Made 14 years ago, the film is about a lawyer couple, with the woman being better at her job than the man.

Revisiting Radha Gopalam A Telugu film on marital conflict well ahead of its time
Flix Film Commentary Monday, February 25, 2019 - 17:44

Bapu’s Telugu film Radha Gopalam turned 14 this month. There were films before and after this one that tried to discuss marriage and marital struggles, but none came close to Radha Gopalam. The main reason being the fact that all those films concentrated on how a woman should mold herself to make her marriage smooth sailing. In other words, they were mostly about a woman compressing herself to fit the man and his ego.

Created by the writer-director duo Ramana and Bapu, I don’t remember watching a Telugu film that deals with gender politics as directly as Radha Gopalam does. Their previous take at gender inequality, Mr. Pellam, does it well too, except this one features a woman who isn’t as patient and accommodating.

What’s unique about this story is its treatment. It takes a reasonably liberal idea and plays it in a setting that’s pretty conservative. Starting with the film’s famous tagline—which translates to “Husband and wife are equals, but the husband is more equal”—to the way the film ends with the heroine getting back with her husband because she is pregnant, it’s all realistic and relatable to a typical middle-class individual. It may seem like a giving in when seen now, but it's important to understand that the film doesn’t choose to radicalize its stance, which is necessary considering Bapu’s niche audience. It also makes sense otherwise because the people who need to understand feminism are those who use culture and mythology to stick to their patriarchal worldview. Ideally, we'd have liked to see Radha stick to her guns instead of paving way for a "happy ending", but this would have alienated most of the audience, considering it was made 14 years ago.

The fact that the film starts with Lord Vishnu granting our male protagonist his wish—the heroine’s hand in marriage—with one condition that he’d always treat her as his equal is a great beginning. If your god is saying a woman should be treated as a man’s equal, why wouldn’t you? He pops up at odd places, warning our hero to check his bias. He is the film’s moral board, asking not only Gopalam but also the men, and the women watching the film, deceptively simple questions like: “If she is clumsy, why don’t you help clean the mess up instead of complaining?” In another instance, he says this: “A mother is always going be nicer to the more disadvantaged kid.” It cleverly alludes to the fact that feminism seems like a movement favoring women only because women are the ones who have faced systemic marginalisation.

Coming to the actual plot, the film mainly is about Radha, a self-sufficient and intelligent woman—played rather impressively by Sneha, and Gopalam, an insecure and childish man. Srikanth changes himself for the role, being equally charming and petty whenever he needs to be. They are both lawyers by profession, and even though Radha is a novice, she gets fast recognition because of the way she handles herself in court and her father being a high court judge himself.

A domestic violence case comes along—inspired by Adam’s Rib—that puts the couple at the opposite sides of a dispute. Besides, she helps a guy, who tried to rape her, get out of a murder case because he’s falsely accused, and this bothers Gopalam to the brink of divorce.

Gopalam, who is both impressed by his wife and envious of her, is perpetually on the edge. A scene illustrates this conflict by using “Dhrutharastra Kougili”—smothering someone with love by hugging them tight enough that they find it hard to breathe—as an anecdote. A bang on parallel to what most women face when they start getting successful.

Gopalam isn’t a progressive man and he proudly calls himself an old-fashioned guy--we all know what that translates to in real life. Then why did Radha marry him at all? He has a million reasons to want her, but what are hers? The film either never answers this or it does by pointing out that women just settle.

The couple fighting the case are a cheating husband (Venu Madhav) and his homemaker wife (Divya Vani). Feeling angry and betrayed, she lifts her husband up and throws him aside—he is petite and she is big-boned—and the man files a murder case against her. In his mind, his wife putting on weight is just as big a betrayal as him sleeping outside marriage. It’s outrageous to watch, but it’s not unheard of, as such instances are common knowledge. Men feel entitled to their wishes and needs, while never giving any thought to questions like “What am I bringing to the table? Why should she be attracted to me?”

Another couple that the film features is Radha’s parents—a judge and a homemaker. They call each other ‘yevandoy’, but other than that, there is little equality between them. He is always writing her off and silencing her. This brings into light another important discussion point: Are wife and husband equal only if both of them are earning? If a wife earns less than her husband, is she a lesser human being? Is money the only way to quantify someone’s worth? Again, the film doesn’t answer any of this, but the questions are a start.

Interestingly enough, all three stories use the same gel to keep the couples together. Kids. Radha decides to give Gopalam another chance even though he still is the same man. The wife from the murder case holds on to her despicable husband because of her children. And with Radha’s parents as well, she is the talking point, the only thing that’s common between them. Our society uses many things to keep a woman down, it’s sad that even children—a part of her own self—aren’t spared.

The film has its flaws—the filmmaker duo’s obsession with women in sarees with long hair is at times distracting. But there hasn’t been another film as poignant and entertaining as this one that tries to discuss gender inequality, societal double standards, and internalised misogyny. When Gopalam shouts, ‘You are my wife’, at a point, Radha, collecting herself, calmly says, ‘I’m Radha. I’m a human being. I’m a lawyer’. Keep that in mind the next time you try to box a woman because she, just like you, is more than your relationship to her.

That’s what Radha Gopalam—not Radha and Gopalam, she is the title, not the both of them—is all about. 

Sakeertana is an engineer who took a few years to realise that bringing together two lovely things, movies and writing, is as great as it sounds. Mainly writes about Telugu cinema because no one else would.

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