Will the mega-success of Pushpa, KGF 2, RRR bring back casual sexism, toxicity to cinema?
Starting with the two Baahubali films, Southern language films especially Telugu and Kannada films are hugely successful in the markets of India. RRR, Pushpa and KGF 2 are three releases in the last six months alone, which have garnered hundreds of crores in revenue across India.
At a time when Bollywood is seeing the failure of stereotypical movies like Bachchhan Paandey and Radhe, why are Hindi dubbed versions of movies like Pushpa and KGF 2 win gold? Is this just a ripple effect of Baahubali’s success, or a logical progression of watching dubbed southern films on TV channels? Is it a voyeuristic exploration of communities and cultures that are still foreign to us? Or do male-dominated narratives give people a twisted sense of nostalgia in the new normal?
Watching movies like Pushpa and KGF 1 and 2 or even RRR, you can’t help feeling deja vu in front of movies made in the Bollywood’s angry young man days. A man from the lowest rungs of society, fighting against the establishment and/or blurring the lines of good and evil to achieve success and power. In Pushpa as in KGF, the hero’s mother is a single parent while the father is absent. This leads to the hero having a difficult childhood and a questionable moral compass as an adult.
But what is disturbing and common to all of these blockbuster movies is a return to the regressive tropes that Bollywood has struggled to let go of. Excessive focus on the physique and machismo of the hero who is nonchalantly sexist and willfully toxic. Female characters, who are constantly objectified and only exist in the context of the hero, and stories that glorify male aggression and violence. These films not only reflect our patriarchal society, they glorify its most unfortunate aspects.
Take Pushpa for example. Pushpa, short for Pushparaj, is an ambitious, resourceful and fearless worker who sits, walks and smokes in style. Everything is nice and crazy, until he has a crush on Srivalli, a young girl who sells milk for a living. Pushpa then continues to stalk her incessantly but when Srivalli doesn’t respond, her friend decides to pay her friends a thousand dollars to look at him once and smile. Disturbingly, her friends take the money, forcing Srivalli to smile against her consent. Encouraged, Pushpa then offers her friends five thousand rupees if they convince/force Srivalli to kiss her.
Unsurprisingly, the film portrays these incidents as light courtesy and not attempted sexual assault. Later in the film, a villain tells Srivalli that she will have to sleep with him to ensure her father’s life. She agrees but goes to Pushpa and asks him to have sex with her first because she wants her first sexual encounter to be with the man she considers her husband. It is his apparent confession of love; asking a man to have sex with her because she won’t be worthy of him after being raped by another.
These are just a few of the many examples of a hugely successful film where millions seem to have not only ignored problematic content decisions, but also abused the blurring of lines between rape and consensual sex in the 80s style. But Pushpa is not alone.
In KGF 2, another hugely successful movie that broke all box office records, Rocky, played by Kannada superstar Yash, tracks down and then kidnaps a rival’s daughter, Reena. He states that he will hold her captive as his “entertainment”. Rocky doesn’t rape her though, as premarital sex isn’t his scene. Just violence, bullying and blackmailing a parent by hanging the possibility of his child’s rape above his head. Romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome, Reena falls in love with Rocky and marries him. Luckily, she dies shortly after ending the charade of her relevance in the film.
In RRR, director SS Rajamouli pours testosterone by the gallon, leaving no room for a strong female character. Alia Bhatt has taken on a role she would never have accepted to play in a Bollywood film, perhaps just to tick off a pan-Indian film on her resume.
There was a time when women dominated television and men dominated the big screen. Perhaps it was a heartbreaking reminder of how women were limited to playing power games within a household while a man went out and took on the world. With the arrival of great actresses and directors in the industry, a slow change has begun. Bollywood and regional cinema have seen great films made where the story is driven by a high conceptual storyline, and the characterization of women is progressive and even novel.
But the financial success enjoyed by films dubbed in the southern language is worrying. It’s a painful reminder of the success of a film like Kabir Singh, despite the criticism it faced over the hero’s sexist behavior. Even in terms of pure economics, stars like Salman Khan wonder why big-budget Hindi films don’t fare so well with their supposed target audience. While speaking at an event, Salman said, “South Indian film industry has always believed in heroism, so have we. I think here what has happened is that people think that India only stretches from Cuff Parade to Andheri. However, I think Hindustan starts next to the railway tracks at Bandra East.
Maybe it’s not as simple as adding a superstar, sexism, action, music, dancing and laughing together and expecting people to enjoy it. Movies like Pushpa, KGF, RRR boast of excellent cinematography, awesome special effects, high octane action and catchy tunes. These movies put regressive content into a technically sound bottle and that may be where the secret to their success lies.
But we can’t help but wonder. Did we just get the illusion that the audience’s palette changed? Is the popularity of Pushpa, KGF and RRR a sign that, if packaged correctly, our audience is blinded by the problematic product inside? More worryingly, does this mean that Bollywood will also abandon its attempts to move forward and take ten steps back instead? It’s a question that’s sure to give actors and filmmakers who’ve struggled to sit at the sleepless nights table.