Bigamy is often romanticised in popular culture, seldom viewing it from the woman's perspective.

From Annamayya to Mahanati How Tollywood has portrayed polygamy
Flix Tollywood Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 16:33

Mahanati, the bilingual biopic on yesteryear actor Savitri, showcases a pivotal scene in which she (Keerthy Suresh) is reprimanded by her uncle after he discovers that she has married Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan), and runs away from home.

Savitri runs towards Gemini’s home, in the middle of a heavy downpour, and knocks on his door. Surprisingly, she is called inside by Alamelu, Gemini's first wife, who dutifully makes sure Savitri is comfortable at their home.

Gemini and Savitri make their relationship public. Alamelu and her kids disappear from the scene. Gemini Ganesan’s involvement with the many women in his life is thus subtly pushed to the background, making him the evergreen ‘Kadhal Mannan’. In the end, we're given to understand that he still cared about Savitri, thus painting him in sympathetic light.

While Mahanati is based on real life people, there have been several Telugu films which have romanticised and validated polygamy. A staple theme in the 1980s, the hero’s tryst with multiple women has been a symbol of his ‘machoism’.

A hero juggling two wives and the confusion that ensues has often been the content for comical plots in films. But rarely has the trauma and pain a woman undergoes in such situations been addressed.

Evolution of polygamy in cinema

Telugu film critic Mahesh Kathi says that polygamy in cinema evolved out of the "family drama" genre, in which the hero getting into situations of conflicts in marriage was justified. This was also often made appealing to women audiences by citing instances from mythology.

“We are fundamentally a patriarchal society with a male dominated film industry, where a hero is aspirational and heroine is an object of desire. As the majority of the audience is also male, having multiple heroines fighting for a hero appeals to their libido too,” Mahesh says.

Polygamy has been made acceptable in cinema by taking refuge in mythology, in which most of the Hindu gods are known to have multiple wives, Mahesh adds.

In the 1997 devotional flick Annamayya by K Raghavendra Rao, God is shown as personally conducting the wedding of Annamayya (Nagarjuna) with his cousins – Timakka and Akkalamma. Realising that their husband was born for humanity and the Lord’s service, his wives in the latter part of the movie give up their lives, freeing Annamayya of any earthly attachment.

Vamshi Vemireddy, Assistant Professor of English at the Humanities and Social Sciences department, IIT Tirupati, says, “Telugu cinema has increasingly witnessed this trend with the emergence of the third generation stars such as Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh and Balakrishna, though it has its roots way back in Shobhan Babu’s time.”

From yesteryear’s Shobhan Babu to Nagarjuna, bigamy has been justified in spite of the law. Nari Nari Naduma Murari (1990), Allari Mogudu (1992), Intlo Illalu Vantintlo Priyuralu (1996), Aavida Maa Aavide (1998), among others, are quite well-known for spreading this trend in Telugu cinema. A look at the posters of these films reveal the explicitly celebratory tone around bigamy.

Myths of ‘macho’ or ‘masculine’ men who can handle two women (either through marriage or casual relationships) have been perpetuated in society since ages. “This particular folk myth ingrained in patriarchal mindsets which treats female figures as a trophy to be won or owned, may have propelled this phenomenon to creep into the silver screen,” Vamshi opines.

So what has helped this trend survive in Telugu cinema?

Continuous reinforcement of the trend in popular media, including TV serials, work towards normalising bigamy. Whatever the law may say, social acceptance is driven through media, says Mahesh.

If one is to look at biopics, the genre has often tended to romanticise the multiple affairs of the hero in question.

“For example, Tamizhselvan’s character, modeled on Karunanidhi, in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) is sketched in such a way that his affair with another woman becomes insignificant in the larger political scenario. To avoid controversies, biopics appease audiences so that they only empathise with the characters in the movie,” Mahesh says.

The trend was also a ploy to ensure that no heroine gets sufficient screen time, and in turn, reducing her chances of getting anywhere close to the pay scale or stardom of the hero, says Tejaswini Madabhushi, a member of Hyderabad for Feminism.

“As in many of Shobhan Babu’s movies, men are often shown as unwitting victims who suffer to keep two or more wives happy, while the women are shrewd and lacking in kindness and understanding. For example in movies like Mirchi (2013), the man’s behaviour is explained through a complicated backstory while a woman’s feelings of heartbreak are not explored because it is so casual for men to date or marry multiple women, especially when it is for the ‘right cause’,” Tejaswini says.

The underlying algorithm

Raghuramaraju, Assistant Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Tirupati, says that the legal restrictions on polygamy have led to ‘polygynyless patriarchy’, often depicted in popular films where men have relations with two women, but sequentially rather than simultaneously.

“To trace the origins, from the 1980s, Telugu movies have had heroes who maintain a relationship with one woman in the first half of the movie and with another in the second half, following dramatic sequences. Soundarya in the film Super Police (1994) dies in a bomb blast planted by the villain and this is shown in flashback. Nagma is the other heroine. Here the hero has two women one after another without committing polygamy. These depictions subconsciously recall the earlier tradition of polygamy while, strictly speaking, following current customs,” the professor notes.

A similar trend can be seen in Yes, Nenantenene (1994) and Criminal (1994) where the second heroine plays the role of a catalyst, facilitating the coming together of the other woman and the hero, yet not involved.

Raghuramaraju in his book Modernity in Indian Social Theory explains that though apparently there is no polygamy from the point of view of the hero, from the point of view of the viewers, their voyeurism ultimately gives them the same feeling of polygamy being committed.

“While polygamy has been rejected, patriarchy remains problematic and unfortunately, it’s still an enduring feature in our movies that requires further resistance,” Raghuramaraju opines.

What about contemporary cinema?

According to critics, even in contemporary cinema, we see sporadic instances of this trend especially in ‘mass’ films that supposedly cater to the working class and lower middle classes.

“I don’t think bigamy as a subject is discussed seriously since cinema as an industry still revolves around star figures. However, there are plenty of new-age films that are breaking this old formula of ‘masala' films,” notes Vamshi.

According to Vamshi, films such as Oohalu Gusagusalade (2014), Pelli Choopulu (2016), Jyo Achyutananda (2016) and Ami Thumi (2017) in recent times have gone beyond this formula of fetishising or romanticising bigamy or commodifying the female figure on the screen.

In Tharun Bhascker’s Pelli Choopulu, the female lead (Ritu Verma) fights patriarchal constraints, choosing to become an entrepreneur rather than depend on her father or a husband. She also breaks stereotypes by giving a tight slap to her ex-boyfriend, not for abandoning her but for not having the decency to break up properly.

"Jyo Achyutananda is also a clean emotional ride between the characters Jyostna, Achyuth and Anand. Achyuth and Anand are brothers and Jyostna is a tenant at their house. Jyostna's character is well beyond the stereotypical Telugu heroine who only sings and dances. Various facets of love, life and human relationships are portrayed through her character," Vamshi Reddy notes.

But Raghuramaraju says, “It may not be an exaggeration to say that from the late '80s, one of the recurrent aspects of Telugu popular films is featuring  two heroines. From Aayanaki Iddaru (Ramya Krishna and Sivaranjani: 1995), Shubhalagnam (Roja, Aamani: 1994),Suryavamsam (Meena, Prema: 1998) to Narasimhanayudu (Simran, Preeti Jhangiani: 2001) all feature multiple heroines, making it a recurrent theme. Even contemporary cinema has failed to address this patriarchal metaphor.”

“There are no decisive voices so far towards the change as such. However, the number of films with such content has considerably reduced. Hopefully this is an indication of change,” Mahesh Kathi notes.

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