Going by how poorly female friendships have been represented in Telugu cinema over the years, you would risk saying the words, 'Women, we feel you' to a regular woman movie spectator. Women friendships, even in their minimalistic existence over the years in Telugu cinema, have predominantly revolved around men, their cooking abilities, the shopping lists and their quest to be dedicated wives (read pativratas). The men and their friends have more or less been the do-ers, who chill, struggle, fight it out, while women don't quite seem to lead lives as colourful or are rather content to be domesticated.
The most celebrated directors of Telugu cinema, including Raghavendra Rao, K Vishwanath, Dasari Narayana Rao and Bapu (who are great storytellers beyond a doubt) are no exception to this. It's the men or the male, man-woman friendships in their films that have directed the course of their narratives, while the friendships between the women mostly find a passing mention. The so-called female-centric films too have been about sobbing women and headstrong figures who're mostly more patriarchal than the men around them or are so committed to their causes that friendship is a thread that's tough to find a place in their lives.
Of course, like in all cases, exceptions do exist, say K Balachander's Anthuleni Kadha, where Jayaprada and Phataphat Jayalakshmi, two fiercely independent women share a rapport and converse about everything under the sun (including relationship talk, while that's not the only focus). Ladies Special, directed by Jandhyala, is another film that showed women can be bread-winners, be friends with each other, needn't make men as the focal point of discussions and yet have a purposeful life. Sai Kiran Adivi's Vinayakudu too did a reasonable job of showcasing friendship between women at work with the interactions between Sonia and Poonam Kaur. Anchor Jhansi had turned a producer with a 62-minute film titled All I Want Is Everything, discussing problems unique to three city-bred women that however didn't find takers at the box office.
All I Want Is Everything
A few more examples like these exist, but they were so few and far between and spread across decades, that they neither quite registered a strong presence on the filmmaking fraternity nor the viewers. The problem can also be attributed to the fact that none of the above-mentioned examples have been mainstream films to trigger any impact.
Writer for an upcoming feature film who has also been part of several Telugu web series' teams, Gauthami Challagulla also points out, “In Telugu cinema, because everything revolves around a man, everything is done to redefine, glamorise or villainise him. It's not a lack of writing acumen, but just the lack of willingness to know things beyond what they see. There are these perceptions that girls only talk about lipstick, dresses and boys. Having a balance between male and female writers always helps because it'll help create a holistic understanding of characters. I firmly believe we'll get a strong perspective when women are included in the filmmaking process, you can't have five men in a writing team imagine a conversation around PMS. Such notions influence people and it gets repeated time and again.”
As a ray of hope, Mahanati in 2018 did something memorable with the friendship showcased between actress Savitri and her childhood friend Suseela (played by Keerthy Suresh and Shalini Pandey respectively). From the carefree childhood days to working in theatre plays together, there's a warm camaraderie that tugs at our heartstrings in the little time dedicated to their friendship. In what appears to be a watershed moment in Telugu cinema, we're next awaiting the release of Sita on the Road, a film where women from various walks of life spark off on a journey of self-discovery.
Elaborating on the purpose behind making Sita on the Road featuring all female protagonists, director Praneeth Yaron comments, “The basic trigger for me to make the film was an alleged prostitution case against a leading actor, who was given a clean chit later. She was still constantly being trolled, exposed in the public and naysayers really went below the bar in demeaning her. She came from the film industry that I belong to. That triggered me to change perception towards women. It was important to tell that this was not the way to treat women. The other characters, similarly, were influenced by real life, too like how are women are getting westernised but have lost their innocence. I wanted to explore the pure connection between two women, that's not necessarily need-based. The characters here rely on mutual respect and enjoy the exchange of thoughts.”
And many of Praneeth's filmmaking counterparts appear to have taken a cue from Sita on the Road already. A young filmmaker Pavan is out to make a film titled Kitty Party that'll feature Deepti Bhatnagar, Bhagyashree, Sada, Hari Teja, Madhoo, Pooja Jhaveri in the lead roles, chronicling the lives of six young and middle-aged women on screen, their interests, desires, and problems. This film even got the Roja actor Madhoo to say, “We (pointing out to Bhagyshree and Deepthi) are no longer the 16-year old women running around the trees and it's very gratifying to see a filmmaker tell the story of women, their friendships in their later years.”
Another untitled film written and directed by Balu too promises to shed new light on the lives of four free-spirited girls in Hyderabad, bringing together actors like Tridha Chowdary, Dhanya Balakrishna, Siddhi Idnani and Komali Prasad together in one frame. It's also not often that a film entirely surrounding the lives of urban women has managed to elicit the attention of multiple filmmakers in a brief time span.
Balu's untitled film
Though gender parity on film sets isn't something that Telugu cinema hasn't managed to achieve, it's interesting to note that these films focusing on various equations between women are being directed by men. Is this only a passing trend or will this push more filmmakers to explore stories surrounding women friendships? Whichever it is, it's a healthy sign to observe the efforts seeing the light of the day indeed. For this to be a major game changer in the industry though, we would need our male stars to stand tall and accept scripts that also have well-defined roles for lead women actors and supporting ones too.
Srivathsan, a journalist by profession and an explorer by choice, finds purpose to his life through the books he digs into and the stories he writes. A walk in the park with music gives him a sense of calm while catching movies at the theatres week after week is a ritual he can't get enough of.