The newly released song from 'Pushpa: The Rise' has lyrics that turn the gaze towards men but it doesn't entirely break away from objectifying women.

Samantha in Oo Antava song from Pushpa: The Rise
Flix Opinion Tuesday, December 14, 2021 - 14:38

The lyric video of Samantha's song from the upcoming film Pushpa: The Rise, directed by Sukumar, has set the internet on fire and triggered a meme fest too. The film, featuring Allu Arjun and Rashmika in the lead, has Fahadh Faasil playing the antagonist. Samantha has performed this 'item' song along with Allu Arjun in Pushpa, but with a twist — the lyrics are on the male gaze instead of the typically objectifying language that such songs employ.

Released in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi, the lyricists for the respective languages are Chandrabose, Viveka, Siju Thuravoor and Raqueeb Alam. Pushpa is on red sandalwood smuggling in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, and item songs are common in such films that deal with crime, gangsters and the underworld. The songs usually feature as a distraction when some kind of criminal activity, exchange or meeting is happening in the background. The woman dancer, dressed in scanty clothes, symbolises the moral degradation of the place, and is simultaneously used to emphasise the hero's masculinity and/or the villain's lecherousness. The camera in such songs roves all over the woman's body, and is meant to titillate the cis heterosexual male audience.

In this context, 'Oo Antava' (Telugu, with similar versions in other languages) is a departure from the norm. Many mainstream films, across languages, have used clothes to characterise a woman's morality and justify sexual harassment. In 2015, Telugu vlogger Annapurna Sunkara stirred a hornet's nest by calling out the misogyny in Telugu films, with the scene in Baahubali where Mahendra Baahubali (Prabhas) disrobes Avantika (Tamannaah) in focus. She received vile abuse from fans and people from the film industry for her comments, but in recent years, such conversations on male gaze, consent and representation have increasingly become mainstream.

'Oo Antava' turns the gaze back at the men who are looking at a woman's body, suggesting that it doesn't matter what a woman is wearing (saree or a short dress) or how she looks (fair skinned or dark, plump or thin, tall or short), the men around her, regardless of age, will always find ways to ogle. It blames the gaze of the men and their thoughts for this, and says it has nothing to do with the women. Predictably, #NotAllMen memes about the song are already doing the rounds. According to reports, a men's association in Andhra Pradesh has even threatened to file a case against the song for allegedly portraying men in poor light.

Also read: How Tamil cinema shames women for their choice of clothes

But does the song really question patriarchal ideas about women's bodies and sexual violence? While the move away from the typical item number is a welcome shift, the song still compares women with food (sweet grapes/sugar) and implies that men cannot keep away from them because of this. Such comparisons are unfortunately all too common and only add to the theory that sexual violence is inevitable because women are 'too tempting' for men to resist. For instance, whenever an incident of rape is reported, the woman is often blamed for what she was wearing at the time of the incident. Statements like 'if you leave expensive jewels out in the open, don't complain if a thief steals them' are frequently made to place the onus on the victim/survivor. In the infamous Nirbhaya gangrape and murder case, the defence lawyer of the accused ML Sharma said that if you keep sweets on the road, street dogs will eat them. Many other conventionally made item songs, too, have compared women to food, including Kareena Kapoor's hit 'Fevicol se' from Dabangg 2 where she compares herself to tandoori chicken and says she can be consumed with alcohol. 

The fundamental fact that women are human — a diverse group of people with desires, ambitions, and individualistic expressions — is lost in such comparisons that treat them as inanimate objects to be enjoyed, consumed or owned. It leaves room for a 'boys will be boys' line of argument, making men's behaviour sound inevitable. Such dehumanising language also deprives women of their agency — if women are inanimate objects, how can they express consent, deny or withdraw it?

'Oo Antava' is an interesting take on the item song, and it remains to be seen if it has broken away from the male gaze in the visuals too. But if we're to really go beyond objectifying women in cinema, we have to start looking at them as people. Not jewels, food or anything else that does not have a mind of its own.

Watch: 'Oo Antava' from Pushpa: The Rise