How caste is integral to the functioning of the Telugu film industry

Many fans consider themselves to be the self-appointed guardians of their star’s image and most importantly, the custodians of their caste pride.
How caste is integral to the functioning of the Telugu film industry
How caste is integral to the functioning of the Telugu film industry
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On August 22, 2016, Vinod Kumar, a young man from Andhra Pradesh, paid a big price for his loyalty towards his hero, Power Star Pawan Kalyan. He was killed in a street brawl with the fans of Jr NTR, a week before the release of Janatha Garage. Vinod Kumar, also known as Vinod Royal, was reportedly an active member of the Jana Sena Party, Pawan Kalyan’s political outfit, and also a member of Kapunadu, a caste-based organisation formed by the Kapus, the caste to which Pawan Kalyan belongs. However, though Vinod was soon forgotten, Pawan Kalyan was praised for compensating Vinod’s family and asking fans to not indulge in such fights.

“Fights between fans of Kapu and Kamma (both dominant castes) actors have become so common that it’s become a matter of pride to proclaim a star’s status. When Vinod was killed, no one questioned the circumstances that led to his death. However, Pawan Kalyan, the star, soon became a spectacle for his benevolent act of providing compensation to the family and reprimanding his fans. And this is what happens every time a fan puts his life at risk - the star is again celebrated among his followers,” Vamshi Reddy, Professor of Film Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Tirupati, opines.

Over the years, fandom has taken myriad forms in Tollywood. Apart from fan fights inside movie theatres and fist fights on streets, hero worship rears its ugly head on social media, too, where people are at their abusive best to prove their loyalty to actors belonging to their caste group. These fans consider themselves to be the self-appointed guardians of their star’s image and most importantly, the custodians of their caste pride.

A simple search with the words ‘Kamma’ or ‘Chowdhary’ (which belongs to the Kamma community) will take you to multiple pages that have either NTR or Jr. NTR as their icon.

So goes the post in one of these pages:

“Chowdhary is our name, challenging is our game

We born with fame, we never blame

Character is our strength, confidence is our breath

So proud to be a Chowdhary”

This is accompanied with the image of a hoarding with many prominent Kamma actors and politicians with NTR in the centre, dressed as god.

The Facebook page Troll Telugu Cinema, on the other hand, blatantly makes fun of the NTR family. Belittling the ‘Chowdhary fans’, the page mocks both NTR and his grandson.

However, fan clubs as a phenomenon and the obsession with caste is not new, particularly in the Telugu film industry. It goes back to the 1970s and 80s when every caste group in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh began identifying itself with different heroes on screen, and the stars began to unapologetically use it to their advantage.

Emergence of non-Brahmin castes

From the inception of Tollywood in the early 1900s, Brahmins enjoyed a monopoly in the industry for years, until the Kammas and Reddys (another powerful dominant caste) began to make roads for themselves.

SV Srinivas, Film and Cultural Studies professor at Azim Premji University, in his book After NTR: Telugu Mass Film and Cinematic Populism, notes how the Kapu and Kamma castes slowly began climbing up the ladder, starting off as workers on film sets and going on to play the roles of comedians and villains in movies.

“The Kammas and Kapus played lesser acting roles such as comedians, villains, and stuntmen. It was believed at that time that women should not act or be seen in movies, therefore heroines and female actors were taken from the Bogam caste, a clan of devadasis,” he writes.

The Reddys were prominent in the industry, mainly as directors, producers and cinematographers. From directors like BN Reddy, Nagi Reddy, KV Reddy to cinematographers like Konda Reddy, this caste group helmed the technical aspects behind producing films.

Around the 1960s, the dominant agricultural castes primarily invested in the film industry with the surplus money generated during the Green Revolution in coastal Andhra. Among all the castes, Kammas and Kapus (both dominant castes) utilised this opportunity, since coastal Andhra was the epicentre of the revolution.

Kamma and Kapu are both dominant castes in Andhra Pradesh. Under the varna system, they are categorised as 'Shudras' but in the state, given the existing socio-economic circumstances, these two communities are considered dominant castes and fall under 'OC'.

Things changed with the arrival of NT Rama Rao in the early 1950s, a Kamma who enjoyed support from both the Kapus and Kammas, owing to lack of representation from both the caste groups.

Speaking to TNM, Vamshi Reddy, notes how the emergence of the non-Brahmanical castes brought subversion in themes, even in movies that were based on Hindu mythology.

“For example, in NTR's Dana Veera Sura Karna, where NTR plays four roles, Duryodhana and Karna, the villains in Mahabharata, are portrayed in the most positive manner. This was possible because of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu which had begun making inroads into the Telugu states as well. These subversions continued till recently, either explicitly or subtly in Telugu cinema,” Vamshi says.

For a long time, NTR remained the undisputed king (or god) of Telugu cinema, even making his political entry with the support of Kammas and Kapus. This was also the time when actors Krishna and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao were considered close rivals to NTR.

However, towards the beginning 1980s, NTR began losing popularity among the Kapus, who realised that NTR, as a CM, was favouring Kammas and was no different from the CMs from the Reddy community. It was around this time that Chiranjeevi entered Telugu cinema, eventually becoming the star that the Kapus had long wished for.

The hero of masses

SV Srinivas, in his book, writes on how fans of superstars identify not just with heroes belonging to the same caste or community but also with people who represent their class and economic strata on screen.

“A large number of fans of superstars are young men, belonging to the lower and non-Brahmin castes. Dalit men also find a fair representation among the groups of certain stars. Fans form associations for their stars with members belonging to the same caste but there are simply not enough stars for each caste to have one of its own. So they identify with the actor who is closest to their caste and economic strata,” Srinivas writes.

If NTR catered to the masses who were long seeking a break from Brahminical motifs in cinema, Chiranjeevi became the mass hero who catered not just to the Kapu community but found support from the backward communities as well. This, Chiranjeevi achieved by consciously distancing himself from the kind of movies that NTR made.

“It was around 1980 that popular comedian Allu Ramalingaya (producer Allu Aravind’s father) from the Kapu community, took an interest in Chiranjeevi owing to the Kapu kinship. Chiranjeevi soon married Ramalingaya’s daughter. The family clout was enough to bring teeming crowds to the theatres for every Chiranjeevi movie. As Chiranjeevi became popular in the Telugu audience, it coincided with the death of Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga, a popular Kapu caste leader in Vijayawada in 1988,” Vamshi notes.

It was around this time that NTR’s son Balakrishna started becoming a rival to the Kapu hero. However, unlike his choice of movies, Chiranjeevi’s movies were conscious efforts that infused caste dynamics with gender politics.

“His movies usually portrayed highly masculine lower caste men fighting a common rich enemy (example Gang Leader) or taming the rich man's arrogant daughter and marrying her to ensure the social order (for example Gharana Mogudu). His movies made the feudal landlords a nostalgic concept as opposed to his contemporaries,” Srinivas explains.

Chiranjeevi’s movies did not explicitly identify him as a person from the lower caste. However, for the lack of other social symbols, he was always identified as a hero for the oppressed.

For example, Srinivas notes that in the 1983 Chiranjeevi film Khaidi, the dusky star not only remained so on screen, but in the opening sequence, the make-up enhances the darkness of his skin. Furthermore, in the absence of other signifiers marking him as upper caste, Khaidi's lower class hero was easily characterised as lower caste.

Chiranjeevi in 'Khaidi'

“It thus became possible for Chiranjeevi and some of the other stars of his generation to signify the lower caste status of their characters and enhance the authenticity of the subaltern figures they played. Our hero's subalternity was further authenticated by the stories of his humble origin, which often also included a caste angle: he was a Kapu in a Kamma dominated industry. Over the years, he became the very first non-Kamma to be counted among the biggest stars of the industry since the 1950s,” he adds.

Living as a star on screen and off screen

As stardom grew, for most stars, it became important to assert their power and bring out caste symbols on screen irrespective of the roles they portrayed in a movie. The success of mass films was correlated to the number of spectators from different caste groups whistling in front of the screens. And this started from the credit rolls which had the hero directly waving at the audience with mentions of associations that drew direct caste references.

Speaking to TNM, Raghuram Raju, a former Film Studies Professor at IIT Tirupati, notes how every actor of that period and earlier made it a point to underscore their star and caste stature in movies.

“In the film Rayalaseema Ramanna Chaudhury, the 500th film of its star Mohan Babu, the opening credits became the occasion for the telling of the story of the star's rise. The sequence strings together clips from Mohan Babu's landmark films. When the count reaches 500, one is of him as a Chowdhary (a caste marker) and in the other, we see him as a farmer tilling the land. We then later see him as the star himself who has achieved global recognition. The film’s title holds no bar about the hero’s caste (who was also a Telugu Desam Party leader) and pinpoints at the audience he identifies with,” the professor explains.

The star stature and caste references were brought out not just in the credits, but also throughout the film in the form of subtle humour or real life names.

“In Gang Leader and Mutha Mestri, Chiranjeevi has the surname Konidela. But this is not all. In Hero, the film's heroine (Radhika) and her mother (Nirmala) travel in a rickshaw decorated with Chiranjeevi’s film posters. Big Boss features the comedian Ali as a Chiranjeevi fan who 'mistakes' the protagonist for the star,” Srinivas writes.

Films also frequently made references to family lineage.

“Politics is maybe in your diet, but it is in my blood. State politics was born in my house. If I enter the field, who can confront me?”  So goes Balakrishna’s dialogue from his famous movie Legend, an obvious reference to the NTR family and their place in Andhra politics.

Balakrishna in 'Legend'

The biographical references reminded the audience at regular intervals who the hero was in real life.

Dominating an industry

Today, Tollywood is mostly ruled by two families: the Chiranjeevi family and the NTR family. Chiranjeevi brought his younger brother, Pawan Kalyan, into Tollywood, as well as his son, Ram Charan. Similarly, Allu Aravind brought his son, Allu Arjun and Allu Sirish, into the industry. NTR has his clan, which includes his son, Balakrishna, and grandson, NTR Jr.

Mahesh Babu Ghattamaneni, one of the biggest superstars of today, is the son of the yesteryear star Krishna Ghattamaneni. They come from a traditional Chowdhary family (of the Kamma caste). Krishna, Sohan Babu and Murali Mohan (all belonging to dominant agricultural families) were contemporaries and rivals to NTR.

NTR's rival Akkineni Nageshwara Rao (with whom he has acted in many movies), also has his son Nagarjuna and grandson Naga Chaitanya figuring as prominent heroes in the industry. If ANR, belonging to a dominant agricultural caste in Andhra, was a contemporary to NTR, his son Nagarjuna was popular both in Telugu and Hindi and a stiff rival to Chiranjeevi in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His son Naga Chaitanya too launched his career in 2009 with the movie Josh and has established himself as a star in the industry. The family also runs their own production house Anapurna studios.

A Chowdhary Hotel near Vijayawada displaying pictures of prominent Kamma actors

Speaking to TNM, Divya Kandukuri, a Hyderabad-based anti-caste activist, says this casteist demand for a star to bank on has been one of the main reasons for nepotism to thrive. The caste markers have been passed on from one generation to generation, making it easier for people to identify actors carrying similar surnames.

“The fact that any new actor from these families gets a sizeable fanbase even before his debut is enough testimony to this fact. In Ongole, there is a village of Kapus who only celebrate movies from the Chiranjeevi-Pawan Kalyan clan. At Sri Chaitanya College in Vijayawada, intermediate students divide themselves into Chowdhary batch (C-batch), Naidu batch (N-batch), Reddy batch (R-batch) and their group icons are actors belonging to their particular caste groups. It’s unfortunate to see 16 and 17-year-olds dividing themselves on the basis of caste and I think this is where the real caste war starts,” Divya says.

Women, not surprisingly, have never banked on caste to cement their positions in the Telugu industry. Speaking about how Telugu cinema has hardly given importance to its female leads over the years, Vamshi says that neither does the industry have women from the Telugu states doing these roles nor do they have a caste-based fan following like the male actors.

“But this wasn’t very true about the early 1960s and 70s. Many of our female actors including Savitri, Kanchana or Bhanumathi and even female singers were not just popular in Telugu but across south. However, most of these women then belonged to the dominant castes. But today, we have women from across castes and classes acting in the industry and their fan base is very independent of caste prejudices,” Vamshi adds.

Anushka Shetty, one of the top leading ladies in the industry, belongs to the Tulu speaking community from Karnataka while Tamannah is a Sindhi Hindu and Kajal Aggarwal, a Punjabi. Nayanthara, who is now bagging prominent roles in Telugu films, is a Syrian Christian from Kerala.

No art form is free of caste

Speaking about liberating cinema from caste, a prominent Telugu director who did not wish to be named and describes himself as “a follower of the Bahujan ideology”, says that no art form is free of caste and Telugu cinema is no different.

“There’s an excessive number of directors, script writers, lyricists, producers coming from  dominant communities in the Telugu states. Our movies are narrated from the point of view of the upper castes. This comes from their social understanding, which has normalised such dominant narratives in Telugu cinema. The audience has also imbibed these identities and they’ve consciously perpetuated the same. Movies like Arjun Reddy and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy are made for similar reasons,” he says.

While appreciating the efforts of Tamil directors in making anti-caste movies, he says that the Tamil industry now at least has the presence of Dalit filmmakers and technicians which is yet to happen in Telugu.

“It’s very heartening to watch movies made by people like Pa Ranjith that address caste. The movies try to tell stories of oppression, though not in their entirety. However, in Telugu, it’s still a far-fetched dream. To attribute a lower class surname or even a Muslim name to characters in Telugu movies is frowned upon. Producers and many heroes oppose the very idea of it. Telugu audiences enjoy watching a progressive movie in Tamil, but not when it is made in their own industry. Very much like how people conveniently support inter-caste marriages outside their family but create a ruckus when their own sons or daughters attempt to go against the narrative,” the director notes.

Echoing similar concerns, Vamshi Reddy says that though in the past few years the industry has tried addressing the issue of caste, it is always the dominant caste that has figured as the saviour.

“Caste domination in the industry is related to the way the industry has been addressing the issue of caste in cinema. There are great films like Sapthapadi and Rudraveena that addresses caste in a direct way with the help of an upper caste man as the agency. However, our cinema has mostly ignored caste as an issue though it uses a lot of caste markers to elevate certain castes in a subtle way,” Vamshi adds.

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