomplete.
“Oh boy! I forgot I did these many things. I did more than what I was thinking, to be frank. Really, I kind of held myself in low regard all these years. I could have done a lot more, but I still did a lot. I’m proud of my short-spanned career!”
She laughs for the first time during the 20-minute conversation. The delivery man from Swiggy calls, asking me to collect the choco lava cake. It was a sweet conversation, a bit dark, but sweet, just like my mother’s favorite choco lava cake, which marks the end of the conversation on record.
It’s funny how a simple conversation that I began to discover my mother, in turn, helped her find herself.
What’s more annoying than a bad film? A bad film masquerading as a great film. The worst case scenario is a bad, boring film pretending to be a socially and thematically important film. Mahesh Babu-starrer Maharshi by Vamshi Paidipally holds itself in very high regard, and that only pulls it back from even being an engaging watch, forget cinematic merit.
If intent is the sole criteria to judge a film, Maharshi is certainly far from futile. But, when one chooses the cinematic medium to tell a story or convey a message, the medium has to be respected. In the case of bad-filmmaking, the message takes over the craft. Neither of these are the issues with Maharshi, which uses both the medium and message to only honour its protagonist. The plight of farmers — which has become a hotcake for South Indian stars to enhance their stature post the humongous success of AR Murugadoss‘ Kaththi — is reduced to another subject to bring the protagonist to the foreground. That’s only one of the many issues with the film.
Pitfalls of stardom
Mahesh Babu is a massive star and people go crazy to catch him on the big screen. Be it a slo-mo walk or a sprint, there’s an aura he possesses that has cast a spell on millions; he’s no less than a superhero for them. However, his stardom has confined him to a zone where he can no longer play the common man.
The star’s recent filmography, starting from 2015, proves it. He played a rich man in Srimanthudu and Brahmotsavam, an Intelligence Officer in Spyder, Chief Minister in Bharath Ane Nenu, and the CEO of an American company in Maharshi, the film being discussed. The last time he played a character that represented the common man was in Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (SVSC), one of the rare instances where he did let go of the star stature.
War alludes to destruction and death is ubiquitous on the battlefield. World War II effectuated deaths of millions and the gravity of horrors spread across the world is beyond human perspicacity. However, what if something as grotesque as the war bequeathed a fleeting relief to a person whose entire life was tyrannized by unseen, underlying, but omnipresent hatred?
Dee Rees’ Mudbound acts a formidable critique of racism by drawing an analogy between a noxious battleground in war-torn Europe and a quiet farm in Mississippi, USA. Unlike the battleground, where the menace and distress are thoroughly physical, back in the farm, the infliction of pain is majorly cerebral.