Phalanx Spacer Phalanx Logo Phalanx Slogan Phalanx Spacer
Contact | Subscribe | Site Map
  Phalanx Logo Phalanx Logo Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerCurrent Editorial

Identity Politics and Political Thought:

After the hectic electoral campaigning in 2014 the polity has become so polarized that even intellectuals have taken sides rather than thought about what is happening in politics. Why has political identity rather than thought become so important today?
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Read

Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerReview

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
(Arundhati Roy)
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Read

Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerArticles list of Issue
Home > Contents > Article: Sathya Prakash Elavarthi and Himabindu Chintakunta
Phalanx Spacer
Disruption and Reconstitution of Spectatorial Pleasures in Telugu Cinema:
Sathya Prakash Elavarthi and Himabindu Chintakunta
Phalanx Spacer

Telugu Cinema of the last decade has been at the crossroads, the imagining of statehood and regional identity taking centre stage. The Telangana statehood movement questioned the multiple discriminations in social, political and cultural arenas and the film industry was criticised for its repeated stereotyping, its demeaning representations of Telangana’s culture. The movement laid bare the prejudicial tendencies of the film industry in representing the lives and culture of Telengana’s people. Political subjectivities built around the statehood movement produced dissonance among spectators from Telangana affecting the normal cinematic pleasures. This process generated a spectatorial disaffection among the Telangana viewers consuming popular Telugu cinema and they could no longer view cinema as mere source of entertainment or slip easily into identifying with the roles of ‘ego ideals’ produced by the ‘Telugu Cinematic Apparatus’1.

Meanwhile, there have been films which tried to capture the struggles and exploitation that Telangana faced (Jai Bolo Telangana, Jai Telangana, Rajanna etc). Even though, these films posed challenges to the ideological domination of Andhra culture in Telugu Cinema, they were too explicitly political, lacking the cinematic appeal affecting the spectatorial pleasures of Telangana viewers. On the converse, their content and presentation produced dissonance among viewers from other regions (Andhra, Rayalaseema), a concern for any industry trying to maximise its viewership. An attempt to address the crisis of spectatorial address in the film industry is hence being made post-bifurcation.

The discredited ‘Cinematic Apparatus’ has been making efforts to recalibrate its signifying practices with due considerations to new power structures enabled by the formation of Telangana state. Attempts by the industry to reconstitute spectatorial pleasures by accommodating new subjectivities necessitated by statehood formation is becoming evident in films such as Pellichoopulu (2016), Fidaa (2017) and Arjun Reddy (2017).

Telugu Cinema, Telangana Movement and Spectatorial Disaffection:
The united state of Andhra Pradesh consisted of three distinct regions - Telangana, Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, which had distinct linguistic and cultural backgrounds. But commercial cinema with its signifying practices could not address these diversities. The signifying practices of Telugu cinema were predominantly coded in Andhra ‘aesthetics’ and the sub-regional cultural dynamics were neglected. The reigning signifying practices of Telugu cinematic apparatus stereotyped the language and culture of Telangana as ‘lower’ and ‘uncivilised’. In the 1990s, there were a series of films that ridiculed the land’s language and culture, to mention some: Jayammu Nischayammu Ra (1990) and Mondi Mogudu Penki Pellam (1992). In Jayammu Nischayammu Ra, actor Kota Sreenivasa Rao’s character speaks Telangana dialect and this is accompanied by the sound of donkey braying in the background connoting that the language/dialect sounds like the braying of a donkey. In Mondi Mogudu Penki Pellam, the hero is ashamed of his wife’s uncultured ways and is embarrassed of her language (Telangana dialect) and is seen to be troubled by the task of introducing her to his friends. In Nuvvu Nenu (2001), the Telangana dialect is used for Telangana Shakuntala, a villainous character. It has to be noted here that in all of these films, except for the characters mentioned above, none of the others are seen speaking Telangana dialect. These signifying practices produced disaffection among the spectators disrupting their identification with the star, becoming immersed in the diegesis and responding as intended to the related spectatorial pleasures.

The Telugu film industry and its signifying practices were criticised heavily during the second phase of the Telangana movement, which also saw a rise in films produced with Telangana struggle as a backdrop to challenge the dominant Andhra narratives. But these films lacked cinematic appeal, were repetitive in nature, were loaded with ideologies and dealt only with the movement at large. In contrast, the popular films from Andhra have always dealt with lives in general and had films in diverse genres such as romance, comedy, action, etc., that connected with film goers across the State. The spectator from Telangana was in a dilemma as the pleasures of Andhra Cinema had been ideologically discredited by the movement and the Telangana-inspired films did not offer the ‘normal’ spectatorial pleasures. During the movement, films became a space where ideologies and solidarities needed to be supported by visual invention. With almost no films engaging with themes or stories from or of Telangana and with existing Telugu cinema being not only perceived as ill-disposed but also hostile to their language and traditional narratives, there was destruction of spectatorial pleasure from the Telengana filmgoer’s viewpoint.The statehood movement brought to fore the resistance and aversion towards films that ridiculed Telangana’s culture and the film industry was forced to address this disaffection (both political and cultural) among audiences.

New Signifying Practices and Reconstitution of Spectatorial Pleasures
When a popular Telugu hero Allu Arjun roared on silver screen as Gona Ganna Reddy2, saying, “nenu Telugu bhaashalekka, aadaunta, eedaunta” (I am like the language Telugu, I am present both there and here), the audience of two states, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh erupted in pride, for their film heroes were now addressing a new-found unity and making allowance for the differences too. This dialogue in Telangana dialect from the film Rudrama Devi (2015) is suggestive of the fact that the Telugu film industry was finally trying to address the differences between the regions by pointing at the separate states post-bifurcation but at the same time trying to proclaim the possible cultural and historical commonalities, most importantly linguistic commonalities that the film industry had been hitherto thriving on.

This dialogue simultaneously marks the film industry’s acceptance of the changes in the political power structures, post bifurcation, and its willingness to respond and negotiate with these changes. Inscribing such lines in Rudrama Devi, a period film, indicates that film industry was willing to address the hitherto side-lined audience (from Telangana) and also keep the film markets of Andhra Pradesh intact, thus demonstrating that films made after the formation of Telangana were going to be inclusive and made to suit the spectatorial pleasures of audiences in both states.

The process of reconstitution seems to include an active revision ofthe film industry’s signifying practices, the predominant one being introduction of Telangana dialect both as an aesthetic and as a cultural marker. Marking the prime protagonists of the narrative as characters from Telangana and locating the diegesis in the region have been other important additions to the signifying practices. After the formation of Telangana state, there has been an increase in the number of movies where the dialect of Telangana and its cultural symbols are seen mainstreamed. Many recent films like Pellichoopulu (2016), Arjun Reddy (2017), and Fidaa (2017), saw characters including the protagonists speak Telangana Telugu. Considering the formation of the State in 2014, it becomes important to examine how linguistic and cultural symbols are being represented on screen, and how such representations are politicised, which also leads to the eventual reconstitution of deemed cinematic pleasures among audiences.

Pellichoopulu (2016) is a coming off age film set in Hyderabad, where all the characters are portrayed as belonging to the region and speaking the language (Telangana Telugu3). The film deviated from standard Telugu film aesthetics by using Telangana dialect; its realistic and slice of life presentation also differs from the spectacle and melodrama routinely offered by popular Telugu Cinema. The characters in this film deal with the everyday situations of middle class households unlike the characters in the earlier ‘resistance’ films facilitating a more widely acceptable spectatorial response from the audiences in both states – Andhra and Telengana.

If we examine another recent film,Arjun Reddy (2017), the protagonist is shown as a ‘meritorious’ doctor but with the issue of anger management. His name, Arjun Reddy Deshmukh 4, emphasises that he hails from affluent upper-class Reddy community of Telangana. Since the title Deshmukh is not shared by Reddys of Andhra and Rayalaseema, the spectators are cued about the definitiveness of the region he represents. There is sophistication in the way the character is portrayed on screen where he is unapologetic about his troubled hyper-masculinity and all-ends-well nature of the climax adds up to emphasize the elevated narrative. The relatively ‘realistic’ portrayal has, in effect, helped the film distinguish its protagonist from the garish and hyperbolic protagonists of popular Telugu Cinema. This seems to have worked towards normalisation of the spectatorial identification process and accompanying pleasures. Never did characters from Telangana have ‘star appeal’ for the audience to identify as ego ideals andArjun Reddy seems to fill that vacuum for an average spectator from Telangana. A search for Arjun Reddy fan pages on facebook throws-up pages like – Arjun Reddy Vijay Devarakonda Most Affected Persons; Eepilla Naadi Arjun Reddy group; Arjun Reddy boys; Arjun Reddy Bi.P.C group, etc. These are evidence of how much the audience feels connected to the male protagonist, and the cult status that the film and the male protagonist’s character gained was the result.

Fidaa (2017) directed by Shekhar Kammula is credited with successfully breaking the norm of using standardised Telugu besides other dominant cultural tropes of Telugu Cinema. Almost all the reviews of the film talk about how Fidaa is a game changer in the Telugu film industry and how Bhanumati (Sai Pallavi’s character) speaking the language of the region echoed the sentiments of people. The film has not only used Telangana dialect for a ‘realist’ narrative but has also used the cultural symbols associated with the Telangana movement for furthering the same. The ‘Bathukamma’ festival, its songs and ‘Bonalu’ festivities were deliberately used to trigger the sentiments associated with local culture. Fidaa is the first commercial film to celebrate Telangana festivals and to detail the practices followed in marriages. The film made an attempt to mainstream the use of Telangana dialect since almost all the characters speak it unlike other films where the difference was usually pointed out for ridicule. Audience from both the states could now effortlessly identify with the spectatorial subjectivities offered by this film and therein lies the causes of its ideological and commercial acceptability.

Reconstituted Spectatorial Pleasures: An Evaluation
The changes in political power structures in Telangana are being manifested in cinema where in characters from Telangana and their language are not being used to generate humour as in the past but are driving the narrative. If we contrast the character of Arjun Reddy with Ganna Reddy, a character from the movie Sravana maasam (2004), although both characters hail from the same affluent castes of Telangana, the difference in signification becomes visible. Kota Sreenivasa Rao, who plays Ganna Reddy, is shown as an uneducated and unsophisticated man while Arjun Reddy stands for urban sophistication and the flamboyance of the feudal class. Ganna Reddy represents the spectatorial subjectivity offered by the Andhra cinematic apparatus of the unified state of Andhra Pradesh to people from Telengana while Arjun Reddy is the new mode of spectatorial subjectivity offered by the new signifying practices of a reconstituted cinematic apparatus in Telangana state.

But there is an off-shoot as well; the Telangana movement has a rich history of revolt steered by the oppressed classes and castes initially against the feudal lords and later against oppressive state machinery that failed to fulfil its promises. These struggles were represented in movies like Jai Bolo Telangana (2011), Rajanna (2011), etc., but post formation of the state, the reconstitution of cinematic pleasure is increasingly directed towards an affiliation towards the upper castes and classes, or erasing these distinctions once associated with the region.

With Telangana in place, Fidaa’s attempt to portray the land’s culture, language and Arjun Reddy’s hyper-masculinity are evidence that there is not a struggle anymore, as there is sanction from the new state and a resurgent market. There is no sense of an intra-region political struggle in these films and none of the characters grapple with questions of narrower identities of caste and class. The characters do not live by the norms of caste or class behaviour but they are also not seen actively defying or contesting the dominant power structures either. If we relate the structure of the story and the characters to the newly emerging power structures in the state, it becomes evident that Telangana movement has not led to any radical reorganisation of power structures, either in the political space or in the film industry.

The film Fidaa does not have any overt references to Telangana sentiments and language politics. There is no nuanced dealing of class, caste or the gender dynamics except for passing references within the story. The heroine’s parents in the film come from two different religions and this is established in her dialogue “Bhaanumati.. rendukulalu, rendumatalu, hybrid pilla” (Bhanumati, from two castes and two religions, a hybrid girl!) and a pan-shot where there are photos of Venkateswara, Jesus Christ and Karl Marx, all next to each other. But the director belies any political expectations and goes for a familiar story line with a dominant Hindu-based narrative. In Fidaa, there was a creation of the ‘exotic other’ (the female lead speaking the Telangana tongue) to cater to the audience from Andhra and at the same time exploit the sense of oneness among the audience of Telangana. But it seemed like another attempt to politicise and exploit the female body while pretending to demarcate cultural and linguistic identities.

Except for Arjun Reddy, the other films try to conceal the caste and class differences of the characters and even in Arjun Reddy we see a masculine glorification of the upper-caste protagonist. All these films seem to work towards dissociating themselves from questions of caste, class and religion and generate ambivalence in their cinematic categorization ofthese identities. They try connecting with the audience using seemingly real identities and dialects and at the same time distance themselves from the political reality of the region, seeking resolution of conflict within the realm of cinematic make-believe. If we see the climaxes of all these movies, marriage (signifying union) seems to be the solution to all conflict and social tension admitted by the story line.

These films (Fidaa, Arjun Reddy, Pellichoopulu) have deviated from the dominant Telugu films in the sense that they have not created super hero characters or flawlessly good people but have nonetheless brought to the screen characters that echo the sentiments of the audience. There are introductions of complex characters, which offer the possibility of dealing with class, caste and gender aspects but all these nuances are erased by a romantic story line with the familiar escapist turns. However,the industry’s problem of spectatorial address and the filmgoers’ estrangement affecting identification and enjoying cinematic pleasures have been successfully sorted out with the new signifying practices and new mode of address privileging middle-class audiences. Film once again becomes an institution for the reproduction of social and political dominance, a far cry from its subversive tendencies during the Telangana movement; the ease with which spectatorial pleasures have been reconstituted vouches for it.

Sathya Prakash Elavarthi teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad.

Himabindu Chintakunta is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad

Phalanx SpacerPhalanx Spacer


Phalanx Spacer

The term ‘Cinematic Apparatus’ is used to refer to the texts (narrative and aesthetic devices) and the contexts (political and economic) and their interrelations that produce a desirable spectator position.

A historical figure from Telangana during the times of Rani Rudrama Devi of Kakatiya empire..

The Telugu of Telangana region is distinct from the ones spoken in Andhra Pradesh. The erstwhile Andhra Pradesh was composed of three different regions, Telangana, Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra, with each of the regions having a distinct linguistic style. The sub regional distinctions, within these regions are also evident.

Deshmukh was the hereditary title given to affluent communities of Telangana, who were given responsibility to collect land revenues from people and maintain the order of the village during the Nizam period.

Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer
Home | Editor's Desk | Open Page | Content | Contribute | Archive | Manifesto | People | Contact | Subscribe | Site Map | Privacy policy | Legal
Phalanx Spacer
© 2016 PHALANX. All rights reserved | it's an El Remo Creation
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer