“If I play eve-teasing roles, and just follow girls, my fans will not accept. Either a kiss should be given or they should be made pregnant. That’s all. We have to commit ourselves.” And “I too act naughty with the actresses... I pinch them sometimes.” This was Nandamuri Balakrishna, one of Tollywood’s most influential actors.
A group of lawyers have filed a complaint against Balakrishna with the jurisdictional police. No FIR appears to have been registered yet; police say they are obtaining legal opinion on whether a case can be registered or not.
Perhaps because of the complaint, the actor said sorry, in the clueless manner that PR personnel have perfected into a stonewalling art: use a lot of words without really saying much. Balayya said:
“I have utmost respect towards women. The comments which I made were not to target anyone. Recollecting my previous movies, I made the comments. I extend my greetings to all women from the Telugu states and across the country on Women’s Day.”
A lot of people would say ‘Tollywood-is-like-that-only’, and they would be right.
If one were to go by the sheer range of everyday sexism in Telugu films and by stars off screen, it would seem like a fighting a losing battle. The Telugu film industry is very powerful – it commands a huge league of fans, especially male – which actors and directors know and understand very well.
But Balakrishna isn’t the only one to hold such views or acted in films that would make you cringe. Tollywood giants like Pawan Kalyan, Mahesh Babu, Brahmanandam and comedian Ali have acted scenes that are sexist. Several popular actors and directors have made sexist comments off-screen too.
However, it is hard to say whether the actors and directors take their onscreen sexism and misogyny off-screen or whether it is the other way round.
Balakrishna’s comments wouldn’t have mattered so much if he was an unknown and struggling actor. But Balayya, as he is popularly called, is both politician and actor, with old connections to both.
A TDP MLA from Hindupur constituency in Andhra Pradesh, Balakrishna also happens to be Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu’s brother-in-law and former chief minister and legendary actor NT Rama Rao’s son.
This apart, his own following as an actor is huge, giving the actor a lot of influence with Telugu audiences. This simple point, was beautifully and very simply put across by a young woman, a self-declared Tollywood fan.
In a YouTube video last year, a Baltimore-based post-graduate Annapurna Sunkara discusses sexism in Tollywood. She said she watched five Telugu films for every film in any other language. Even though she loves Telugu cinema, she fails to understand why it is so sexist, and also wonders how its sense of humour is so focused on “ridiculing and insulting someone”.
After her video clipping went viral, another YouTube user named Vishwanath countered her, telling her that movies weren’t meant to be taken seriously. They were entertainment, not reality. In real life, people countered sexism, but a movie was just a movie.
Watch the video here: I stand by my video: Woman behind viral video 'Sexism in Telugu films should change'
However, in her own video, Annapurna is making precisely the opposite argument: if something is not acceptable in real life, why is it ok in reel life? “I think a movie should have a minimum social responsibility. So, I responded to him because I thought he might understand,” Annapurna had told The News Minute by email last July.
If “being naughty” and “pinching” his fellow actors is Balakrishna’s attitude towards women, there’s little question of respecting them. Consciously and unconsciously, this attitude is likely to be emulated by his fans.