When anyone wants to write, especially with a critical tone, about any movie, the immediate question one has to grapple with is the following: Why should you "fuss" about a movie? The cliched rationale for this question is that it's "just entertainment". No, films are not just entertainment. When movies are big businesses, they are a form of major cultural influence through socialization; cinema icons are revered like demigods (some even become chief ministers and politicians) and, in some cases, films are actually cultural projects. The notion that movies are "just entertainment" is logically untenable.
So, a film must be taken head-on, especially, when it has a deeply problematic premise and portrayal. A film may be judged on its commercial value by its producers but it should also be assessed for both its cinematic and ethical value. Because, all these - commercial, cinematic and ethical values - go into the medium. So, reducing a film and bypassing all other values, to "just entertainment" (thereby making it beyond reproach) is irresponsible and an insult to the medium.
The case-in-point is the recent Telugu release Geetha Govindam, directed by Parasuram, which has been running successfully, if we purely look at it from the commercial vantage point. This, obviously, suggests that many from the Telugu audience are liking this film. However, it’s one thing to like a film and quite another to introspect as to why one likes it.
Among the first scenes in the film is when the character played by Anu Emmanuel wishes Vijay Govind (Vijay Deverakonda) all the best by offering him a handshake. To this, he replies, “No, it’s not good to touch you because you are somebody else’s wife now (Vaddhulendi, ippudu meeru inkokari bharya, mimmlani touch cheyakudadhu)”. This is his notion of "remaining pure", and it also reiterates the "woman is property" idea for he believes she should not be touched as she is already "owned" by somebody else. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is consistently sexist and patriarchal.
The narrative unfolds mainly through two subplots, expectedly, connected to each other. One, Geetha-Govind’s (Rashmika- Vijay Deverakonda) conflict. Second, Geetha’s brother trying to prove his "manhood" by killing the man who apparently kissed his sister in a moving bus. These two subplots interlace and merge before the climax.
There are two crucial scenes in the movie. The first scene introduces these two subplots one after the other and the second scene merges these subplots into the main plot. To elaborate, the first scene sets up the conflict between Govind and Geetha when Govind tries to kiss Geetha in a moving bus after she has fallen asleep. Govind is persuaded and advised by his friend to kiss her (the entire conversation between Govind and his friend is deeply rooted in casual sexism).
Though Govind backtracks from the idea of kissing her after the initial try, the moving bus does the act when he tries to take a selfie with Geetha when she is asleep. However, in effect, both these acts are the same. And, it doesn’t matter whether he voluntarily kissed her or a moving bus miraculously did the act for him - as long as the logic is the same, and as long as the director wants to make this as the main premise to move the story ahead. Moreover, Govind caresses Geetha's feet and takes a picture of hers when she's asleep, a clear violation of her privacy. Needless to say, it is not cinematic brilliance to think of a main premise such as this.
This, then, invites another subplot where Geetha’s brother, Phaneendra (Subbaraju) looks for the one who kissed his sister, to teach him a lesson by killing him. Otherwise, Phaneendra feels that he cannot show "his face" in the village and his "honour" is in trouble. This is clearly a patriarchal trope which puts the burden of "family honour" on the bodies of women and where men are the guardians of this "honour" through protecting the bodies of women. The film endorses the idea of "honour" being violated when a woman in the family is molested or assaulted.
And in the second important scene, Govind tries to moral police his female student, who is deeply in love with him, after she decides to send a nude video of hers to prove her love.
The monologue goes like this: “You are born into a rich family, you should have common sense, right? Why didn’t your parents go for the second baby even though you are a girl? Can’t they afford it? Because they trust you. One girl is enough for us, she will look after us well (Intha peddha family lo puttaavu, minimum commonsense undali kadhaa. Ammaayi puttina sare inkokrni yendhuku kanaledhu? Penchalekanaa? Nee meedha nammakam. Maaku ammaayi chaalu, mammalni baaga choosukuntundhani)”.
This moralastic lecture not only essentializes gender but also reveals Govind’s prejudices about the poor and women. However, ironically, it is in this scene when Geetha realises that she, thus far, had misunderstood Vijay Govind. She, then expectedly, forgives him and starts loving him.
At one point in the film, Govind mentions that he respects women a lot. But then, he praises his sister as “Bangaram” (gold) for agreeing to a marriage proposal without even seeing her "future husband".
Also, there is a sequence in the movie as he waits for Geetha to come out of her house. He stares at her navel while she adjusts her sari as she walks out. He, suddenly, like a chameleon, changes his behaviour as and when she notices that he is checking her out. Furious, she asks, “Will you never change? (nuvvu inkaa maaravaa?)”. He then replies, by pulling an innocent face, “No madam, I am changed (ledhu madam, nenu maaripoyaa), I am completely decent now”. But the important point to note here is that Govind winks at the girls nearby, as if to say "see, how I managed this". Geetha's anger and discomfort are never taken seriously in the film and we don't see Govind's actions from her point of view at all.
The glorification of women’s lack of agency in choosing their partner and the portrayal of his obscene behaviour as humorous do not, at all, suggest that Vijay actually respects women. If the director wanted to show his hero as someone who respects traditions, traditional values, and traditional women (meaning, like his mother), so be it. But if he wants to equate those notions with that of his hero’s "good boy image" which he builds in such regressive ways, then it is very problematic.
In that case, both - the value system that his hero has created for himself under the rubric of ‘tradition’, and his "good boy image" - invite public criticism and will require a serious scrutiny both at sociological and praxeological levels. The "good boy" image hides the casual sexism and patriarchy under it very nicely. This, and Vijay Govind calling Geetha “madam, madam” do not exonerate the director’s lazy and irresponsible writing.
Are we not sick of these problematic narratives yet? When will our writers and directors sensitize themselves and try to deconstruct these tropes?
Not only does the film stick by these tropes, it also glorifies them. This is both dangerous and creepy. Given the narrative style of the movie and its commercial success, this film should scare each one of us, considering the acceptance these ideas have received. Did the makers deliberately wish to portray such ideas or is it that they are yet to come out of their cultural trap?
After watching the entire film, one is not surprised that Govind admires Chaganti Pravachanalu, the well-known "spiritual" speaker who is known for his misogynistic ideas. The same man who once said that a wife will get her moksha if she washes her husband's gochi (underwear) after he takes a bath.
In several parts of India, when a woman is raped or molested by a man, the village Panchayat (often comprising a few upper caste men), decides to marry her off to him. These men see this as a way of bringing "justice" to her. This deeply problematic patriarchal logic has unbridled ramifications to it. Geetha Govindam may appeal to urban audiences who watch it in multiplexes, but we must not forget that it is more or less based on this regressive logic disguised under an appealing tone and ambiance.
(Raviteja Rambarki is pursuing his Ph.D. Sociology at the University of Hyderabad)
Note: Views expressed are author's own