Love Story is an inevitable piece of art at a time when Dalits, especially Dalit Christians, are at the receiving end of hatred and bullying from different directions for desiring a dignified life.

Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi in lead rolesImages: Sekhar Kammula /Facebook
Flix Commentary Sunday, September 26, 2021 - 19:31

This is not a review. Spoilers ahead. 

Seeing or hearing about certain incidents makes one understand how much courage and privilege it takes to love. For me, the September 2018 daylight murder of Pranay Perumalla, a Dalit Christian youngster, for marrying his upper caste girlfriend Amruta Varshini, is one such incident. It has not just made me rethink my place in the world, but has also reshaped me. "No one wishes to get into conflict, but love happens," says Sunny, a boy who gets killed for chasing love just like Pranay Perumalla, in Love Story, a movie by Sekhar Kammula, starring Sai Pallavi and Naga Chaitanya in lead roles.

Only on rare occasions, socially sensitive feats like this one are executed on the Telugu silver screen. Director Sekhar's ambitious efforts to showcase multiple social realities in just two and half hours of screen time somehow tightened the drama, but that doesn't make him any less deserving of appreciation. An average upper caste Telugu viewer who is schooled to like unrealistic and comforting stories might get doomed and say 'this is not true' and 'there is no caste'; Sekhar is successful if we are hearing such defensive taunts.

However, the movie is absolutely unconventional and raw in terms of its pitch, which is true to the caste reality of Armoor, as the area is known, for similar caste based atrocities against Dalits and other marginalised castes. The story is of Revanth (Naga Chaitanya), a Dalit Christian youngster who is seeking a career in zumba fitness training in Hyderabad; and Mounika (Sai Pallavi), an aspiring software engineer who hails from a dominant agrarian caste family, and ends up as Revanth’s business partner. Both of them learn that they belong to the same village in Nizamabad's Armoor.  

Sekhar’s crafting of Revanth as a child who saw everyday casteism; his caste conscious mother Manemma (Eshwari Rao) who is fond of land; their bold neighbour Gangavva (Gangavva); and a helpless cop who is a Dalit; are often less shown imageries of Dalit colony and life.

Not getting into the packed story execution, I would say that their love is special as it threatens the status quo, as is the duo's effort to scale new heights and settle well in life by challenging the punitive structure of caste and deep-rooted patriarchy.

While Mounika believes 'anyone can become anything', Revanth sees the caste system as the demon that obstructs him in all walks of life, whichever way he heads. In one scene at a pub, a character called Balli reminds Revanth of his status/place by saying, “Partying and dining in the city is fine, but the village doesn't even see your (Dalits) faces and maintains a distance.”

Sekhar's nuanced representation of caste and the village structure is something that is rarely found in Tollywood, where a fairly anti-caste movie like Asuran gets reduced to Narappa, who is serious about class fight which is not an absolute discriminatory social reality.

Amidst the pain and romance under the shadow of fear, the duo sees each other with hope, as someone who they can sail through life with faith like any couple. Sekhar's inter-caste lovers’ (Sunny-Geetha, Revanth-Mounika) difficulties to be together, and their desperation while being apart, is not fictitious but a reality, as many either face attacks or get locked up for trying.

The movie has also brought forth subtle forms of caste discrimination, like Dalits being expected to leave their footwear even before entering the premises of upper caste houses with a submissive body language; and men like Pedda Patel (Patel is an expression used for feudal upper caste men who own land and power in Telangana), Narasimham (Rajeev Kanakala), addressing Dalits with a disrespectful tone and words, like the way Pedda Patel treats Revanth during a conversation about a land deal.

Coming from the same area, I know the humiliating words and actions of upper castes against Dalits, irrespective of their education qualifications. In fact, they humiliate more if there is an educated Dalit who doesn't back off from asserting themself. The movie features the Telangana dialect of Telugu while also showing the changes of tone in it based on the caste and social location of the person.

In the run up to climax, Sekhar opened the floor for another complex subject — child sexual abuse in the family — although Mounika's fear of touch of men comes as a prelude. Revanth deciding to take on Pedda Patel, who is the embodiment of caste and sexual violence, instead of eloping, is not just a decision to take on an individual, but a society which legitimises pride over human dignity.

As Revanth's exhaustion and questioning of the upper castes' domination in all affairs from birth to death and marriage, land owning, is a straight representation of an average Dalit millennial, who is just dreaming of a life with dignity and self respect in the shade provided by Dr BR Ambedkar.

"Amidst the oscillations of hope and dismay, dawn and dusk, this is all I have for myself, and everything I have is yours from now,” (Aasa niraasala uyyalatalu poddu mapula madhye, nakantu undinthe, undanthaa ika neeke) go the lyrics by Pingali Chaitanya, who is also a co-writer of the story. "Love is such a wonder, it has written such a strange testament for us, it has hidden you in me while leaving me in you, telling us to get away,” (Entha chitram prema- vintha veelunama raasindi manaku prema, ninnu naalo daachi nannu neelo vidichi velli pommantondhi prema) goes another song, this one by Mittapalli Surender. These lyrics have beautifully portrayed the love that aspires to cherish life beyond caste boundaries, and are a sublime addition to the music of Pavan CH.

It is fair to remember that seeking happy endings in Dalit love stories is nothing but seeking a partial reality, at least as long as there is a 'hopeful future'.

Love Story is an inevitable piece of art at a time when Dalits, especially Dalit Christians, are at the receiving end of hatred and bullying from different directions (including social media) for desiring a dignified life.

Charan Teja covers the two Telugu states and writes predominantly on caste, politics and forest-environmental rights.

Views expressed are the author’s own.


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