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Telugu cinema stands proud with a hundred-year legacy and yet there are hardly 10 women who’ve directed more than two films in the last 100 years.

Dasari Narayana Rao was a director, producer, screenwriter, dialogue writer, lyricist, actor, ran a newspaper and was even a state minister. His directorial debut Tata Manavadu (1972) was successful and later remade in Kannada and Hindi. A glance at the leading women in Dasari’s movies, you’ll notice that they tend to be ‘modern’ women. However, these films were a product of their time and the women were still coloured in the patriarchal and sexist lenses of the filmmaker, which was reflective of the 1970s.

Literature, media, and movies from the 1970s and onwards, tend to show women being limited to fewer roles - as wives, working professionals and professional villains, making them one-dimensional and flat characters. In Dasari’s Lady Inspector Renuka (1993), the inspector played by Radha is a headstrong and sincere officer, who shows no character development despite extreme situations. Her friend, a journalist played by Bhanupriya, is reduced to her profession and there’s no space or thought for a personality that branches outside work.

Telugu cinema stands proud with a hundred-year legacy and yet there are hardly 10 women who’ve directed more than two films in the last 100 years. The industry is still full of men playing all the major roles, as is the case with most film industries across the world. So, when directors did even a half-baked job of portraying realistic or powerful women, everyone took notice. 
 

Women in Dasari’s film

Dasari made more women-centric movies in the later years with a ‘strong’ character like Amma Rajinama (1991)Lady Inspector Renuka (1993), Osey Ramulamma (1997), and Kante Koothurne Kanu (2000). In Amma Rajinamathere is a progressive thought behind showing the mother who retires when she’s taken for granted, but she is still patriarchal and misogynistic in how she chides her daughter-in-law for not dressing properly or when she scolds her granddaughter for coming home late. These preachy moments in 2019 are signs of internalised patriarchy but in 1990, it was the peak of progressive cinema. 

Dasari’s Meghasandesam (1983) is about a married poet Ravindra Babu, played by Akkineni Nageshwar Rao, who falls in love with a dancer named Padma, played by Jayaprada. His poetry about the dancer brings him great success. The movie’s only moment of glory, was when Ravindra Babu’s wife Parvathi, played by Jayasudha, leaves him.

Ravindra turns into a shadow of his former self, pining for a woman he can’t be with because of his wife. Parvathi can’t deal with Ravindra’s forlorn behaviour and asks him to leave her and go chase the love he seeks because she’s not able to fulfil his needs. It is a powerful stance for a 1980s Telugu mainstream movie, to have the ideal woman leave her husband because she doesn’t want him. And yet at their daughter’s wedding, they come together and do the “kanyadaan”. 

This sliver of freedom and agency that Parvathi had, snowballed. Women in Dasari’s subsequent movies slowly had more agency and control when compared to women in his previous movies.

Amma Rajinama was made eight years after Meghasandesam and Parvathi probably set this ball in motion. In spite of his patriarchal notions of feminism, Dasari opened doors for movies that empowered women. When his movies about empowered women made money, it paved the path for making more ‘women’ centric movies. But, the trend didn’t continue into the 2000s. The Rayalaseema faction cinema (action movies focused on the masculine show of the local upper caste men) and new wave love stories with new actors, slowed it down drastically.

New wave of Telugu movies

Actors Tarun and Uday Kiran debuted in the year 2000, and Nithiin in 2002. They were cast in love stories, family dramas, and more love stories. The three held a strong grip on the next decade of Telugu cinema. Actors Venkatesh and Nagarjun had to reinvent themselves to stay relevant after a decade since they debuted. With the new millennium, a new wave of movies, actors, directors, and filmmakers changed the cinema industry. Dasari Narayana Rao, who was relevant and a big name for three decades, started losing his grip on the audience.

Directors managed to change their style and continued to make movies that helped them succeed in the changing tide. Rayalaseema faction movies played on caste politics and the glorification of the upper caste saviour - most often the filmmakers’ caste and their gender, and it seemed to work. Family dramas got a fresh coat of paint and spoke about elite, urban families and explored the cityscape. After two decades of love stories, elopement, and standing up against the family and fighting, the next two decades were about convincing the family to accept their love.

Dasari moved to politics in the early 2000s and the number of movies he made dwindled.  The movies that were being made had a saviour – a strong, smart, fair and handsome man - to rescue the damsel in distress, and this was the beginning of women turning back into damsels. This only got worse as the 2000s kept rolling, and women had fewer lines, every minute into a movie, again. In SS Rajamouli’s Magadheera (2009), for instance, actor Kajal Aggarwal played a princess, who could have easily been replaced by a lamp. It was only with the success of Arundhati in the same year that movies with stronger women characters once again had a revival in Telugu cinema.

Vinay Kumar is a Bengaluru based freelance photographer and writer who drinks too much coffee.