Like most film industries around the world, Tollywood too is dominated by its male actors. However, even as mainstream films in other languages in India are increasingly becoming inclusive of women and displaying gender sensitivity, the Telugu industry is stuck in a time warp.
Still a cute accessory
Chiranjeevi, in his speech at the pre-release meet with his fans for his latest film, Khaidi No. 150, mentioned that Kajal Aggarwal had achieved a rare feat as she'd starred with his son first (in movies like Magadheera, Naayak, Govind
His "praise" for the actor's talent remained only a spoonful. He pointed out that Kajal had added glamour to every frame, noting that she competed with him in the dance scenes (Chiru is a bloody good dancer; that’s general knowledge).
Chiru is not wrong, after all. Khaidi No. 150, which released a couple of weeks ago, features Kajal in a handful of scenes. And she matches steps with the Megastar in three songs.
In most star films, heroines appear in a few songs and scenes. That’s all. Their job is done! They are hardly seen for about a half hour in a 150-minute film.
It’s important to remember that films in India are dominated by men. Reports say that Khaidi No. 150 collected more than Rs. 45 crore worldwide on its first day. That’s a huge number for a mid-week release. And within five days, the movie entered the Rs. 100 crore club.
Would it have been possible without Chiru? Definitely not! Would it have been possible without Kajal? Of course! Here, Kajal is just an add-on. The product the audiences are buying in the form of tickets is a Chiranjeevi film. Kajal is simply an actor who plays a tiny part (though she’s given the tag of the lead). In actuality, Chiru is the crowd-puller.
Films where male and female leads are given equal importance are not so common in Telugu cinema. Although romantic comedies like Pelli Choopulu have done very well, when it comes to films starring A-list male stars, the directors’ focus doesn’t shift from making the heroes flex their muscles.
There are very few contemporary Telugu films which have substantial female characters. The heroine is reduced to a "glam doll" and objectified in every which way possible. The heroes, on the other hand, play a larger than life role, have more fans, earn better and are eulogized all the more.
Why are heroines only cute, innocent, and shown to be blindly following the heroes? This isn't unique to the Telugu industry but it is nevertheless an annoying feature of many contemporary Telugu films.
In a Sekhar Kammula film, you don’t see a woman following a man day in and day out. The women in his films have character arcs of their own.
That quality is starkly missing in films made by Srinu Vaitla, Harish Shankar, Boyapati Srinu, and V. V. Vinayak. Women fall for men’s fighting skills, sense of humor, compassion, etc. Conversely, men break into duets when they spot women feeding children, or crossing a street.
Being cutesy and looking innocent is enough to take men’s breaths away. There are very few films like Godavari which don't follow this pattern.
Age makes a heroine redundant
Age-difference doesn’t affect the heroes of the industry. On the other hand, female actors fade away from the collective memory of the movie world once they hit a certain age. In Bollywood, actors like Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor and many others who are in their thirties still get to play lead roles in big budget films.
Not so in the Telugu industry. Anushka Shetty is among the very few female actors who've managed to outlast the average 'shelf life' of heroines.
Sridevi played N. T. Rama Rao’s granddaughter in Badi Panthulu in 1972. In less than a decade, they were seen romancing on-screen.
She has starred alongside Akkineni Nageswara Rao in numerous films, and has played the love-interest of his son, Nagarjuna, in a couple of films, as well. Sridevi wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play a leading lady if Nagarjuna were younger than her. There aren’t many mainstream Indian movies where a female actor is older than a male actor.
The entire story of the 1996 Telugu film Aaro Pranam revolved around leading characters’ ages. In the movie, Soundarya is older than Vineeth by a year. The storyline is marked by how they employ various tricks to convince their folks of their relationship.
Of course, it can be argued this reflects a social prejudice but how often do you see a woman romancing a man thirty years older to her in real life?
If a female character is older than a male character in a film, it becomes a ‘bold’ movie. However, the question relating to the 40-year-gap (between NTR / ANR and Sridevi) doesn’t arise.
Marriage ends the career of most female actors. It is very difficult for married female actors to find good roles. As soon as a female actor gets married, she’s pushed into playing the roles of a ‘sister’, or a ‘mother’ of a hero.
The heroines with whom Chiranjeevi starred as a boyfriend / husband in the 80s and 90s (like Suhaasini, Radha, Radhika, Jayasudha, and Sridevi) are appearing as mothers, godmothers, and even grandmothers in today’s films, whereas, Chiranjeevi ups his mega-mode by roping in his son’s co-star - Kajal Aggarwal - for his comeback film.
In one of her interviews, Samantha spoke about how filmmakers stopped approaching her after she announced that she’d be marrying Naga Chaitanya this year.
Stuck in the item song time warp
Almost every Telugu star-film has an item song. Janatha Garage’s “Pakka Local,” Sardaar Gabbar Singh’s “Tauba Tauba,” Baahubali’s “Manohari,” Sarrainodu’s “Blockbuster,” Khaidi No. 150’s “Ratthalu,” and the list goes on.
Some of these item songs are foot-tapping; however, their place in the said movies is not warranted at all, especially when many of them go with a 'U' certificate!
The attention an item number attracts is an example of how much masala we prefer in our movies, or should one say, what makers believe brings crowds to the theatre.
The need to be progressive
A step towards progressive Telugu cinema (even Indian cinema, on the whole) should necessarily involve battling poorly written characters for women. It is time Tollywood stops normalizing the objectification of women and reducing them to meaningless roles.
It would not just make for more equal cinema, it would make for more interesting plots and inject much needed originality into the stories that we peddle.