This year’s rash of South Indian films invoking medieval history has allowed us to do a number of crazy things. One is to reimagine Indian history with gorgeous landscapes and epic architecture using Game of Thrones/Lord of the Rings-tinted glasses, as in the Telugu film Baahubali. Another fun thing is to reimagine Indian history told through fantasy, but fantasy inspired by a Western medieval aesthetic (think Robin Hood and his Merry-Men-style outfits, Jethro Tull-ish background music, a bunch of Ferngully Lilliputians and a beautiful wicked witch in flowing gowns.) as in the Tamil film Puli.
But it’s the least crazy of all the things these ‘medieval’ films allow me to do that I love most: revisit a part of Indian history in which a woman can be a fierce warrior, an able ruler, and inspire people with her awesomeness like in the Telugu flick Rudhramadevi.
In south Indian cinema, films with a well-written female lead come by so rarely that I tend to cling to them when they do. Watching Rudhramadevi made me feel like Indiana Jones discovering the Lost Ark. Particularly because even when a film does tout its female lead, there seems little for the women to do. In my first job editing for a national daily, Saturdays were fun because it meant that I got to copyedit film reviews being published for the next day. It was always with dismay that I’d note that one of my senior colleagues who wrote about regional film – one of the sweetest men in the office and sensitive about gender – would write reviews that sometimes included only a throwaway line about the heroine, mostly about her looks and dancing skills. It’s a sentence I’ve come to find in reviews of South Indian films annoyingly often, and it’s this unselfconscious line that tells me how often the heroine is about as useful to the plot as the shrubbery. “Kajal Agarwal has a small and cute role and she looks good on screen,” reads this IBNLive review of Businessman. Anushka Shetty “has a super-toned body and indulges in quite a bit of skin show” goes this rediff.com review of Billa, which goes on to say she has “nothing much to do” other than “upping the glam quotient”. ‘Upping the glam quotient’ appears often in reviews as a consolation prize for having drawn the short straw in terms of interesting characters. So when Rudhramadevi came along with an amazing main female character who carries the film beginning to end, with everyone else in only a supporting role, it had me cheering loudly.
But accessing a cinematic medieval aesthetic in films made in 2015 comes with its own set of problems: can a fictionalized history, or even a fantasy history, be constructed free of the prejudices of the present? None of these films are off the hook in terms of deploying the gender, caste or colour prejudice, that floods current cinema. Inserting these prejudices into the realm of fantasy or fictionalized history without challenging them allows us to sneak them back into the cinematic landscape, without taking responsibility for perpetuating the inequalities of the present.
Here’s a quick recap of the three films before we move ahead. Baahubali (which released in July 2015), this year’s biggest, most expensive blockbuster, is the story of a hero named Baahubali (played by Prabhas) who is found at the foot of a waterfall as a baby, and raised among the villagers who rescued him. He grows up to be a beefy dude who climbs the waterfall in search of the woman whose mask he found washed away in the river, and finds Avanthika (Tamannaah Bhatia), a rebel warrior trying to rescue the captured queen Devasena (Anushka Shetty) from the people who usurped her kingdom. He takes over her mission, saves the day, finds out he’s actually the prince of that kingdom, and the movie ends with a flashback to what happened during his father’s time, showing how the kingdom was lost to the evil Bhallala (Rana Daggubati), with the promise of a sequel.
Puli (released in October 2015) follows the story of Marudheeran (Vijay), who was found as a baby – also in a river – and adopted by the tribal village chief who finds him. The village he lives in is subject to constant attacks by the Vedhalams, a race of blue-eyed horse-riding warriors with fancy fighting skills and supernatural powers. He goes off on a mission to the Vedhalam kingdom when his girlfriend Pavazhamalli (Shruti Hasan) is kidnapped by them, to save Pavazhamalli from the evil Vedhalam queen Yavanarani (Sridevi). He too finds out he’s actually the prince of that kingdom, defeats Yavanarani and her evil advisor Jalatharangan (Sudeep), rescues his girl, and saves the day.
Rudhramadevi (released the same month as Puli) is based on the real-life queen Rudhramadevi from the Kakatiya dynasty, who was raised as a boy, Rudradeva – her father, King Ganapatideva’s heir. In the film, Rudhramadevi (Anushka Shetty) is trained to be a warrior and prepared to rule the kingdom, and married to Muktamba (Nithya Menen). But she’s in love with Veerabhadra (Rana Daggubati), a Chalukya prince and one of her childhood companions. When the secret leaks that she isn’t a prince but a princess, she publicly announces that she’s a woman. But when it’s time for her to take over the throne, her people reject her and some of the nobles conspire to throw her out of the kingdom, believing a woman cannot make a strong ruler. Meanwhile, there’s an impending invasion by another dynasty. Rudhramadevi returns, stronger, fiercer, with a firm ally in the rebel chieftain Gona Ganna Reddy (Allu Arjun) saves the kingdom, saves her people, and saves the day.
All of these films have plenty of sword fights, rippling muscles, blood and gore, and CGI and animation done with varying degrees of skill. The leads of all three films are equated with lions or tigers. Baahubali’s father, Amarendra Baahubali, also played by Prabhas, fights an epic battle in which he smashes people with giant golden lion’s head. Puli has a title song with silly dance moves and constant references to how Vijay is supposed to be a tiger. And Rudhramadevi is no different. As the young prince Rudradeva in gladiator-style battle with an elephant, the makers have her morph into a lion to show her bravery and prowess. In these films, accessing a medieval aesthetic, however inauthentic, allow the portrayal of a world that is tough, violent, and requiring a particular kind of masculinity that involves hacking with bloody swords and lots of roaring. Effectively, it allows the audience to revel in a time when ‘men were men’. (Rudhramadevi complicates this idea, but more on that later.)
Accessing a cinematic medieval aesthetic where we can have hypermasculine men – invoking what a reviewer of Baahubali on The Ladies Finger called “masculinity porn” – also allows us to also accept a universe in which women largely wear apsara/Draupadi style mini-boob tubes and are painted as damsels in distress, in need of constant saving. Avanthika seemed a perfectly capable warrior until Baahubali takes off her clothes to reveal her inner water-nymph and takes over her mission. As another reviewer pointed out (while also highlighting how the special effects only served to mask the fact that
the film never challenged the status quo) that Baahubali refuses to see her as anything other the vision of her he has in his head. Puli’s Marudheeran – who may have Vijay’s babyface, but adds plenty of machismo to compensate – romances not one but two apsara-ish girls who he has to save, and who do little in the film except look gorgeous, dance and smile loads.
Sridevi as the evil Queen Yavanarani is the film’s saving grace – she’s a witch who defies gravity, rules her kingdom, does cool magic, wears killa headdresses worthy of ’80s Sridevi, ’80s Rekha and M.I.A., and does an incredible job of being absolutely terrifying, even within Puli’s jokey universe. Until we learn that she’s evil only because she’s being controlled by a spell, and maintains her powers by killing young damsels. And that she needs saving by Marudheeran so that order can be restored.
It reminded me of my recent frustration after re-watching The Princess Bride (1987) after a gap of about two decades. It’s a film that has a giant, a large pig-sized demonic rat and other fantasy elements along the way. But clearly it was too much of a stretch to have a female lead who does anything at all except plead with anguished puppy eyes to be saved. When Buttercup’s lover is attacked by the demonic rat and his sword is knocked out of his hand, she merely looks on, alarmed, and never helps out or once defends herself. I like to think that secretly, she was bored with him and hoped he’d die.
A heroine who drew considerably fewer charitable thoughts was Mithra from the Telugu film Magadheera (2009), which also drew on a fictional medieval past through flashbacks so that its hero could be amazing and its limp heroine (played by Kajal Aggarwal) could be protected and saved at increasing levels of ridiculousness, in both past and present.
But back to the ‘medieval’ fantasy South Indian films of 2015: while enabling us to continue fantasizing about a world with deeply unequal gender relations, particularly because these medieval films invoke some aspect of Indian history, they also mean we can continue to portray caste unselfconsciously, without questioning or challenging the world order. The casteism in Baahubali is overt – apart from the caste-based slur in the film that drew protests and violence, the epic battle that occupies a good chunk of the movie takes place between Baahubali Senior and crew, and the Kalakeyas, a race of dark bloodthirsty barbarians who come from far away and speak an unintelligible made-up language called Kilikili that sounds suspiciously like they’re trying to mimic Xhosa. Of course, good triumphs over evil and their army is smashed to pieces. There’s even the warrior Kattappa, who is a loyal slave dedicated to serving the royal family, who lifts Baahubali’s foot and places it on his head as a sign of devotion. Like Western fantasies about feudal societies as in Game of Thrones, harking back to a time when structural inequalities meant everyone “knew their place” (cue problematic ideas about class and race), these Indian ‘medieval’ films revel in a time when gross inequality was the order of the day.
Except that caste hierarchies and discrimination remain a very real part of our daily lives in India, sometimes even in exactly the same ‘medieval’ sense that these films pretend to consign to history.
Puli, even in its idyllic Sherwood Forest-like setting, reinforces the idea that you don’t achieve greatness, you are born to it. Like Baahubali, Marudheeran’s heroism derives not from his circumstances but from the accident of his birth. The blue-eyed Vedhalams are a superior race with magical powers, and they’re evil and bloodthirsty. Once Marudheeran realizes he is one of them, however, the Vedhalams cease to appear so evil to the audience and by defeating Jalatharangan, he turns them all good. Everything wraps up neatly and the movie ends happily, with the Vedhalams’ atrocities clean forgotten by the end. And all of these films have wonderfully cinematic “peasants” or “tribals” devoted to the hero/ruler, and who need protecting.
It’s particularly annoying that the female leads in these films have to be a snowy, glowing white. Tamannaah’s Avanthika in Baahubali is mostly grubby and dressed for guerilla operations except when she’s playing the role of dancing apsara – then she turns ridiculously white. Shruti Hasan and Hansika Motwani (who plays Manthagini, the Vedhalam princess in Puli) glow particularly creepy shades of white through the film. During songs, Puli even has all the fair girls dancing in the front with the darker girls hidden behind. And bafflingly, Anushka Shetty switches from patchy dark foundation when playing prince Rudradeva to a fair-skinned woman as Rudhramadevi. We colour our fantasies of the past with how we’d like to see our present. So even in a fictional universe, we can conceive of a dark-skinned king, like Vijay in Puli, but we still cannot fathom having a dark-skinned woman as queen.
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That’s why Rudhramadevi, despite its many flaws, is so surprising in its treatment of gender. While it’s a badly-made movie with a cameo by Baba Sehgal and a world still dripping with the masculine tropes of Puli and Baahubali, its heroine exists easily in this world all the more remarkably because despite the shitty graphics and terrible CGI, the bones of the plot are based in reality. If it’s inconceivable in the fictional world of Baahubali that a woman can be a great warrior or in charge of a kingdom (sure, the female characters Sivagami and Avanthika show promise, but they’re so minor that they hardly count), or great and in control of her own actions in the fantasy genre that Puli aspires to, history seems to have no such insecurities on that front. The one great thing about the film version of Rudhramadevi is that she’s allowed to be awesome from start to finish, with no man to feminize her, take away her power, or stop her from being a warrior. And romance doesn’t distract her from the task at hand.
There’s a similar moment in both Baahubali and Rudhramadevi where the two women warriors, Avanthika and Rudhrama, have a moment of awakening in terms of their gender and sexuality. Their grubby, hardy, warrior exterior is wiped clean when they see themselves in a body of water, recognising themselves as being female for the first time. In Baahubali, it’s depicted as a joyous moment for Avanthika, who sees how beautiful and delicate she is and then breaks into song and proceeds to have sex with Baahubali under a waterfall. Except that the moment is also a terrible one because of the way it’s portrayed – she is forcibly feminized by the hero, who puts makeup on her and takes off her clothes in a scene that ignores the fact that she didn’t consent to it, and focuses on the besotted hero’s delight instead. And after the waterfall sex, glimpses of Avanthika are all you’ll see in the rest of the film. Her screen time is over.
Fortunately, things proceed rather differently for Rudhrama. Having been raised a boy, gloriously unburdened with the weight of expectations for women, there’s an unintentionally hilarious but poignant moment when the adolescent prince Rudradeva realizes he isn’t male (until now, his women’s undergarments and long hair haven’t been enough of a clue, it turns out. Neither has, presumably, his vagina). Watching his friends stripping and jumping into a lake, and noticing a stone carving of a voluptuous woman beside it, it strikes him that everything he knows about gender is wrong. He runs back to the palace, and once he’s inside, his hair comes undone and bits of his clothing strategically fall away until he falls beside a pond and sees with alarm his face staring back at him. It’s the face of a terrified adolescent girl in her underwear, who has also just noticed that she has blood streaming down her leg. Get this: HER PERIOD ARRIVES. The film depicted menstrual blood! Thus is Rudhramadevi born. We see her briefly clad in female clothes until she decides that ruling the kingdom is more important than being her true self, and goes back to being Rudradeva in public. Later, we see her slipping out of the palace sometimes dressed like one of the palace maidens, and she runs off to chill by the lake and the statue where she first realised she was female. She sings, she twirls, she wears jewellery, she wears lovely clothes. But apart from these brief moments when she allows herself to let go, she is stern-faced and serious, and takes her job as ruler seriously.
It’s these interludes when Rudhrama leaves the palace incognito that dent her otherwise inaccessible character with bursts of warmth. It allows her to meet Veerabhadra, the Chalukya prince who has so far been a fellow warrior and companion to Rudradeva, and participate in a romance that makes no demands on her. Even though the romance only occupies a tiny bit of the film, female desire in this movie is portrayed enthusiastically, where Rudhrama isn’t in the least bit coy. It reminds me of one of my favourite scenes from the 2013 Selvaraghavan fantasy film Irandam Ulagam (again, Anushka Shetty is the female lead) spanning multiple simultaneous worlds where, as my editor Nisha Susan once put it, “every dimension is primarily defined by the relationships between men and women.”
Irandam Ulagam switches between the current world as we know it, and another dimension in which the world is a fantasy medieval one. In this violent, primitive world, where women are treated like cattle, Anushka’s character Varna is a tough woman who fights with a sword and wants to enlist in the army, except no one takes her seriously as she’s a woman. In one scene, the peeping-tom hero spying on Varna as she bathes in a lake accidentally falls in and his cover is blown. Varna reacts with neither shame nor alarm, continuing to wash her hair casually, as if nothing had happened. Immediately, the film switches back to the world as we know it, where Ramya (the other version of Anushka’s character) is working up the nerve to ask the hero Madhu out. She’s surrounded by her friends sizing the hero up from afar in unsparing detail, and the conversation goes like this. Madhu is in the background arguing with hospital patients getting feminist brownie points saying things like: How can you say Susan Rice cannot become Obama’s security advisor?
Friend 1: He seems to be very good with patients. Maybe he’s a good person?
Friend 2: Hmm. On the ‘first night’, what if he stubs a cigarette on her chest? You can’t trust these fellows. He’s fair-skinned. Would have been better if he was dark.
Friend 1: Uhh (straining to look) his butt looks alright.
Friend 2: (Grunts in agreement.) For his height we are okay, but is she? It’ll get adjusted, kind of.
Friend 1: They’re both heavy. Only two or three things will match. Others…very difficult. Better take an X ray anway.
Friend 2: Hairstyle…not nice. Forehead’s okay. He’s a Soda Buddi; must be strong in that area. Small nose, mouth correct size. You can kiss a lot. Just need to check if it is smelly. Neck’s alright. Shoulders are big; he can take it if she hugs him. Stomach is small; not a drunkard. Hips are small. Thighs, a big drawback. Scrawny legs. On the whole, worth a try.
“On the whole, worth a try.” It’s no ringing endorsement, but it’s an affirmation of the hero’s vulnerability to being scrutinized, and of the possibility here for women to be doing the gazing, as interested parties looking to initiate romance.
As far as Rudhramadevi goes, there’s a sexy scene in which Veerabhadra and his mystery girl go rowing on the lake and lie side by side, with their legs entwined and Veerabhadra kissing Rudhrama passionately on the neck. But all good things must come to an end, and when Rudhrama gently stops him, it doesn’t seem to be out of prudery, but with the sad realization that allowing herself to have a real relationship would mean she wouldn’t be able to continue ruling as Rudradeva. Later, when Veerabhadra finds out that she’s the queen, he tells her he won’t stand in her way when she says her kingdom comes first.
Lovely as the apsara clothes are on Rudhrama, when she reveals the secret of her sex, the filmmakers find a brilliant way to avoid both the skimpy choli-lehengas and the boring male clothes of Rudradeva, inventing a sort of cool medieval power dressing that allow for both beauty and comfort. Her armour made me giggle though: adding boobs to breastplates (like they did to Kajal Agarwal in Magadheera too. And Xena, warrior princess) is a terrible idea if you want to get any fighting done.
While we’re on the subject of gorgeous costumes, let’s talk about the men. Their genre allows for amazing costumes, and all of the three 2015 films have high scores in that department. Baahubali and Rudhramadevi (like their predecessor Magadheera) offer man cleavage aplenty and tease you constantly with nip slips.
Allu Arjun’s outfit as Gona Ganna Reddy makes him look like a ninja whose costume was made of black bandages, whose fluttering ends seem to invite you to cause a Draupadi-like
unspooling. Puli, for its part, has an anyway gorgeous Sudeep done up as a sort of dreamy Kannadiga Legolas, and “peasant” men with long hair done in attractive side-knots. And I’d take Veerabhadra’s gorgeous golden topi over Baahubali’s helmet any day.
Does Rudhramadevi pass the Bechdel test? Easily, and it’s the only one of the three films that does. A fascinating aspect of the movie is that Rudhrama-as-Rudradeva’s marriage is arranged to Muktamba (Nithya Menen), a noble, and the wedding goes through. Rudhrama evades conjugal duties by saying she would rather focus on the kingdom, but eventually when Rudhrama tells her her secret, Muktamba reveals she knew about it ever since their wedding day. “And what about your wedding?” Rudhrama asks, concerned that she’s depriving Muktamba of the chance for love and happiness. Muktamba tells her that it’s fine, indicating that she’ll support her all the way – with a hint of underlying glee at officially being in on the secret and being able to help a fellow woman on a task of such proportions.
And then thrillingly, we see Muktamba, her friend Ganalamba (Aditi Chengappa) and Rudhramadevi in her guise as generic palace maiden frolic through the palace, singing and dancing in what seems a rather funny but really enjoyable affirmation of their friendship.
(Here’s where I launch into how much I love 33-year-old Anushka Shetty, who stars in so many of these medieval fantasy films. At 5ft 10, she’s a strapping heroine with a serious expression and seriouser sword-wielding skills that makes it easy to see why so filmmakers want her in their action films. She’s the star of Rudhramadevi and Irandam Ulagam, and even led the 2009 film Arundhati where she was a cool sword-wielding hero in a flashback to an earlier time. Her small role in Baahubali promises to be way bigger in the sequel, and even I found the first film terribly boring, if I do watch it the next one, it’ll be for Anushka.)
Much of my satisfaction from Rudhramadevi perhaps stems from the fact that I was worried that a film touting a woman as the central character would fail me in the way several South Indian films have done before. The action films of Malashri in Kannada cinema, which always include glorious extended scenes of her beating villains to a pulp, still contain gratuitous rape scenes, objectify women, and reinforce stereotypes about women while seeming to deliver a feminist message. (And Malashri, usually dressed in macho shirts and jeans, is rarely afforded the opportunity for romance.) Ragini IPS (2014), a heroine-oriented Kannada action film starring Ragini Dwivedi about a woman police officer who takes on baddies and molesters and rapists, is powered by rage at having been a victim of rape herself (along with the hundred-and-one gratuitous rape scenes in this film is a horrible depiction of Ragini’s own rape, meant to titillate rather than anything else). Dwivedi, who has made a name for herself as an actor in films with strong women characters, is also starring in the upcoming Amma scheduled for release this year, which also features a female lead fighting against injustice and sexual violence. Game of Thrones, which has clearly been such an influence on all of the medieval fantasy films this year, punishes its women by making sure that once there’s a strong woman character onscreen, she’ll be raped, like Sansa Stark, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister, or threatened with it, like Brienne of Tarth. Here, gritty realism = rape.
I don’t need feminim sorry but the defenders are right Game of Thrones needs those added rape scenes because of REALISM ignore the dragons
— WomanAgainstFeminism (@NoToFeminism) May 18, 2015
It’s a refreshing feature of Rudhramadevi that the women are never reminded of their helplessness by being threatened with sexual violence, which luckily finds no place in the film.
The real Rudhramadevi is said to have lived from 1245–1289. But the film begins and closes with a scene in Italy (with white people clad in costumes that look like they were borrowed from a school play), where Vasco da Gama (who lived from the 1460s to 1523) is telling a king with no male heirs about the amazing queen from India. Moved and inspired by the story, the king decides to put his little daughter on the throne.
The idea that an Indian feminist figure and Indian practices of gender equality inspired the West is a poignant bit of wishful thinking on the part of the film’s writers, but if we must wishfully think via Rs 250 crore movies, why not wishfully think that it wasn’t impossible for an Indian woman to hold her own, even within the medieval aesthetic that the new rash of films so gleefully embraces? History shows us that it wasn’t just “upper” caste women who made famous warriors: we know of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and of Kittur Rani Chennamma, but history also tells us of Jhalkaribai, a Dalit woman who was a soldier in Lakshmibai’s army, who disguised herself as the queen and fought on the frontlines so the real Lakshmibai could escape to safety.
In real life, Rudhramadevi married the Chalukya prince Veerabhadra. In the film, there is no wedding: the last scene in which we see Rudhramadevi has her sitting imposingly on the throne, wearing a massive crown, with her lover standing (wearing that gorgeous golden topi) vaguely nearby. Despite the film’s shitty CGI and overall tackiness, this is a re-imagining of history that I can get behind. I’ve been practicing Rudhramadevi’s pose ever since.