Tollywood – A Love Affair

Telugu movies seem to follow a common theme. The cast lists the usual suspects. In the lead, we have Allu Arjun, Prabhas, Mahesh Babu or the like. Brahmanandam for comic relief. The rest of the cast contains a subset of what seems to be a Tollywood supporting cast package. The supporting cast is recycled among movies to match a pre-existing template. We need siblings, parents, politicians, BFFs, goondas, relatives, neighbors etc..

Then we have the plot.

The lead character is an alpha male and a model citizen. He is invincible and can beat up all the bad guys without sustaining a single injury on his own self. His sole aim in life is to maintain law and order in society. And he will do that either by getting into the police/armed forces or as a vigilante.

Other times the lead character is a vulnerable layperson. He has flaws like the rest of us. But he loves his family and his friends and will do anything to keep them happy. He leads an ordinary life. But extraordinary circumstances provoke him to become the alpha male. Over the course of a few minutes, he turns into someone who can fight trained goondas effortlessly. Because he has the emotional support of his friends and family, he can also beat up the bad guys AFTER they have beaten him to a pulp. All he needs is that final push of energy. This could come from the memory of a friend/family member whose death he is avenging. It could also come from his mother or girlfriend egging him on with dialogues such as – “if you are a man”, “if you are truly my son”, “if you truly love me”, concatenated with, “you will get up and kill this evil person”.

There has to be a villain, obviously. This is a man who meets all known criteria to be classified under the pure-evil category. He and his goons have an entire city/village under their control. They terrorize the people to maintain their hegemony. They are into some kind of illegal trade. It could be drugs, real-estate, weapons, etc. They harass the men for their land and sexually harasses the women for pleasure. If you stand up to them, you lose your life. The police are in with them too. For the people of the village, there is no way out except to give in to their needs.

Then, of course, the hero enters. Sometimes as a new guy or as the friend of someone in the neighborhood. Or as the honest police officer posted to that area. After a few setbacks, the hero sets things right. The villain and his goons get what they deserve. It always ends well. Good wins over evil. The people are happy. The audience is happy.

And a few months later, a new movie is out. Slightly different, but mostly same.

I enjoy watching variations of this tried and tested plotline. I’m drawn to these movies because they are familiar. They’re predictable and offer mindless entertainment when needed. Tollywood must be making other types of movies but if a Telugu movie seems too offbeat, I skip it. I consume only the box office successes, the commercial movies made for a large audience. It’s not that I don’t watch offbeat movies. I watch them in other languages ( Marathi, Malayalam, Hindi, Kannada). Tollywood is my go-to for common-man-saves-the-people-from-evil-don blockbuster movies. And it’s because the Telugu movie industry is good at making them. They have mastered the formula down pat. A lot of them are remade into other languages. But they are never as good as the Telugu original.

The characters are extremes. The good guy is unbelievably good, and the bad guy is disturbingly evil. These movies are not very different from superhero movies. Sure, the male lead does not wear a cape, or a body-hugging leotard or mask. There is no futuristic, lab-experiment-gone-wrong evil character. Maybe it’s just me, but Hollywood’s superhero movies seem too impossible, too fantastic, too scientific. With Tollywood, there is no science or logic involved. Not even a hint of it. The places are real, the people are real. Everything is just a little exaggerated.

The hero usually fits the middle-class-Indian-male profile except for some “superpowers”. Although he has never trained in self-defense or martial arts, he can turn into a guy who destroys the mafia alone. If ten guys come at him at once, he can send them flying in different directions with a single punch. He can sense the presence of someone attacking him from behind, then turn at the precise moment and deliver a punch that sends the guy through brick walls while also thwarting a lateral attack with a spear. He effortlessly breaks bones and dodges bullets. He can jump over rooftops without a pause to calculate his trajectory. He can leap out of moving cars and high-rise windows, and land unscathed. He has no mutations, no chemicals injected into his bloodstream. But he has great strength, friends and family by his side, and most importantly, he has his heart in the right place.

Maybe I’m reading too much into these three-hour formulaic sources of entertainment but movies like Yevadu and Race Gurram offer satisfaction and hope. The daily news does nothing to elevate my mood; it only aggravates a sense of imminent doom. These movies temporarily transport me into a make-believe world where good triumphs. It’s a great way to take our minds off reality and, for a few hours, forget the bureaucracy, the government, and the policies.

The violence is the major source of my satisfaction. Bad guys are usually not arrested and thrown behind bars. Even when they are it is only after a long, painful, and violent defeat using weapons such as guns, barbed wire, tires, poles, and bricks. This is one of the areas where the moviemakers let their creativity flow. The action scenes are a work of art.

In the movie “Abhinetri“, PrabhuDeva imagines himself beating any person who annoys him. But in reality, he just stands helplessly and nods. These movies offer something similar. An excellent way to live our fantasy of seeing the bad guys get what they deserve.

When the plot gets too serious, or when our hero faces too many setbacks, some humor is thrown in. Some light comedy, courtesy Brahmandandam or one of his proteges. Slapstick, situational, cliched humor.

My only gripe with these movies is the women. The women are always an accessory, an afterthought, a distraction. Like that painting in your living room, women characters are a conversation piece. Sources of color and entertainment. Never at the center. Occasionally we see strong, female characters. Women who hold their ground, women in roles other than housemakers. Yet, they are not crucial to the plot. They are cheering the hero from the audience, from behind the curtains. They stand behind, not with him, not ahead of him. They need saving, they need protection. Even the occasional, negative, female characters are cliched – a sidekick using her sexual prowess. Not a mastermind. This puts me off each time, yet I don’t see it changing soon.

Until then, I am going to keep my grievances aside and continue watching these movies for the mindless sources of entertainment that they are.

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