Is Trivikram's 'Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava' truly gender progressive?

The film has received good reviews for its portrayal of women and masculinity - but does it really challenge these ideas?
Is Trivikram's 'Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava' truly gender progressive?
Is Trivikram's 'Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava' truly gender progressive?

*Some spoilers ahead

As a feminist, it’s on me if I watch a commercial cinema expecting something out of the ordinary, or so I am told. But I had to watch this one, after reading reviews and social media banter calling a hero-centric film progressive and conscious, partly because I’m hopeful, but mostly out of curiosity. 

To give some context, the film is written and directed by Trivikram Srinivas who used to write charming, yet openly flawed male protagonists who are susceptible to mockery. That was progressive then. Lately, his films have been doling hero worship with a rape joke here and a domestic violence joke there. But it’s okay since the societal rules of civility and decency don’t apply to commercial cinema, even though they make it a point to irresponsibly discuss societal evils. Anyway, I wanted to see a better Trivikram, the one I last saw in Khaleja—not kind to the women in it though, they never are—so I went. 

First things first, Aravindha Sametha is neither feminist nor does it discuss gender politics productively. That said, it isn’t blatantly sexist either and has a heroine who keeps asking the hero to give her space and who doesn’t seem readily impressed by him. The thing with progress is, it’s subjective. It means different things to different people. Especially men and women. For men, sexism is something they should avoid indulging in. A thing to look out for if/when it seeps in. But for women, sexism is something they have to endure and fight against actively. At times it costs them a job, at times more. So, a film that doesn’t indulge in explicit women bashing is progress for a man. But it’s much more complicated for a woman who can’t help but see the red flags. 

The film has two important women characters who reason with the hero. One is Supriya Pathak, who plays the hero’s grandmother, and has three scenes with only two of them where she says something. One might argue then is there really a need to bring an artist of her calibre to play a 5-minute role—same applies for the role given to Easwari Rao—but that’s for another day.

She says, among other things, “Stopping a war from happening in the first place is a better thing to do than winning it.” It does sound rather poignant in Telugu, coming out of an actor with great screen presence. But why does this man who has spent 10 years of his life in a different country, soaking in a different culture, not know this already? Anyway, he doesn’t and her words visibly affect him. Listening to your grandmother’s words when she is grieving her son’s death is progressive? The standards are so low, it apparently is.

The second woman whose words reach his ears is Aravinda, an anthropology student—her whole personality is defined by this, even her laptop sleeve is supposed to remind us that she is an intelligent woman—who reads the hero like she is a psychiatrist. That said, I couldn’t really blame the writer for penning under-written female characters when the male characters equally lack personality.

Coming to the point, two out of three times she says something that helps the protagonist, she is in danger—1. Being followed by a group of men with malicious intentions, 2. Literally being on the verge of death. So, yes. She has advice, but the way the words overshadow the emotional state the woman might be in is bad manners, to say nothing of the writing. Same goes with the grandmother who had to silently/rushedly grieve the loss of her son because she has some wisdom-parting to do.

The thing is, most commercial films have a dialogue or two where they try to masquerade their notions of conservatism and patriarchy as feminism. More often than not, they succeed.

At the very end of this film, when the hero selects the antagonist’s wife as the candidate to contend in the coming elections, the baffled politicians ask “What does she know?”—which isn’t an unreasonable question, to be honest, because we don’t know her qualifications. Instead of answering the question, our progressive hero using this opportunity to cater to the women says, “Pallichi penchina thallulu, sir, paalinchadam oka lekka veelaki?” (How is politics a challenge to the mothers who breastfed us and raised us?).

Not underlining the fact that politics and pregnancy are two very different things, it also sounds a lot like the defence used by people who believe cows are sacred because they give milk and we exploit them for our own benefit. Yes, most women have the biological ability, among many other abilities, to give birth and breastfeed, but that in itself isn’t a qualification/achievement. It also sets a dangerous precedent by devaluing women who choose not to have kids. A man should treat a woman like his equal because she is. That’s the end of the sentence. The minute you start looking for a reason, you’ve failed. The minute you start trying to put women on a pedestal, you’ve failed.

In a world, where a considerable amount of men have female bosses, is listening to a woman really a thing of celebration? I hope not. That said, maybe it is progress that a man is talking about breasts in a context that is not sexual. Maybe it is progress that the toxic masculine energy is restricted to the action sequences. Maybe.

But what about the time when a random guy threatens to kill himself because Aravindha (Pooja Hegde) isn’t paying any heed to his yearlong persuasions? The hero mockingly says under his breath, “You deserve it for asking people to give you space.” Do not say it’s a joke because neither suicide nor stalking is appropriate material for humour. Or what about the way the film pits two sisters against each other, a recurring trope for the filmmaker? How can it not be problematic that a male writer creates a female character who says, “Women don’t want diamonds and all, they just want your time.” What made him think that he knows women enough to know what they want and what they don’t?

Also, time is the minimum a person can give another. Stop trying to lower female expectations. They are at an all-time low as it is. Just an advice for the future: if you want to sound like a feminist, don’t refer to women as things. It doesn’t matter if you are calling them valuable things. Things are different from living beings. You should know this by now.

I have been told that even a tiny step in the right direction is still a step forward, so what if the filmmaker stops midstep to pat himself on the back. I get that commercial cinema isn’t for privileged people like me, it is for the vast majority who have to work long hours, and for whom a movie is a break/vacation. I agree.

My question is don’t these subsets of people have women in them? Don’t we owe those overworked women better representation? If a commercial filmmaker’s only job is to entertain the people that need/deserve it the most, shouldn’t he/she do their job more responsibly? If cinema provides with a glimpse at the outside world for the financially underprivileged, shouldn’t the people making it paint a better picture? And for the people asking, ‘Why are you only questioning this film? How is it different from the rest?’, that is exactly my point. It really isn’t.

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