While films that released a few decades ago portrayed dowry as a social evil, Telugu cinema today has normalised it.

Sharwanand along with other cast and crew in a scene from agricultural fieldScreenshot
Delve Tollywood Tuesday, July 27, 2021 - 11:55

In this series on dowry harassment, we explore the structural challenges that women face, what stops them from leaving abusive marriages, and the takeaways from their experiences which could help others.  

In 2021, Sreekaram, a Telugu movie on reviving agricultural practices starring Sharwanand as Karthik, was released in theatres. In one scene, after earning profits through their community agriculture, Karthik decides to do a ‘good deed' with that money and convinces his fellow farmers. In the next scene, we see all of them going to meet a distressed farmer whose pregnant daughter is living with him as a 'burden'. Since she was not able to give the land papers that were promised to be handed over as dowry at the time of her wedding, she is brought back to her parental home by her husband's family. However, after a few months, since the villagers made enough money through community farming, they perform the 'good deed' of repaying the farmer's loan so he can get his land papers and his daughter can be sent to her 'rightful' place. That is, the marital home which pushed her out due to dowry. In the entire film, none of the characters say that giving and taking dowry is a crime. Instead, the portrayal implies that by hook or crook, a daughter should be given dowry.

“It's been more than 60 years since the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 came into existence in our country. But even after all these years, movies still show it as a normal practice in households. They rarely depict it as a crime and show that people can go to jail," says V Sandhya Rani, National Convenor of Progressive Organization of Women.

In many films, dowry is used to elevate the heroism of the male protagonist. In the typical plot, the hero has a sister and he goes to any lengths, even sacrificing his share of the property, to get her married with a big dowry and a big fat wedding. Though the character indulges in all kinds of heroism, he never questions why dowry should be given.

In the 2002 Jagapathi Babu film Siva Rama Raju, three brothers give all their property for the sister to get married to her loved one. In the scene where the alliance is fixed between the two families, the concept of 'give and take' comes in, and the groom's family says, "We are speaking of this just because it's a tradition. Not that we are wealthy or poor. Even if you don't give anything as dowry, she will still be looked after with utmost care." However, the eldest brother Siva steps in and says, "Why would we send our sister with empty hands?" The negotiation goes on and finally, the groom's family asks the brothers if they would give them their property as dowry. They agree to the demand, and the amount of dowry is equated to the amount of love they have towards their sister. Again, nobody asks why dowry is being demanded.

Watch scenes from Siva Rama Raju here :

Some movies show dowry as a crime only after an untoward incident, like the death of the victim, happens. In many movies, the woman is repeatedly sent to the in-laws' home despite the family being aware that she is subjected to domestic violence for various reasons, including dowry, as the notion of a woman staying in her parents' place after the wedding is considered unthinkable.

In the 2006 film Rakhi, starring Jr NTR and Ileana D'Cruz, the story revolves around various crimes against women and how a ‘brother’ takes revenge. The character Ramakrishna, called Rakhi, is played by Jr NTR. In the movie, a broker brings an ‘America marriage alliance’ for Rakhi’s sister Gayatri (played by Manjusha). The alliance scene depicts how typical dowry conversations happen in households with the help of a middleman who breaks the ice and initiates talk on 'everything'. In this particular scene, since the groom is about to go to America, his family demands Rs 15 lakh as dowry openly. Though the bride's family says that they cannot afford so much, the negotiations go on, the middlemen finalises everything and seals the deal at Rs.10 lakh along with an additional dowry for the groom's sister and with a promise of managing wedding expenses. 

After the wedding, the groom's family is told by other relatives that he could have obtained Rs 1 crore as dowry and that the family had settled for Rs.10 lakh ‘at a loss’. Since then, Gayatri is subjected to domestic violence at home and when Rakhi questions this, the brother-in-law reasons that financial stress had led him to become ‘violent’ with Rakhi's sister, as he was unable to arrange Rs.5 lakh for 'visa' process. Rakhi intervenes and arranges the money by sacrificing his government job in return for payment from someone else, and gives his brother-in-law the additional dowry. On the same day, Gayatri overhears a conversation about the family arranging another marriage for her husband, and she's forced to sign divorce papers. When she refuses to do so, the family ties her to a chair and burns her to death. She dies due to 90% burns and her husband's family claims that this was a fire accident.

Till the time Gayatri dies, dowry is not treated as a crime in the entire sequence. Despite her family knowing that she was being treated badly at her in-laws' place, they send her back again and again. The incident becomes a reason for Rakhi to 'hunt' people who commit crimes against women, but the effort is clearly to showcase his masculinity and does very little to address the root cause of gender violence.

Watch scenes from Rakhi here :

Sandhya Rani points out that though films have statutory warnings when someone does something illegal and prohibited, dowry is always normalised. "Whenever a drinking or smoking scene comes, the disclaimer says that the substance is harmful for health though these are not illegal. But nothing of this sort is shown for dowry which is criminal. It is simply normalised," she says.

The problem is not with representing a social evil on screen but with how it is shown as acceptable and even glorified when it should be questioned. However, this was not always the case. A few decades ago, there were Telugu films that took a stance against dowry.

"A few decades ago, there was a trend to portray social evils in films, and dowry was one of them. But now, it has become normalised in films. Many families in real life also think of it as a prestige issue or as a fashionable trend. And in the film industry, these days, the movies don't show it as a social evil. The films are also not dowry-centric. Many old movies were like that," says renowned director and producer Tammareddy Bharadwaj.

Among such films that took on dowry as a social evil is the 1982 film Subhalekha, directed by K Vishwanath and starring Chiranjeevi and Sumalatha. The lead pair is shown to question dowry. In a scene where Sujatha (Sumalatha) gets an alliance, the family demands 3 lakh as dowry, an ambassador car and also asks that their son is sent abroad for his MBA and that their home is converted as the groom's future office. Sujatha questions the family's demands and says that she's not interested in the wedding. She also adds that she wants an alliance with a respectable family and not one that auctions their son.

Watch scenes from Subhalekha here :

In the 1993 film Abbayigaru directed by EVV Satyanarayana, and starring Meena and Venkatesh, in a wedding scene, the groom's family suddenly increases the dowry by another Rs 25,000 due to inflation. When the groom's family decides to stop the wedding, Meena's character intervenes and says that the groom should be married to a lathi in jail as he's asking for dowry, a prohibited practice.

However, contemporary films seems to have regressed. In the 2020 film F2: Fun and Frustration directed by Anil Ravipudi, the hero played by Venkatesh takes an MLA, a well-wisher, along with him while visiting the girl's family. On his insistence, the MLA asks the bride's family what they will 'give' the groom. When they respond saying they would divide the property between the two daughters, the MLA objects to that. This is when the heroine, played by Tamannaah, objects and says, "How can you ask for dowry, that too in front of everyone?" The hero also sides with her and says that being an MLA, if he asks for dowry, he would be put behind bars. But the whole sequence is presented as a comedy because the hero only said those words because he'd fallen for the heroine and wanted to impress her.

Commenting on the representation of dowry in Telugu movies, Professor Vamsi from IIT Tirupati says that Telugu cinema these days conveniently escapes from talking about it. “The representation of dowry is very casual, whenever the discourse on the topic comes in. These days, none of the characters revolt against it or characterise it as a social evil.”

He discusses how a father on screen is often shown as someone struggling to put together money for his daughter's wedding. The money is also shown as either getting stolen or lost to increase the tragic effect of the scene. The thief becomes the culprit but not those who ask for dowry. The film thus conveniently escapes addressing the real evil. 

Advocate Vasudha Nagaraj says that these movies definitely influence the audience.  “Whether we accept it or not, movies definitely influence people, just as how the market, society and families influence them. When it comes to dowry, many people know that taking dowry is a crime. But it is still a prevalent practice, and films normalise it," she says.

She adds that many movies are hypocritical when representing social issues. Citing the example of Ala Vaikuntapuramuloo, she says, “Though in the movie, Allu Arjun's character says that consent is important, and women should be respected, he keeps staring at the heroine’s legs in a creepy manner. That should not be the case.”

Read: Arrogant wife, please adjust: How Malayalam cinema has portrayed divorce

After attempts on life, this dowry harassment survivor is getting back on her feet

Once confined to some communities, dowry is now all pervasive in Kerala

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