tv & movies

The ‘relatable’ women of Telugu cinema, from ‘Pelli Choopulu’ to ‘Krishna and his Leela’ and ‘Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna’

A new crop of filmmakers are ushering in closer-to-reality depictions of women in films with their eagerness to characterise multi-dimensional female protagonists

For the many who do not follow Telugu cinema, any mention of this industry will bring up a larger-than-life imagery, one where hero-centric movies reign supreme.

But there is another side to Telugu cinema where a new generation of directors are ushering in classy, urban romances, and in which the characters reflect reality. Recent films like Krishna and his Leela (KAHL), and Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna are examples, including a few from the years previous, like Pelli Choopulu (2016), Mental Madhilo (2017), Malli Raava (2017) and Chi la Sow (2018).

A common factor in all these films are its women: strong-willed, complex and as real as they come. They are not mere props, neither are they overtly dramatic. These women are relatable in their aspirations, relationships as well as internal conflicts. Such films are also often presented in a classy manner; their music is a blend of classical and western, the dialogues are not melodramatic. These films are also made on limited budgets, feature newer talents and are targeted at a niche audience before finding wider acceptance with their success.

Krishna and his Leela  

For example, Bhanumathi (played by Salony Luthra) in Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna shrugs off a breakup even though the reality of being 30 and single gnaws at her. In KAHL, Sathya (Shraddha Srinath) has the last word when she breaks free from a stifling relationship. We see her later in a new city, enjoying the independence of living alone and pursuing Bharatanatyam after quitting a mundane corporate job.

Fresh brew

Tharun Bhascker’s Pelli Choopulu, which spurred the new age rom-coms in Telugu, had an entrepreneurial female protagonist (Ritu Varma) who wants to start a food truck business and crosses paths with a guy (Vijay Deverakonda) who aspires to be a chef but is too lazy to work.

Ritu Varma, Priyadarshi, Vijay Deverakonda and Abhay Betiganti in ‘Pelli Choopulu’  

Director Rahul Ravindran, who won the National Award for Screenplay for his debut film Chi la Sow, says that the newer filmmakers’ understanding of their female characters stems from having grown up in the company of female friends. “In the last few years in urban cities, it hasn’t been a taboo for teenage boys and girls to hang out together. As a result, we began understanding women better,” he says. Chi la Sow, a romance drama that showed how a girl who goes through arranged marriage meetings only to be rejected, would respond when she meets a happy-go-lucky guy who isn’t ready to shoulder responsibilities.

Ruhani Sharma and Sushanth in ‘Chi la Sow’  

Srikanth Nagothi, who wrote and directed Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna, concurs with Rahul’s view. His film is told from Bhanu’s perspective and presents her without judgement.

A scene in the film shows Bhanu on the phone with a gynaecologist discussing her period and a boyfriend’s visit. “I wanted to show what could be going through the girl’s mind when she is getting ready to meet her long-distance boyfriend. I wanted the audience to accept Bhanu for what she was. Ultimately, films have to reflect what we see around us,” he adds.

The non-judgmental approach to consensual sex also prevails permeates through KAHL. The story of a man who says he’s deeply in love with two women and is unable to choose between them might sound preposterous. While writing the film, director Ravikanth Perepu and Siddhu Jonnalagadda say were cautious to not come off as misogynistic. They shared the screenplay with women friends and filmmakers and incorporated suggestions. The women in the film are no weaklings. One of them, Rukhsar (Seerat Kapoor), is presented like an emotional hippie and the narrative never judges her.

The seed for such urban romances was, however, sown with Sekhar Kammula’s Anand (2004) and Godavari (2006). Indraganti Mohanakrishna followed this trail with Ashta Chamma (2008) and other films marked by well-defined female characters. Then, Nandini Reddy came up with Ala Modalaindi (2011). Says Nandini, “We’ve had fine films in every decade,” referring to Pelli Pustakam by Bapu and Srivari Premalekha by Jandhyala, films made by K Vishwanath, among others. “The noise of big commercial films tends to drown such films out but they keep resurfacing.”

She considers Sekhar Kammula as a benchmark for contemporary romances with his layered presentation of female protagonists. “His writing is so nuanced that you can almost understand what the woman is thinking.”

It makes sense then to explain these contemporary Telugu romances with the tagline from Sekhar’s Anand: ‘manchi coffee-lanti cinema’ (a film like a good cup of coffee). New filmmakers have only continued to keep the brew fresh.

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