Dear Telugu directors, it's ok to represent misogyny but don't glorify it

Films should have characters that are misogynistic and abusive because that is how the real world is - but don't glorify this.
Dear Telugu directors, it's ok to represent misogyny but don't glorify it
Dear Telugu directors, it's ok to represent misogyny but don't glorify it

Whataboutery. The Internet trolls’ favourite tool. When you earnestly question a film and its problematic portrayal of a character, hoping to have a meaningful conversation, you are welcomed with this: “What about that other film? Why are you not talking about it?”

Why do people think a bad film can redeem another bad film? It doesn’t. Another says, "If feminists are okay with GoT’s nudity and female disenfranchisement, why are they not okay with this?" For what it's worth, GoT has always been clear on abuse. It shows sexual abuse and calls it abuse, it portrays the person committing the abuse as a morally questionable man. But, Indian filmmakers call it romance and add a background score and song, in case it’s already not manipulative enough. While GoT represents misogyny and abuse, our films glorify it. That is exactly why it's problematic. Not because it's shown, but because it is shown as the ideal/reasonable thing to do.

Let's talk about flaws

By all means, create a character, a man or a woman, who is flawed or has flawed motives, but use a framing device to implicitly talk about their shortcomings. Mahesh Babu’s character in Spyder is an intelligence officer who illegally wiretaps people's phones. How is it okay, in the current political climate, to have a hero who invades citizens’ privacy? How are we asked to root for this man who eavesdrops on a woman's personal conversation with her friend, and tries to use that information to get her into bed? 

A hero, by default, is worshipped and followed. So, if you want a hero who is flawed, make sure that his flaws are underlined. Use the art of unsubtlety where it matters, unlike Arjun Reddy where the irony is lost on most viewers. And when I say flaws, I mean character traits.

Mental illness isn't a character flaw, nor is it a quirk. Marathi’s Mahanubavudu has Sharwanandh struggling with OCD—which is questionable in its own right, as it seems like he is merely germaphobic—and the way the heroine tries to deal with this is appalling. Don't ever blame the patient for something that's beyond their control. Same applies for Sukumar’s One where the hero has PTSD and his journalist girlfriend tries to emotionally blackmail him towards a cure. Portray a violation or a mental illness on screen, if and only if you can handle it in a responsible and informative way because ignorance is still better than false knowledge. 

Representing the ugly side

Representation matters. Abusive behaviour, misogyny, transphobia, casteism, and homophobia exist in our society. So, they need to exist in films as well. As long as you are calling out such troubling behaviour for what it is, why not? Films should have characters that are misogynistic and abusive because that is how the real world is. It is filled with family members, friends, and strangers who are beacons of casual sexism and verbal/sexual abuse. People need to be made familiar with the ways in which emotional abuse works. Portray abuse and all its shades in such a way that it helps the real victims gain perspective and strength.

One of the most obvious solutions to the lack of proper representation is to encourage and bring in women creators and writers. Adding a woman’s perspective to a male-dominated industry is bound to create fresh content. And it would be easier for a woman to understand that all women deserve freedom and opportunity, not just the ones that are strong and promising. That said, a male director, Shekar Kammula, got it right in Godavari where his Sita is an independent woman who runs an unsuccessful business. Women in cinema are rarely allowed to fail unapologetically, so it was exhilarating to watch her shout at her father who blames her for the creepy guy who breaks her bangles.

For comparison, Chitra’s father in Pelli Choopulu is a man who repents having a daughter instead of a son. We aren’t shown the complete extent to which this might have had an impact on her personal development, which is understandable considering that it is a romantic comedy. We are only shown how the trauma turned her into this self-made, independent women, which is a personality that's really pleasant to see in a Telugu heroine. But, as a behavioural issue, the hostility of such an environment needed more screen time and space to reveal itself. I am not saying the film endorses this kind of behaviour, but the readiness with which it forgives him is a bit jarring. 
Showing violence as violence
Any article on cinema is incomplete without the mention of stalking and catcalling. If your film has to have a stalker as the protagonist, make sure you aren't calling it "love at first sight" or "romance".
Take Rajiv Ravi’s Malayalam film Annayum Rasoolum for example. Rasool stalks Anna from the boat to her house over a period of time. It is an unsettling and creepy thing to do, and to his credit, Ravi portrays it so. We see Anna panicking and the mise-en-scène for these scenes is disconcerting at the beginning as well. But it slowly de-escalates to suggest Anna’s changing feelings for him. Another important aspect is the reason for Anna’s change. She is a depressed woman who gets no emotional support from her family. Rasool’s interest and attention gave her hope in a twisted yet humane way. So, if you must portray stalking, add layers and nuance. Show why a sensible woman would fall for inappropriate advances by making her an exception, instead of normalizing it.
Another trope filmmakers’ insist on using, but never in the right way is rape. If your film deals with rape, then make the rape victim/survivor the focal point. Do not marry her off to the rapist. It is baffling to ask a woman to live her life with a man who violates women to feel powerful, and it solves nothing.
Do not kill her off either, so that her brother/father/lover can take up the cause and become a messiah. A woman’s violent death isn't the time for a hero’s saviour complex to kick in, I'm looking at you Puri Jaganadh and your Temper. When a woman is raped, the movies make it more about how the hero feels emasculated by it, rather than discussing the psychology of the victim. Muthyala Subbaiah’s Pelli Chesukundam is a prime example of a lost opportunity. Even though it has a heroine who is a rape survivor, the movie becomes more about the kindness of the hero than the woman's trauma.
The answer to gender bias isn't the erasure of gender politics in the name of ‘clean cinema’. Like it or not, we are all byproducts of a patriarchal system. When we question badly-written female characters, we aren't asking for a film to be set in a fantasy world where there is no gender inequality. We are asking for a film that knows what it is talking about. We are looking for a film that thinks twice before uttering troubling words because millions of people are watching, most of whom are young people who are yet to completely develop a moral compass.
And to those filmmakers who use B and C centers to justify their ineptitude, Bapu’s Mister Pellam—a movie where the hero’s misogyny is questioned and debunked through humour and irony—was released 25 years ago when there was no concept of multiplex audiences, and it was a huge blockbuster. If you cannot make a decent film, that is okay, but to blame your inability on the audience is juvenile and borderline unethical.

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