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The needless public discourse on sexism in Bahubali

Sexism in Bahubali cannot be denied but don't expect any outrage that will change the workings of the regressive Telugu film industry

J Jagannath Mumbai
The biggest upside of being constantly active on Twitter is getting to know what liberal Indians think is wrong with this country. The latest thing to trigger their outrage is the Telugu movie Bahubali, which is set in the mythological era. When the initial hoopla of the movie being a technological marvel died down, people started waking up to the fact that the movie emanates the overwhelming stench of blatant sexism.

Now most of the commentary is coming from the non-Telugu speaking people. The writers of these think pieces have problems with the fact that the movie celebrates the machismo of steroidal men and the camera is forever stuck on the female mid-riffs. Tamannah Bhatia, who plays Avantika in the movie, is initially shown as a warrior tomboy who in quite a long and boring scene gets to feel her feminine self when the hero (Prabhas Raju) disrobes her to her bare essentials. Her mud-baked face gets a solid wash to show the sparkling white face that lies beneath (she is referred to as “milky-white beauty” in the industry) and her slender waist is given an encomium by the hero. As is the norm in any Telugu film, which deals with bigger things than an organic love story, she instantly falls for him.

One writer described this as nothing less than a ‘rape’. Other writers have panned the movie as a paean to sexism and how women are relegated to nothing more than mantelpieces and that it peddles “masculinity porn”. All of this makes sense in a perfect world. I find this super appalling too. No woman deserves such blatant objectification. But Telugu cinema is a different beast, which caters to a cumulative 100 million people of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana who don’t give a damn about such sensitive issues. They want a bang for their buck, which the director S S Rajamouli gave them in abundance in Bahubali.

Most of the commentators have woken up to Telugu cinema with Bahubali, which caters to the basest instincts of a human being. None of these people seem to have watched anything else by Rajamouli except Eega. But before Eega, he made quite a number of movies, where women were objectified and meant to get off the stage so that the protagonist can do the job entrusted to him.

In an Asian Age interview when he was asked why he made Veera Rasa and Sringara Rasa so mutually exclusive in his movie, he minced no words and said: “Didn’t give it such deep thought. I don’t intellectualise my scenes and characters. Sometimes as the scene starts developing you feel it is working. It is an instinctive thought. When I feel it I don’t look too much into logistics. I go with my heart.” Good luck reasoning with such a person.

Rajamouli says K Raghavendra Rao, a man who delivered numerous hits in the 80s and 90s, is his mentor. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Rao celebrated his heroines’ navel by placing all kinds of fruits over there during multiple song sequences over the years.

Just because Rajamouli chose to hedge his $40 million movie budget and decided to dub it in Tamil, Malayalam and, more importantly, Hindi and Karan Johar lapped onto its rights, the rest of the country immediately became aware of an industry that doesn’t care the least bit about the inner workings of a woman’s brain. No woman-centric Telugu movie ever made a broad appeal to the Telugu audience. The overly macho men of these states just refuse to indulge in anything that has a woman calling the shots throughout the movie.

Last month, Telugu actress Aarti Agarwal died while undergoing liposuction in New Jersey.  She wanted to lose weight so that this yesteryear actress could make a comeback into an industry that has treated her, just like the rest of her colleagues, as nothing better than a showpiece. In her heyday, she shared screen space with every top actor. And now while those actors who are well into their fifties are romancing heroines half their age, people like Ms Agarwal were left on the wayside. In such an industry, if you are expecting the cinema to conform to feminism, may the force be with you.

Telugu cinema is stuck in the medieval past and its loyal audience doesn’t mind that at all and never demands anything more than a formula. Any film-maker who goes beyond the stale-but-lucrative formula is waiting for a one-way ticket to oblivion.

In December 2013, actress Samantha Ruth Prabhu had first-hand taste of Telugu movie trolls after accusing the makers of 'Nenokkadine' of sexism for a poster in which the heroine Kriti Sanon is crawling on beach sand like a tamed feline just behind the hero Ghattamaneni Mahesh. Sukumar, who made the movie, said, “If Samantha felt anything wrong in the poster she would have called me, so I would have deleted it. I completely condemn her act. It is not good posting against one’s wish in Twitter.” She faced such a huge outrage from the actor’s diehard admirers, which basically distilled into this: If you are so bothered about this, just leave the industry.

Just because Anushka Sharma, Kangana Ranaut do amazing roles in Bollywood, don’t expect Tollywood to follow suit. Last month, Charmee Kaur, who is no longer deemed suitable for heroine roles, came out with a full-fledged woman-centric film called Jyothilakshmi. That’s only because she can see that the conventional roles have dried up for her.

The most regressive and well-oiled medieval machine in the movie-making world is the Telugu movie industry or ‘Tollywood’ as they call it. Tollywood is a self-contained universe, which is so inward looking that no amount of opprobrium poured over its female depictions will make any difference to how it continues to operate. Deal with that incontrovertible fact.

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First Published: Jul 20 2015 | 11:44 AM IST

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