Last year, Sandeep Vanga’s Arjun Reddy was the most popular film to have emerged from the Telugu film industry. This year’s most popular film is turning out to be Ajay Bhupathi’s RX 100. What holds these films together is one thing: rank misogyny and dank masculinity. Sandwiched between them is Rettadi Srinivas’ IPC Section Bharya Bandhu (Helping the Wife), a stinkingly vicious attack on IPC Section 498A that would make the men’s rights activist (MRA) movement proud. What is it about Telugu masculinity that makes it celebrate itself at the cost of hating women and sexual minorities?
It is obvious when one compares Arjun Reddy as a 'bad boy' protagonist with Indhu as the female ‘bad girl’ protagonist in terms of audience response that masculinity in its most repulsive forms is celebrated and validated while any femininity that is not servile to men is seen as repulsive and worthy of murder for the Telugu audience.
Arjun Reddy (played brilliantly by Vijay Devarakonta) opens with a rape sequence that the audience took as comedy, especially when his failed attempt ends with his shoving icecubes down his pants to quell his erection. He goes on to threaten a classroom not to touch the woman he’s claimed (an entirely uninspiring and uninspired Shalini Pandey) who coyly falls into his arms, pecks her on the cheek without asking whether she is interested, beats up goons who tease her and threatens to rape their sisters and mothers, is arrogant and violent with her parents, doubts her when he discovers she is pregnant and then forgives her once he knows the child is his. In between, he causes mayhem in many lives, drinks, fornicates, falls about with repulsive adolescent bravado.
All in all, he is the most intolerable piece of male, entitled shit through the film and the audience loved him. They hooted for him, they whistled for him, they sorrowed with him and they gave the films crores in returns.
Indhu (played with great spirit by Payal Rajput) is introduced as a sexually proactive woman who salivates at the bare-chested hero (an entirely wooden and expressionless Karthikeya Gummakonda), gets him to tickle her bare midriff, teaches him how to kiss, smokes, rides him and his motorcycle at regular intervals but all of this was received with a nervous titter in the local cinema in Hyderabad in which I saw the film.
The roars began when it was discovered that she was a conniving, cheating whore who had played this poor bullish man and dumped his arse. When he finally comes in a bloodied and half-dead state to strangle her, the all-male audience was hysterical and screaming and clapping for her death. It was like Susan Faludi’s description of audiences in the US screaming for Alex’s (a brilliant Glenn Close) death in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction directed by Adrian Lyne, in her book Backlash which is about the backlash in the United States against the feminist movement. Close played the single woman in her 30s who becomes obsessive and ruins the family life of the hapless man who cheated on his lovely family with her one weekend and he comes back to ‘kill the bitch.’ No judgement of him, of course, but calls to ‘kill the bitch.’
The woman in RX 100 cannot be allowed to be a bad girl, to want a Lothario in bed while she prepares herself for a boring husband in the US, she cannot stand up to the boy’s father and admit that she has desires; her own father will call her a whore and almost slap her into submission.
An anti-feminist streak runs through all these Telugu films that are otherwise innovative (at least Arjun Reddy and RX 100 are) on the technical and narrative fronts. It is part of the culture of misogyny that has always existed in Telugu (and Tamil and all Indian film cultures) but it has a new twist in that feminism which is marked as what women who try to break out of the mould are fuelled by must be smashed, along with the women, back into submission even as the superficial engagement with their sense of agency is exploited in terms of the so-called ‘boldness’ of the portrayals: extended liplocks, bedroom scenes, toes brushing against male nipples and so on.
It almost makes one long for the older portrayals of women just as sex symbols and decorative, ornamental pieces. At least those portrayals were not soaked in a poisonous misogyny. This anti-women sentiment, represented in the film IPC Section Bharya Bandhu, against a law that supposedly supports violent women and enables them to be violent to their hapless husbands did not find favour with the audience not because they don’t agree with its premise but only because it is a shoddily made film with an ugly hero. “Save Men From Women’ said posters splashed across Hyderabad and nobody batted an eyelid.
The Sri Reddy moment in Hyderabad seems to have been a blip and the silence from the Telugu film industry and their pretty much banning her shows clearly that while Telugu films may be ready for narrative and cinematographic innovation, it will be a long while before Telugu society will even acknowledge its hatred for women and sexual minorities.More columns by Ashley Tellis:
The politics of naming, showing and shaming
Why gender-neutral laws on sexual violence is a terrible idea
The fabric of resistance: Dalit women's deaths and lives
The failed dream of Aruvi
Gauri Lankesh's life a battle against men trying to silence her
Pissing in the wind against the Notinmyname campaign
What Justice Karnan case reveals about the Judiciary
Ashley Tellis is a freelance academic and writer