The world around us is changing every day, and so has our idea of love. In a decade, an entire generation of people has gone from wanting to celebrate love to questioning what it means to be in love; and from understanding the essence of love to exploring whether love has more forms than what we expect.
The days of ‘simple love stories’ are long gone. Films, these days, are no longer about whether love is pure or not, but more about what it takes to be in love long after the couple professes their feelings for each other. And this has a lot to do with how people and their expectations and struggles have changed over the years.
A shift to realism
Some of the love stories which resonated with Telugu audiences in the previous decade have been realistic and honest in their approach to understanding romantic relationships.
Gautham Menon’s 2010 romantic film Ye Maya Chesave, starring Naga Chaitanya and Samantha, was a milestone, not just in terms of how it portrayed romance, but also in the way it explored the complexity of love itself. One sentence, in particular, captures this complexity - “When there are so many women in this world, why did I fall in love with Jessie?” And thereafter, the narrative deals with a myriad of reasons why Karthik (Naga Chaitanya) falls in love with Jessie (Samantha), and how they tackle a wide range of issues starting from their age-gap, interfaith relationship, how their life choices widen the gap between them. Jessie remains an enigma for Karthik, and there lies the magic of Ye Maya Chesave.
By the time, Gautham Menon’s 2012 film, Yeto Vellipoyindhi Manasu, starring Nani and Samantha, released, the love between the couple evolves over a series of misunderstandings and expectations from life.
Ask Samantha about what has led to this change in the depiction of romance in films and she says, “It has changed because love is no longer considered to be a fairytale. Across the world, women have been fighting for their rights and their rightful place in society. Now, it’s less about surrounding our whole lives into finding prince charming. In turn, relationships have become more complicated because women are looking for more than just financial security from a man, or taking care of him and giving him a baby. As women become more financially independent, we are looking for more in our relationships, in terms of wanting friendship and better understanding from our partners. Naturally, love stories have to be different if one has to reflect what’s happening in reality.”
Actor and filmmaker Rahul Ravindran echoes a similar sentiment - that a shift to character-driven stories from plot-driven stories have become a mainstay in Telugu cinema.
“Over the course of the last 100 years, filmmakers have explored every possible angle of two people simplistically falling in love, it has been done to death. So, the only way to deal with the same concept in a different way is to focus on more character-driven stories and it’s particularly true in the case of romantic films. We have to delve deeper and show the complexity of our lives. World-over, there has been a push towards more realism in cinema. It’s a reflection of the change we are going through,” he says.
“Women have been raising their voice and making themselves heard, and there’s a push to stop taking them for granted. It’s not just about cinema, but society as such. I think a lot more men today are sensitive towards a woman’s perspective in a love story, and with that, there comes a certain complexity because you have two different perspectives. It’s no more just one gender’s perspective, which adds more depth and layers to a love story. Social media has democratised the exchange of information in a global and cultural content, and the issues that plague each society. Gender is one among them. There’s more dialogue now to understand each other,” he adds.
Beyond the cliches
SS Rajamouli’s Eega was an unusual love story between a fly and a young woman. It’s the kind of story that might seem preposterous, but Rajamouli filled it with so much emotional subtext that the audience rooted for the love story in the fantasy drama.
Then, there were films like Vikram Kumar’s Manam and the Naga Chaitanya starrer Premam, which focused on love stories in three different timelines, and how each of them are interconnected. All these films rooted for love being eternal and suggested that destiny finds its way to reunite people despite the ups and downs in their lives.
However, if one has to pick one film which spoke to moviegoers in an unconventional manner, as far as its portrayal of love is concerned, it has to be Venkatesh Mahaa’s acclaimed film, C/O Kancharapalem. The story follows the life of Raju at four different stages of his life and how religion, class divide play a significant part in all these stories. Its straightforward narrative hides the complexity it weaves underneath the lives of its characters who are struggling to break free from the shackles of the society. In the end, when Raju, who is well above 40s, falls in love again, he simply acknowledges that all he needs is a companion at his age. Maybe, that’s love too.
The stereotypes and alpha males
There was, however, no dearth of perpetual glorification of stalking and stories of jilted lovers, where a woman leaves the relationship which drives the man crazy.
Ajay Bhupathi’s RX100 turned the tables with a twist that made one question if love has to be morally and ethically right. The film had Payal Rajput playing a rich man’s daughter, who falls in love with a young man in her village; however, as the story unfolds, we see her transform into a woman who’s only interested in carnal pleasures rather than loving someone whole-heartedly. Although the film, once again, pushed the rhetoric that women often leave men heartbroken and that they aren’t sincere enough, Ajay Bhupathi’s version of a jilted lover struck a chord with the people.
And then, there was the much talked about Arjun Reddy, starring Vijay Deverakonda and Shalini Pandey, which triggered a lot of debate about toxic masculinity. The protagonist in the film tumbles down a rabbit hole while destroying himself in the process emotionally and physically; however, the romance and reconciliation in the end is still pretty much open for debate.
One of the significant developments has been that of a strong female protagonist in romantic films. Take Devasena, played by Anushka Shetty, in the Baahubali films. She’s clearly in love with the warrior prince; however, she refuses to be taken as a prisoner to Mahishmathi kingdom. She commands respect from Amarendra Baahubali, who promises her that he’ll always protect her honour.
Then, there’s Sai Pallavi’s stellar performance as Bhanumati in Fidaa, where she questions the whole idea behind making women leave their homes after getting married. Towards the end of the film, she leaves the decision to Varun (Varun Tej) to figure out what’s more important for him.
Vijay Deverakonda, Ritu Varma’s Pellichoopulu, too, focused on a modern relationship between a couple, where the girl is more progressive and takes responsibility for her actions, whereas it’s only much later that the boy realises what he has been missing all his life.
Aditi Rao Hydari, who played lead roles in Sammohanam, Antariksham, and Kaatru Veliyidai, says, “As a generation, we are fearful of what is ‘real’. We’ve grown up along with the whole digital boom and our attention spans are short. There is too much choice and too many distractions. And there is a huge emphasis on self preservation, the downside of which makes people self-centred. When I think about my own life, love to me is effortlessly selfless and fearless. It takes courage to look into someone’s eyes and tell them you love them because you are the most vulnerable when you do that, but you’re also most at peace when you believe in love and stay in love. Some of the films I’ve been part of like Sammohanam and Kaatru Veliyidai have dealt with the lives of people who end up in complex situations, and I believe that it’s the purity in their hearts and simplicity that struck a chord with people.”
Another film which explored the effect partners have on each other was Vijay Deverakonda, Rashmika starrer Dear Comrade. In the film, Bobby (Vijay) is an angry young man, who sobers down quite a lot after meeting Lilly (Rashmika) and falls in love with her; however, his aggression breaks their relationship apart. Much later, when Bobby’s life undergoes a drastic change, he’s shocked to see a hitherto vivacious Lilly go into a shell after facing sexual harassment. Directed by Bharat Kamma, it was one of the few love stories which dealt with a relevant and important social issue in the context of how you have to stand up for yourself and seek the help of others, if need be.
In an industry which has mostly relied on a man’s perspective and his flamboyance to move the narrative forward, Geetha Govindam, starring Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika, chose a different route. Here, Vijay keeps begging Geetha (Rashmika) to save him from the latter’s brother, and as a result, he agrees to do everything she asks him to. The reversal of power dynamics between the couple, where Geetha hates the sight of Vijay for most part of the film, became its USP and it was a smash hit with the audiences too. Vijay kissing Geetha without her consent, however, received its fair share of criticism.
And then, there’s the Samantha, Sharwanand starrer Jaanu which reiterates how some love stories never end and people struggle to come to terms with their true feelings. In their attempt to find a closure to their love story, Ram and Jaanu end up slipping further down the memory lane and almost regret not being with each other. Even when they let go off each other, their love is intact.
…And they lived happily ever after
No matter how much the portrayal of romance might have changed, Telugu cinema has consistently preferred to end love stories on a happy note, with a select few exceptions.
Actor Raashi Khanna avers, “Love was much more simple and beautiful earlier when there was compromise and sacrifice, but these days, no one has the patience to compromise on anything. Also, most of us in this generation are self made and so everyone wants to live on their own terms without really giving in completely. Expectations were met earlier and now, we feel it’s better not to have any expectations or you will end up hurting yourself. However, since I am an old soul, I do believe in true love in the old way and I know I will find it one day. Movies just show whatever the reality is. We just end it on a happy note because we don’t want to take that hope away from the audience that it’s possible to live happily ever after.”