'Malapilla' in 1938, directed by Gudavalli Ramabrahmam was the first Telugu film that dealt with the subject of intercaste love.

Mala Pilla to Love Story How Telugu cinema has portrayed intercaste relationships
Flix Tollywood Tuesday, October 05, 2021 - 14:58

Sekhar Kammula’s Love Story, starring Sai Pallavi and Naga Chaitanya, which continues to have an impressive run at the box-office, is the latest Telugu film revolving around social issues of caste and gender discrimination. In the film, Naga Chaitanya plays the role of Revanth, a Dalit Christian, while Sai Pallavi, plays the character of Mounika, who belongs to an upper caste. The film has received appreciation from several quarters, particularly Dalits who have grown tired of sympathetic and patronising depictions as well as insensitive and exploitative portrayals of caste violence on screen. In Love Story, Revanth does not have any physical disability to evoke pity from the viewers; he also does not go to any extremes to prove his "benevolence".

Poet and social activist Indus Martin points out that Dalit characters on screen are usually portrayed as weak or deficient in some manner to make them appealing to the audience. Referring to two recent Telugu films, Rangasthalam (2018) and Uppena (2021) in which the male lead is a Dalit, he says, "Filmmakers resort to such depictions to evoke sympathy from the audience. In Telugu cinema, Dalit characters who are in intercaste relationships have to exhibit their benevolence to gain acceptance from the audience. In this aspect, Love Story should be appreciated for changing the narrative."

In Uppena Vaishnav Tej plays a Dalit man with a stammer. In Rangasthalam, Ram Charan Teja plays a Dalit man with hearing disability. However, while Revanth of Love Story stands apart, he is still required to perform a sacrifice for the sake of his love. Instead of escaping from the goons who don't allow him to marry Mounika due to his caste, he confronts her relative who had abused her when she was a child. He murders him and goes to jail, sacrificing his own future for her. "Despite this, Love Story is still progressive," says Martin.

Colour Photo (2020), which received good reviews, also has a Dalit hero who is ridiculed for his skin tone, and he too 'sacrifices' his life. Some other recent films which depicted intercaste relationships are Dorasani, Yevariki Cheppodhu, Arjun Reddy, Rudraveena, Sapthapadi, Seethakoka Chiluka, Uppena and Kanche.   

Intercaste love in cinema over the decades

Exploring intercaste love on screen isn't a recent phenomenon. The first Telugu film to touch upon the subject was Mala Pilla in 1938. Directed by Gudavalli Ramabrahmam, the film deals with the tensions in a village between Brahmins and Dalits over water usage and temple entry. Besides this, the relationship between the main leads —  a Mala woman and a Brahmin man who elope —  further creates tension between the communities. The male lead is the son of a head priest. However, in the end, a truce is achieved when the Dalits save the head priest’s wife from a fire accident. Following this, the head priest has a change of heart and approves of his son’s marriage to the Mala woman, and the film ends with the entry of Dalits into the village temple. This narrative, of Dalits exhibiting extreme kindness to their oppressors, continues even now, with the latest example being Uppena, which was released in February this year.

Photo from Mala Pilla (1938)

Mala Pilla, which was released in the same month (September) as Love Story back in the day, had created a major controversy, with conservative Brahmins in Kakinada and Vijayawada seeking a ban on it. “Ramabrahmam countered this campaign with pamphlets which offered free passes to all Brahmins with tufts. He also roped in journalist friends from the Brahmin community and Harijana Sevaka Sangham to defend the film. Ramabrahmam succeeded in moulding the negative publicity to his advantage: the film was received well at the box-office,” writes academician Elavarthi Sathya Prakash in his book Telugu Cinema: A Concise History

Though criticised for its pro-Congress political propaganda, Gandhism and erasure of anti-caste icon Dr BR Ambedkar, Mala Pilla deserves credit for breaking away from the trend of making mythological films and focusing instead on real life social issues. However, though Mala Pilla (even before Indian independence) paved the way for more such films, Telugu cinema had always shied away from addressing caste, says academician Sathya Prakash. And not just that, it has gone a step further and effectively justified the murder of Pranay Perumalla, a 25-year-old Dalit Christian, who was killed in broad daylight in 2018 for marrying a woman belonging to a dominant caste. Director Ram Gopal Varma made Murder in 2020 based on this incident, choosing to tell the story from the perspective of the father who, in real life, hired assassins to kill his son-in-law.

Perspective matters

“Telugu cinema has never been known for embracing caste themes. If at all they attempted it, it came only through a reformist angle,” says Sathya Prakash. Sathya Prakash cites Mala Pilla and Saptapadi (directed by K Vishwanath) as case studies for his argument. Saptapadi (1981), told from the perspective of a Brahmin family, is about how Hema, a dancer (Bhamidipati Sabita), falls in love with Haribabu (Girish Pradhaan), a flautist who pretends to be a Brahmin. Their relationship is short-lived as she's married to her cousin Gaurinath against her wishes. She's unable to say no to the marriage as Yajulu, her grandfather and the head priest, is a highly conservative and casteist man who looks down upon people from other communities. However, the marriage does not last long as it is not consummated.

Eventually, Gaurinath learns that Hema does not love him. And in a surprising twist, Yajulu after having a talk with landlord and village head, Raju, who says, “Caste was just favourable for the progress of humans", decides to send away Hema (an already married woman) with Haribabu. When there is opposition from Brahmins and upper castes who question how a Brahmin woman can be married to a 'harijan', particularly a woman who's already married, Yajulu quotes the Bhagavad Gita and other epics to say that caste is decided by ‘karma’ and not birth. When the Brahmin priests threaten that he should not come to the temple anymore as he had defied their tradition, he says that God is within him and he does not need a temple to visit him. Thus, Yajulu becomes the central character in the film and the film revolves around him and his evolution.  

Other films of  director K Vishwanath which touch upon caste as a subject include Swayamkrushi, Aapadbandhavudu, Subha Sankalpam and Swathi Kiranam. Sathya Prakash says that in Vishwanath’s films, though both Brahmins and Dalits are shown as morally upright, the Brahmin characters are always shown to be “devoted” and are overly revered. Yajulu from Saptapadi is a perfect example for this.

In Aapadbandhavudu (1992), Chiranjeevi (playing the role of Madhava) is a cowherd working for a Brahmin family. Madhava shows extreme benevolence and undergoes a lot of struggle to help Hema (played by Meenakshi Seshadri) who suffers from trauma after a rape attempt. Another film Subha Sankalpam (1995) starring Kamal Haasan and Aamani, also dealing with the subject of intercaste relationships, is again told from the perspective of a Brahmin character played by Vishwanath himself. In the film, the main leads Kamal Haasan and Aamani belong to the Shudra communities, and yet the story, instead of being about them, is told from the perspective of a Brahmin under whom they work.

“Vishwanath’s films evoke empathy for the Brahmin character, because they are told from their perspective. For example, in Swathi Kiranam (1992), Mammootty plays the character of a Brahmin singer, who becomes jealous of a lower caste person working in his house, who earns fame for his singing talent without undergoing any training. Naturally, when it is told from the perspective of Mammootty's character, you will of course feel sad for him,” points out Martin.

Caste replaced by class

While Vishwanath’s films centred around Brahmin characters, other films have attempted to tell stories of intercaste relationships by replacing caste with class so that the films do not have to address or expose the ugliness of caste.

“In director Teja’s film Jayam (2003), though caste acts as a barrier to their relationship, it is shown as a class issue, that of a rich girl and a poor boy,” film critic Sankeertana points out. Jayam was the debut film of actors Nithiin and Sada. In this film, while Sada is shown as a woman coming from an upper caste background, Nithiin is shown as a poor boy.

Photo from Jayam (2003)

Narappa is another example of how the Telugu industry avoids the mention of caste as an issue. In Narappa (2021), the Telugu remake of Asuran starring Venkatesh and Priyamani, director Srikanth Addala conspicuously removes the element of caste from the story — which is the main point of the conflict. In the flashback scene, Kannamma (played by Ammu Abhirami) is humiliated and made to walk with slippers on her head, because “the caste she comes from should not wear slippers.” But earlier, the voice-over in the film says: “The poor have no caste and religion, and the rich have no goodwill and humanity,” reducing the conflict to a family drama without acknowledging the social realities of caste and the violence caused by it. 

Photo from Narappa (2021)

However, recent films like Care of Kancharapalem (2018), Dorasani (2019), Colour Photo (2020), Uppena (2021) and Love Story (2021) have at least talked about caste even if some of them may have problematic politics. In Uppena, Rayanam (played by Vijay Sethupathy) mutilates the genitals of the male lead played by Vaishnav Tej, for having sexual intercourse with his daughter, but yet, the hero forgives him. In Dorasani, the heroine who belongs to an upper caste, is shown as an angel and it is suggested that the hero should be grateful and happy that she is falling for him. 

“Though the then Andhra Pradesh witnessed two massacres —  Karamchedu and Chunduru (Tsundur) in 1985 and 1991 —  the film industry did not confront caste as a movement. It is still not confronting caste as effectively as Tamil cinema,” says Jilukara Srinivas, poet-critic and leader of the Dravida Bahujana Samithi, an organisation working for the welfare of Dalits and Bahujans. In the Karamchedu and Chundur massacres, Dalits were slaughtered indiscriminately by the upper castes over access to water and dignity, respectively. 

“In the aftermath of the Karamchedu incident, actor Venkatesh’s Jayam Manadera (2000) was released and it spoke out against caste atrocities against Dalits, but this was a one-off film,” Srinivas observes.

Films like Palasa 1978 directed by Karuna Kumar do give hope that the film industry will address caste as an issue, says Srinivas. Palasa 1978 is a revenge drama told from the perspective of a Dalit character. It was appreciated for its nuance in not showing Dalits as a homogenous group. The film documents the culture and lifestyle of Dalits and humanises them instead of making them into caricatures or denying them agency.

Strangely, the industry which does not want to talk about caste, has made many films about caste supremacy and that too with caste names in titles. “Justice Chowdary (released in 1982) was perhaps the first film to have a caste name in its title. Though this film was a family drama and not about an individual, it was celebrated by the Kammas as a caste film,” says academician Sathya Prakash. Arjun Reddy (2017) is another film in which the hero flaunts his caste name while ironically giving speeches on intercaste love.

Photo from Love Story (2021)

Though after a lull Telugu films are talking about caste, it is only because of the current market consumption, says Martin. “The Tamil industry is producing good cinema with stories about the oppressed people, and these films have proved that they can be commercial successes too. Since they can no longer remain silent about it, and since there is also a market for it, Telugu filmmakers are making an attempt to exploit this market,” Martin says. Tamil films like Kabali, Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal, Asuran, Karnan and Sarpatta Parambarai have addressed caste as an issue.

With Love Story, some are optimistic that Telugu cinema too will make more films that address caste and look at intercaste relationships sensitively, by giving agency to Dalit characters. However, Sankeertana says, "I don’t think there will be any progress in particular. It is not like every  film which comes after Love Story is going to talk about caste in a nuanced manner. Filmmakers who are interested in this subject might think that they are making a great movie, but they will have their internal biases, which they can’t help. While it is a good sign that at least a few movies on caste are being made, I don’t know what Love Story means for the future of Telugu cinema.”  

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