11 November 2009

Megastar - Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N T Rama Rao

Author: S V Srinivas
Pages: 240 Add Image
Price: 695
Publishers: Oxford

Film studies, as an area of interest to many of us, is not really a well-explored field in India. In spite of the fact that the country produces the largest number of films in the world, the various critical aspects vis a vis, its changing forms, trends, socio-cultural impact have rarely been written about at any great length academically.
Which is why, one ought to welcome any book that attempts to understand cinema in its larger context. S. V Srinivas chooses an extremely interesting, relevant and hitherto unexplored aspect of southern cinema - the mass film, the fan culture and its intimacy to politics.

It's intriguing how every big politician in the South - from N T Rama Rao to M G R from Jayalalitha to Rajkumar in Karnataka to now Chiranjeevi have played a definite role in mass mobilisation achieved through their screen images. This is the overarching theme of Srinivas' book and he goes about explaining this complex phenomenon by understanding the role of fan clubs, the mass film movement and the various elements facilitating the genre to achieve this.
What is unfortunate though is that even though the book delves into an interesting area of study, it does so in a drab, academic fashion.
It requires the reader to summon up a great level of concentration and patience to actually get by this. It's jargon-heavy, technical and approached with a tone of high seriousness, that sucks out a lot of the fun in reading it.
Also, the book tends to give you important pointers about various aspects of the subject, but there's also a certain lack of focus, which means there is too much repetition and you don't get an adequate sense of what the author intends to say finally.
Yet, for a book that solely focuses on Telugu cinema and its socio-political impact, it's obvious there will be a good deal of observations and insights about the industry in it. The author does not explain why such mass adulation is mostly a South phenomenon. My own understanding is that regional cinema is developed in the Southern states more than any other part of the country. The influence of Bollywood is limited here, unlike in other states.
Screen idols, I would imagine, are always born out of a certain sense of identification that the audience feels with the actor - the son of the soil factor. Thereby this sense of intimacy and bonding with a star is achievable only in the regional context mostly. The rare exception to this rule in Hindi is Amitabh Bachchan, but otherwise, the appeal of celebrities has been restricted to adding glamour to political campaigns.
This aspect is not really explored in the book, but Srinivas does point at a peculiar aspect of how a fan looks at his idol - his affinity to the star could be based on class/caste (though most fan clubs deny this!) which is where the question of identification comes in. So the star is viewed as “one among them - but also someone who is superior to them”, as he's blessed with special abilities. Another aspect about fans is their sense of “entailment” wherein they have definite expectations from the star and his films. This often led to what the author calls as a 'blockage” for the star-actor who could not explore new forms of narratives. For one, he could not die on screen at all!

The books speaks a great deal about the prevailing “mass film” and how it is structured entirely around the superstar to evoke a response from its target audience. The author says the “foundationally populist” nature of this cinema ensures that the narrative moves ahead according to the audiences' expectations. Using various films of Chiranjeevi, the author delves into different factors that go into making a mass film. Most of the actors earlier films, he says, established him as a subaltern, threating the prevailing feudal order. This phase also saw the rise of the 'rowdy' in the mass film, where “the ordinariness (of character) and distinction (of star) are intertwined.” Using the example of films like Gharana Mogudu (Mannan in Tamil and Laadla in Hindi), the author analyses the inherent politics of these films and the conflicts they seek to resolve. The subaltern taming the haughty, upper class heroine and so on.
(Interestingly, I noticed Hindi cinema's definite influence on Southern films and vice versa. I got to understand that Chiranjeevi is called 'Vijay' in some of his films in the 80s– Bachchan's screen name in maximum films. Similarly, the whole feudal culture/ authoritative patriarch figure seen in Hindi is mostly derived from the South films).

The author also talks at length about one of Chiranjeevi's most controversial film, Alluda Majaka, that came under a lot of flak for having several obscene sequences. Srinivas first delves into what constitutes obscenity and concludes how it “exists because it recogonises our worst fears” --- in the sense that someone else is enjoying what is so obviously offensive and embarrassing to a particular class of people. He also adds that a lot of the masses who enjoyed the obscenity did so because they saw nothing in it to hurt their sensibilities. The film was also important for the mass mobilisation it brought about. When several organisations asked for the film to be banned, the actor's fan associations organised themselves for the first time to aggressively stand up for him.

Alluda Majaka, and the events around it set the stage for Chiranjeevi's future moves in politics. The actor's career plummeted in the mid-90s, and when he came back with his film Hitler, he had also changed his image. What you had now was the tragic, authoritative figure of the patriarch, who resolved not just familial issues but also those concerning the state. Many of the actor's films around this time, says the author, addressed a mass of people within the film itself.

The book touches upon a great many points and these are divided into many more sub heads. The authorial voice does not guide you well enough through the complex tapestry of themes that are brought forth. The language is excellent though academic and goes about its business in a matter-of-fact manner. For a book on cinema and mass films, one could have done with more anecdotes and preferably a racy style of writing.

-Sandhya Iyer


workhard said...

Very good post.. didnt know there was such comprehensive literature on Telugu cinema

Work from home India

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